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Can a Nuclear Armed Iran Be Contained?

During his address at the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held up a diagram of a bomb to urge international action against Iran’s nuclear program. He emphasized that soon Iran will have enough enriched uranium to become a threat to the existence of Israel, and said the world has until next summer at the latest to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. The debate on Iran’s nuclear facilities has been going on for several years now, with arguments both for and against letting Iran enrich uranium. Not so long ago Kenneth Waltz wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in which he expressed his view that a nuclear-armed Iran could even be beneficial by providing stability in the Middle East, Netanyahu however argued that one cannot expect rational acts from the Islamic Republic and urged for the threat (or use) of force.

To shed light on the issue, we turned to Richard K. Betts of Columbia University, Sadegh Zibakalam of the University of Tehran, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Insitute, Gary G. Sick of Columbia University, Ze’ev Maghen of Bar Ilan University, M.J. Rosenberg a foreign policy commentator, David Menashri of the Academic Center of Law and Business in Israel, renowned author Robert Jervis of Columbia University, Gerald M. Steinberg of Bar Ilan University, Austin Long of Columbia University, Ran Rovner of Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Keenan Mahoney of Columbia University to ask: Can a nuclear Iran be contained?

Richard K. Betts, Columbia University

The answer to the question can only be an estimate of probability, not a categorical yes or no. A nuclear-armed Iran will be, without question, alarming, but the probability is high that it can be contained, and more importantly, deterred. Leadership in Tehran is frightening and unreliable, but not more so than Stalin, Mao, or Kim Jong-Il, all cases where the alternative of preventive war was considered in Washington and rejected in favor of handling the threat with deterrence.

There is no evidence that Iran’s leaders would be willing to commit national suicide, which unprovoked use of their nuclear weapons in the face of Israeli or American deterrent threats would mean.

No one can be confident in the efficacy of deterrence, but it beats the alternative of preventive war, which would not necessarily solve the problem — unless invasion and occupation, which are virtually out of the question, are undertaken rather than air attack alone — and which could even make it worse (by only delaying the nuclear weapons program, driving it into less vulnerable locations, and inflaming incentives to use nuclear or other WMD whenever they become available).

Preventive war does not have a good track record of being executed successfully as anticipated, or with benefits exceeding costs. Experience with Iraq is the most recent reminder of this.

Richard K. Betts is the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies, Director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and Director of the International Security Policy program in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He was Director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations for four years and is now an adjunct Senior Fellow there.

Sadegh Zibakalam, University of Tehran

Many Israeli leaders as well as a host of the other Western leaders have assumed categorically that the Islamic Iranian leaders are determined to make eventually an atomic bomb. Accordingly, they have pledged that they will stop the Iranians from achieving this goal. The idea that Iran is determined to produce an atomic device has become so entrenched in both the United States and Israel that any suggestion which contradicts this would be dismissed as naive and misleading.

All the talk in both countries, particularly in Israel, concentrates only on how to stop Iran from building the bomb. The Iranian leaders’ pledge particularly that of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenii have been dismissed and have fallen on deaf ears in the West.

Both the Israelis and many right wing US leaders want to believe that the Iranians are determined to build the bomb. And they are pressing the public in both countries to believe in it as well. To convince the world that Iran is indeed determined to build the bomb, the Israeli Prime Minister drew a picture of an alleged Iranian atomic bomb at the recent UN General Assembly.

Let us imagine that he is right and the Iranians are lying and next year they will show the world an atomic device produced in the country. How will that change anything in the Middle East? Can it ever be used against Israel? Are the Iranians so naïve that they are unaware of the consequences of using it against the state of Israel? Both the Israeli Likud leaders as well as the hard-line Republicans know too well that even if Iran did produce an atomic weapon it would be of no use neither for herself nor for their allies Hezbollah or Hamas; neither now nor in future.

Sadegh Zibakalam is Professor of Iranian Studies at the University of Tehran. His book How Did We Become What We Are was a bestseller in Iran.

Michael Rubin, American Enterprise Insitute

It will be almost impossible to contain a nuclear Iran. Command, control, and custody over any future Iranian bomb will rest not among Iranian pragmatists, but rather within the most ideologically pure unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The vast majority of Iranians are moderate, cosmopolitan, and forward-thinking, but the concern of America policymakers must focus upon those whose fingers are on the button who may actually believe the Messianic rhetoric spouted by their leaders.

Should Iran go nuclear, it is doubtful the Iranian leadership will order a first strike on Riyadh, Tel Aviv, or regional American facilities. But, overconfident behind its nuclear deterrence, the IRGC will lash out. Export of revolution is the Islamic Republic’s raison d’être, enshrined in its founding documents.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving his infamous bomb address at the UN. (J Carrier)

When former President Mohammad Khatami suggested the regime interpret revolutionary export through a soft-power prism, senior clerics and Revolutionary Guardsmen shot him down. Rather than bring peace, a nuclear breakout will lead to a resurgence of terrorism and asymmetric warfare.

That the Iranian regime is not suicidal does not mean deterrence can work. In 1999, 2001, and 2009, Iran erupted in nationwide protests. After each instance, the IRGC restored order. The problem comes when, as in Romania 1989 and Libya 2011, security forces begin to join the protestors. If the most elite and ideologically pure IRGC elements know that their regime will cease to exist within 24-hours, then they may act out their ideological imperatives. There is some precedent: After Muammar Qadhafi’s forces lost control of Tripoli, they launched SCUD missiles at the rebel-held city of Misrata for no other reason than sheer spite.

Multiculturalism is not simply about walking into a sushi restaurant and ordering a mojito. At its core, it is the recognition that different peoples think in very different ways. By ignoring the ideology of those in Iran who would actually control the bombs, the strategic logic of the Cold War falls flat.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, and former Iran desk officer at the Pentagon. He holds a Ph.D. in Iranian history from Yale University.

Gary G. Sick, Columbia University

The real objective of U.S. policy should be to prevent Iran from getting to the point where this question is applicable. Although I am aware of the logic which holds that an Iranian nuclear weapon would in fact be a stabilizing force in the region, I would prefer not to put the proposition to a test. The Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, recently spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was asked point blank whether Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would be a stabilizing force in the region. His answer was quite simple: No. So is it possible to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? I strongly believe the answer is yes.

Since the days of the shah, who was a U.S. ally, Iran’s objective has been to develop the capability to develop a nuclear weapon. The shah – and the current rulers of Iran – have left no doubt that a recognized capability to build a nuclear weapon will work in Iran’s favor. It will make other nations – even those with nuclear weapons like the United States and Israel – take them seriously as a player in the region.

At the same time, if Iran actually has a weapon it becomes a target. There is no way Iran can get an arsenal of deliverable nuclear weapons without the world knowing about it. All of its nuclear facilities are monitored and inspected by the IAEA, and if the inspectors are kicked out it will send an unmistakable signal about Iran’s intention. If we want to avoid a costly and fruitless conflict, our objective should be to keep Iran as far as possible from nuclear weaponization. We cannot realistically persuade them to give up enrichment entirely, but we can trade sanctions for limitations on their nuclear program. That is a path we have not tried, but it is not too late.

Gary G. Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs. He served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan; and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.

Ze’ev Maghen, Bar Ilan University

We can debate all day the question to what extent the ire borne by the Islamic Republic of Iran toward Israel, the West and the Sunni Arab polities is justified. On the one hand, the regime of the Ayatollahs harbors deep-seated grievances resulting from the wounds inflicted upon Iran and Islam by Western imperialism, and also offers up an often profound critique (to which it behooves us to pay closer heed) of the excesses of modern civilization; on the other hand, the Islamic Republic is a murderous, compassionless repression machine that does not scruple to massacre civilians (its own and those of neighboring countries like Syria) and has bought heavily into its own incessant propaganda that divides the world into the pure good (essentially Shi‘ites) and the pure evil (essentially everybody else, led by America and Israel).

The point is, justified or not, present day Iran is fiercely antagonistic to many members of the international community, and it has a particular obsession with eradicating the country where my four kids sleep every night (Israel). Angry states with a huge chip on their shoulder and a proven record of disregard for human life should not be allowed to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, period.

The consequences could be quite literally earth-shattering, and though human beings excel at nothing so much as remaining in denial about impending cataclysm, this is a threat to everything we hold dear that cannot be swept under the rug (and no, a plummeting Iranian rial does not spell the end of Tehran’s nuclear program).

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pictured in 2008. (Mark Garten)

The reader may rest assured, at any rate, that Israel will not allow Iran to go nuclear, even if the U.N., the U. S. and the rest of the world prefers to bury their anxieties under soft, comforting pillows like the one Kenneth Waltz evidently has over his head. The Jewish people underwent the most horrific butchery in human history – millions of innocents murdered, each destroyed individual an entire universe to his or her family – because the powers that be hatched a wide variety of excuses for inaction, and the Jews had no state or army with which to defend themselves. Now the Jewish state is facing a regime the most moderate elements of which regularly threaten to wipe Israel off the map and repeat citations of the following sort: “His Excellency [the sixth Shi‘ite Imam Ja’far] al-Sadiq affirmed thrice that those who will ultimately exterminate the Jews (kasani keh nehayat yahud ra monqarez mikonand) will be the clerics of [the Iranian Shi‘ite shrine city of] Qom” (cited approvingly in a public forum by supporter of the Green Movement Ayatollah Ali Hosayn Montazeri, Memoirs). Now those clerics are enriching uranium at a dizzying pace just outside of Qom at Fordu. In short, Israel is not going to wait around to find out whether or not such a regime, armed with nuclear capability, can or cannot be “contained.”

Ze’ev Maghen is Chairman of the Department of Middle East Studies at Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Persian literature and Islamic law and theology, and has written many articles and several books on these subjects. He also writes outside his academic field, and his latest book, Imagine John Lennon and The Jews: A Philosophical Rampage is a runaway bestseller. Professor Maghen graduated from SIPA in 1988.

M.J. Rosenberg, Foreign Policy Commentator

The case for war with Iran is built on the idea (pushed heavily by Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel) that if Iranians achieve development of nuclear weapons, they will almost automatically use them to destroy Israel. Although use of an atomic weapon would lead to its own annihilation by Israel (which possesses 200 nuclear warheads which Israel could launch from land, sea or air), the hawks claim Iran would happily commit suicide for the sheer pleasure of taking Israel down with it.

But no nation has ever committed suicide and Persians, whose pride in their own culture and sense of nationalism knows no bounds, are clearly not going to be the first. Nor does Islam in any form permit either personal or an Islamic state’s suicide. Iranians are no more likely to behave in a suicidal manner than any of the other nuclear armed states.

No, the fear campaign that surrounds Iran is about Israel’s intense worry that a nuclear Iran would inhibit Israel’s freedom of action throughout the Middle East, taking away its ability to do whatever it wants whenever it wants to. Israel fears precisely what happened to the United States after the Soviets got the bomb, that both countries would be constrained by fear of the other. A balance of terror, as it was called during the half-century that the two nuclear superpowers avoided war.

There is no alternative to containment. So the only question is whether we adopt the policy of containment before a war or after. The answer should be obvious. Although, with neoconservatives pushing so hard for war, it isn’t.

Of course, we might be able to avoid the question of containment altogether if we commenced comprehensive negotiations with Iran with a goal of preventing development of a bomb (while permitting enrichment for civilian purposes), normalizing U.S.-Iranian relations, calling on Iran to end its support of terrorism against Israel or anyone else and dropping the sanctions that largely punish ordinary Iranians.

M.J. Rosenberg served as a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow with Media Matters Action Network, and prior to that worked on Capitol Hill for various Democratic members of the House and Senate for 15 years. From 1998-2009, he was director of policy at Israel Policy Forum. He regularly blogs on Iran and Israel; his columns are syndicated on Huffington Post and Al Jazeera.

David Menashri, Academic Center of Law and Business in Israel

Before answering this question, two reservations of principle are due. First, one assumes that by “nuclear Iran” you mean Iran with military nuclear capabilities; second, that the question posed refers to Iran being contained after other options have failed to prevent its search for nuclear weapon. Finally, writing from Israel, I would focus on the Israeli views on the issue—interestingly, there is more than one view on the proper attitude to Iranian nuclear program.

Obviously, while slogans such as “Death to Israel” are being heard routinely in Iran (or put more “mildly”: that “Israel should we wiped out from the map”) the tolerance to containment is minimal; in the eyes of many, not an option at all.

To be sure, there are serious reasons for Israeli (and Western concern). First, is the recognition that the very possession of nuclear arms by a regime with such a radical ideology would dramatically change the geostrategic map of the Middle East.

It would also trigger regional nuclear proliferation and nuclear Iran would also serve as an umbrella for Islamist movements, like Hamas and Hezbollah, leading to their greater radicalization. The “Arab Spring” and Iran’s reactive policy in the region (mainly in Bahrain and Syria), have rendered the Iranian challenge even more alarming for Israel. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s November 2011 report suggesting that Iran had a clandestine nuclear military program was another impetus for concern.

Still, most Israelis believe that there are other ways to delay the Iranian nuclear program, if not altogether stop it. In contrast to the regime’s inflated pretensions, there is also recognition that Iran is weak and vulnerable and can still be pressured to reconsider its policy. In fact, Tehran has shown that, under exceeding pressure, it can change its policy, even on key issues. Pressures from within are rising on the Iranian regime and there are signs of growing popular disenchantment, as could be witnessed following the currency (Riyal) crisis, earlier this month.

Finally, in Israel there is an open discussion on the appropriate policy vis-à-vis Iran.

As against the government’s vocal rhetoric, many (in the security apparatus, academia and politics) are critical of the government public policy on this issue. In fact, for the first time there is a public discussion on such delicate issues. While this is a testimony of Israeli democracy, it also reflects the diversity in attitudes. Yet, even those who are critical of the government’s policy would have loved to see the free world using its influence to remove the threat of nuclear Iran.

At the time of writing, when Netanyahu has exceeded his deadline to Spring/Summer of 2013, the USA is busy with its presidential elections, and Iran is faced with growing signs of disenchantment. This is an interval for rethinking to prevent the hazardous “military option.”

David Menashri is the president of the Academic Center of Law and Business in Israel, and founding director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Robert Jervis, Columbia University

Although I think the world will be slightly less safe if Iran gets nuclear weapons, I believe that containment and deterrence would work to avoid really bad outcomes, much as it did in most of the Cold War. Iran is no less rational or more ideological than Mao’s China, and the great fears that preceded China’s getting the bomb proved groundless. The US and its allies in the region have sufficient power and credibility to make it very unlikely that an Iranian bomb could do more than protect it from an unprovoked American attack.

Robert Jervis is the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University. His book Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War was published by Cornell University Press in 2010.

Gerald M. Steinberg, Bar Ilan University

Dealing with Iranian nuclear weapons would be somewhat easier if Israel could rely on mutual deterrence based on optimistic interpretations of US-Soviet and India-Pakistan crises management. Alas, the details of mutual assured destruction (MAD) do not support such simplistic analysis — when the Jewish state and the Islamic Republic of Iran face a situation comparable to the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, the analogies, as well as Prof. Kenneth Waltz’s theories, fail.

During the Cold War, deterrence was possible because, even at the worst moments, leaders in Washington and Moscow recognized the other’s red lines, and communicated via embassies, emissaries and direct links (teletype in 1962). Similarly, Pakistani and Indian diplomats and journalists are based in each other’s capitals, enabling officials to coordinate in preventing games of “chicken” from ending in nuclear annihilation.

But Iran’s mysterious clerical leaders, who make life and death decisions, have no clue about Israel’s history and absolute commitment to survival, and there are no embassies or “hot lines” between Jerusalem and Teheran. Instead, the relationship is characterized by threats of annihilation and Holocaust denial. In contrast, the Cold War was primarily an ideological conflict, without the irrationality flowing from religious zealotry. For these reasons, an Iranian-Israeli crisis, perhaps triggered by another round of deadly attacks launched by Hezbollah (Iran’s Shiite proxy army in Lebanon), could escalate into a nuclear confrontation. Israel, reacting to Iranian threats, would necessarily consider a preemptive strike in order to survive. As former Iranian President Rafsanjani boasted, “even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.”

Ignoring these details, “serious thoughtful people” (Bill Keller’s description in the New York Times, in reference to some American pundits), profess faith in the ability to contain a nuclear Iran. However, it is clear that deterrence is far from automatic, and in the case of Iran, responses that go beyond faith are necessary.

Gerald M. Steinberg is Professor of Politics and founder of the Program on Conflict Management at Bar Ilan University, he has published numerous academic analysis of deterrence and proliferation, including “Parameters of Stable Deterrence in a Proliferated Middle East,” (2000), and “Deterrence Instability: Hizballah’s Fuse to Iran’s Bomb” (2005).

Austin Long, Columbia University

While it is impossible to say Iran can be contained with 100% certainty- or at this point even that Iran truly wants nuclear weapons- all available evidence from both historical examples of proliferation and Iranian behavior indicates a nuclear Iran can be contained. For example, due in part to some remarks by Mao, there was considerable concern before China became nuclear power that it might not act rationally with nuclear weapons yet it ultimately has for nearly five decades. That said, containing a nuclear Iran is not without consequence. Containment is not free, and even containment of the Soviet Union had several major crises, most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis. Further, one cost that is not often discussed publicly is what happens if there is an uprising against the Iranian regime after it possesses nuclear weapons? In Syria today there is great concern about the future of Syrian chemical weapons; imagine the same situation in an Iran with nuclear weapons. The world might be forced to choose between hoping the Iranian regime crushes the uprising or risking the Iranian nuclear arsenal becoming uncontrolled.

Austin Long is Assistant Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and a Member of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. In 2012-2013 he is also a visiting fellow at Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Ran Rovner, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Based on the MAD doctrine and the Cold War experience, some may believe that a Nuclear Iran is not such a bad idea, and might even help stabilizing the region. However, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would argue that one cannot expect rational acts from Iran and thus should opt for the threat (or use) of force.

I believe both are missing a crucial point. While Netanyahu is afraid of the (in his opinion) irrational Iranian regime’s possible use of nuclear weapons, the real problem, just like in many other cases in the Middle East, is the spill-over effect. Having a Nuclear Iran is of course a problem in its own right, but with Iran’s proxy-agents like Hezbollah and Hamas it is a whole other situation. Iranian weapons are being sent to both organizations on a permanent basis; some are being sold or even get stolen. Can any of the MAD doctrine supporters make sure that nuclear weapons won’t fall to the wrong hands? Probably not.

The logic of the MAD doctrine was that both regimes have too much to lose if they will use their nuclear weapons – they have responsibility for their civilians, economy etc. What economy is Hezbollah responsible of? Who are the civilians of the Global Jihad? They have no responsibilities or expectations to be met. Can terror organizations directly use that kind of technology? Maybe not today but possibly tomorrow. Another aspect of the spill-over effect would be more and more countries all over the Middle East pursuing nuclear capabilities. If North Korea, Pakistan and maybe Iran having nuclear bombs are not enough, adding several failed states and terror organizations to the list surely will not make the world a safer place.

There is a major difference between risk calculating and gambling. Letting Iran have nuclear capabilities is a one way ticket to an unknown destination. That would be gambling.

Ran Rovner is a graduate student of International Relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he used to be the head of the Kadima Party Students Group, but left the party with some of his counterparts after Tzipi Livni wasn’t chosen for the head of the party.

Keenan Mahoney, Columbia University

A nation’s rationality can be judged more accurately by history than rhetoric. Contrary to Mr. Netanyahu’s belief, Iran is a rational actor in the international system and therefore is producing a nuclear weapon for the purpose of cementing regional hegemony as the unquestioned military leader in the Persian Gulf. This development would greatly hinder the United States’ ability to exercise its influence in the region, and so they should continue to oppose a nuclear Iran. However, if Iran were to develop a bomb, it could be contained by the same policies used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Iran’s power interests are national and regional, and it would use the bomb to protect itself from threats to its sovereignty. The bomb would also be a potent symbol of the power and prestige that the Gulf state has so frequently possessed during its history, from the Persian Empire to the US-supported regional hegemony exercised by the Shah. Tehran feels they deserve to lead in the region, and would not risk their status by acting irrationally, let alone provoking a suicidal war with an allegedly nuclear Israel. Any further territorial conquests it seeks would receive global condemnation, as well as sanctions and possible military action. The countries of the United Nations do not agree often, but they have shown a willingness to use force against land grabs, as they did against Iraq in 1991.

Iran wishes to be powerful and prosperous. And so it can be contained, as nuclear weapon states have before, by understanding its political maneuvers in the context of national interest, not ideological crusade. The U.S. has previously accepted Iran’s regional hegemony, and, as long as they are willing to tolerate it again, they can contain them to it. It is in Iran’s best interest to accept that fact.