Irrational Strategic Thinking in Teheran

Since the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and the development of doctrines concerning the use of this weaponry, nuclear warheads have been political instruments. The possibility of complete annihilation of the enemy and of the destruction of its cities goes beyond any conventional and traditional strategic concept. The acquisition and the ability to deliver such weapons of mass destruction provide the State with an undeniable superiority within the international community. In addition to a direct military and political advantage, nuclear weapons are a window to the advanced technological and scientific status of a country’s society. Regardless of these relatively beneficial points, a nuclear weapon represents a major responsibility for any given government. The actions of its political and military establishment have to come under a special kind of scrutiny as any sort of conventional aggression may call for an escalation and for the possibility of nuclear war. Furthermore it creates a delicate situation to deal with, as a state having nuclear capabilities has the implicit obligation to its people to be able to secure these weapon systems. The storage and security of nuclear strategic or nonstrategic arsenals is an essential aspect of a population’s protection against incidents which may occur in the case of natural catastrophes or theft.

Following the Cold War, a number of theories, doctrines and policies have been developed in order to minimize the risk of a nuclear war and to secure the already existing weapon systems. As the global system tends to shift to a multi-polar balance of power, a common understanding about the overall rational strategic thinking needed in the case of nuclear weapons stands out. In this equilibrium, rogue states are not only those attempting to break this fragile equilibrium but also those trying to develop parallel strategic structures going beyond the commonly accepted deterrence systems.

In the light of these considerations, one may ask if Teheran is rational in its policy possibly aimed at producing nuclear weapons. It may now be of little doubt that the pressure the Iranian government is willing to accept regarding its covert nuclear program is meant to buy time and to ensure the government itself the development of low number of basic nuclear weapons.

When questioning Iran’s rationality, one should not perceive it as the overall political rationality of its regime and its armed forces. When asking the question of the Islamic Republic rationality vis à vis its nuclear program, it is necessary to put it in the following terms: provided Iran will have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons in the near future, will its regional adversaries be able to deter its regime following Cold War and post-Cold War strategic thinking?

In order to assess the deterrence possibilities in regard to a nuclear Iran, it is enlightening to consider Teheran response to actions taken to limit its nuclear program.

The illegal process of acquiring a nuclear weapon has been putting Iran on the spotlight of the international community. The first decade of the twenty first century has been a decade of increasing political and economical sanctions against Teheran. Its geopolitical influence has both benefitted and suffered from these events. On one side, the Islamic Republic is in the process of becoming the undisputed leader of pariah states; on the other, the mounting pressure resulting in stronger sanctions increasingly placed a burden on the country’s middle class thus effectively limiting its commercial potential. A nuclear test, coming as a definitive proof of Teheran nuclear military capabilities, is likely to stimulate even the more reticent states to isolate the Iranian regime.

Reports indicate that Iran has been developing its nuclear infrastructure since the early 1980s, for that reason it will not be deterred by rational economic sanctions. The possession of nuclear capabilities appears to be more important than medium term social well-being. In this nationalist agenda, the State is visibly not affected by the international community reaction to its endeavor. The extent to which the country may be isolated is limited by Iran’s extensive regional trade network in Iraq and Afghanistan and its ability to overpass sanctions aimed at its energy sector.

The second aspect of the question is whether a nuclear weapon would benefit Iran in its struggle for hegemony in the region. This question is essential to assess the strategic long term rationale of the program.

It is generally accepted that obtaining a nuclear weapon sanctifies one’s national territory but this does not create a direct correlation neither to strategic advantage nor to clear positive gains. Iran would effectively be less safe following its first nuclear test. The act in itself is likely to invite further covert operations meant to limit or sabotage the program. Apart from these high risk operations, a nuclear weapon would not benefit Iran in any rational scenario. In the first five years after the first nuclear test, Teheran would be able to produce basic kind of weaponry with a limited yield. Its capacity to deliver the nuclear warhead would greatly depend on its advances in the sector of ballistic missiles and the accuracies of those WMDs. In a realistic scenario, Iran would be developing a number inferior to four warheads in the next five years. It would automatically place it at the bottom of the nuclear food chain in the region. Its direct competitors would be Pakistan, India, Israel and the United States. Iran would not be safer and if trying to exert pressure with its newly acquired weapon, it would face unparalleled opposition. On the other hand, it would risk a complete annihilation as it will lack in the foreseeable future a credible second strike capability.  There is a very limited set of cases which would see Iran emerge in better shape following a nuclear loaded crisis. The possession of such a weapon would certainly exponentially decrease the possibilities of a foreign conventional military intervention against Teheran. Apart from that, it may not provide any added value to governmental state’s policies.

This being the case, it is to be understood that Iran is not looking to acquire the nuclear weapon via a strategically rational thinking. It isn’t interested in direct military or economic medium term benefits. The risk of this posture is that the relative strategic irrationality of its program may be the proof of an aggressive nationalism similar to the one of Cuba in the 1960s, going beyond conventional deterrence structures.

The Cuban nuclear crisis is the closest the modern world got to a widespread nuclear conflict, and this was possible because the leader of the country in which the nuclear warheads where stationed did not calculate the situation in a rational way. The destruction of Cuba by the hand of American forces was acceptable if the USSR were to inflict casualties on the American territory.

Considering the illegal Iranian military nuclear program an irrational strategic decision creates a clear set of issues. Since the development of the bomb by the USSR in 1949, the general understanding regarding nuclear confrontation is that deterrence is preferable to mutual destruction. When dealing with governments such as the North Korean or the Iranian ones, this assertion should not be taken as an absolute truth. An Iranian bomb will be a purely propaganda and a political tool and may create a high risk of misuse.  While considering the consequences of the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran for Israel and the Middle East, policy makers and analyst should need to think outside the box of ‘traditional’ deterrence. The risks of proliferation fueled by Teheran increase along with the ideological sense the regime gives to its nuclear program.

About the Author
Riccardo Dugulin is an independant international affairs analyst. He holds a Master in International Security from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and has worked in leading think tanks in Washington DC, Beirut and Dubai and has held the position of security coordinator for a security assistance firm.