Tag Archives: rational deterrence theory

Is Iran’s Nuclear Program a Threat to Anyone?

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is considered irrational by some in the West. But do we have any reason to fear a nuclear-armed Iran?

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a striking report today that accuses Iran of working to develop nuclear weapons. A New York Times piece calls the report “the harshest judgment the agency has ever issued in its decade-long struggle to pierce the secrecy surrounding the Iranian program. The findings have already rekindled a debate among the Western allies and Israel about whether increased diplomatic pressure, sanctions, sabotage or military action could stop Iran’s program.”

This new evidence that Iran is perhaps very close to developing a nuclear weapon raises the question: so what?

Neorealists such as Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer, who treat states as if they were rational, unitary actors, believe that a nuclear Iran would not be reckless and would neither launch its nuclear weapons at another state nor give weapons to terrorists.  Their argument, premised on rational deterrence theory, is that even Iran’s leaders–who sometimes appear irrational to Western observers–are sensitive enough to the obvious costs of nuclear retaliation that they would never jeopardize the existence of their country by launching a nuclear attack that has a chance of being traced back to them.  In fact, such thinkers have favored the selective proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional countries so as to stabilize regional rivalries and make war unthinkable.

David Rothkopf, in a blog post entitled “The World is Misreading Obama on Iran,” contends that a supposedly “dovish” President Obama may contemplate using military force to prevent the Islamic Republic from getting a nuclear bomb: “But in the end, as dangerous as an attack might be militarily and politically, if the President believes there is no other alternative to stopping Iran from gaining the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and thus manufacture nuclear weapons, he will seriously consider military action and it is hardly a certainty he won’t take it.”

But why is Obama so afraid of a nuclear Iran?  If the neorealists are right, a nuclear Iran can be deterred and contained, just like the U.S. deterred and contained the ideologically driven, fiercely competitive, and nuclear-armed Soviet Union for 40-plus years during the Cold War.

What do you think?  Do the assumptions of rational deterrence theory apply to Iran’s leaders?  Why or why not?  Are there other reasons to fear a nuclear-armed Iran, other than its actual use of nuclear weapons?