Assessing Iran’s nuclear intentions

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Thomas Schelling, a Nobel laureate and an expert in nuclear strategy, spoke at the New America Foundation in Washington last week. Having recently attended the highly influential Herzliya Conference in Israel, Schelling said:

I was impressed with how many Israelis speculate that what Iran wants to do is to get just about where Japan is in terms of nuclear capability. Get to where they could have a few bombs in a few months, or maybe a few weeks, but not overtly test anything to prove they have it and maybe not to claim they have it.

I don’t know where the Iranians might get that idea, but I’d heard about it for a couple of years from Americans who study Iranian apparent nuclear policy and it strikes me as an idea that might not occur to the Iranians but it strikes me as a good idea. I don’t see any way to make them back down from where they are, but it might be possible to persuade them not to take the final step…

Israel’s President Shimon Peres, who also attended the Herzliya Conference yet lacks the slightest nuance in his assessment of Iran’s intentions, yesterday declared that Iran poses a threat to the whole civilized world.

“A threat to the peace of the Jewish people always carries the danger of turning into a threat to the civilized world as a whole,” Peres said in Jerusalem on Sunday.

That’s a statement eerily reminiscent of something the Israeli historian, Martin van Creveld, said a few years ago while referring to Israel’s own nuclear arsenal: “We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.”

Which begs the question, given that Israel is said to have an arsenal of several hundred nuclear weapons and Iran so far has none: Of which state should we be more afraid?

In considering the Iranian nuclear threat, there is another reason for thinking that the Iranians may well have calculated that attaining a nuclear capability without assembling a nuclear arsenal is in their best interests — not simply because of the international ramifications but because of the regime’s own internally complex and fractious power dynamics.

For Iran to actually acquire the bomb and not simply the means to produce it, begs difficult questions of command and control. Could the regime withstand a potential power struggle that might ensue over how weapons might be dispersed and under whose authority? The prospect of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards becoming Iran’s nuclear masters might be sufficiently galling to everyone outside the IRG, that nuclear capability appears as full a measure of nuclear power that the Islamic state can safely handle.

When it comes to assessing Iran’s nuclear intentions there is an abundance of evidence that it is indeed a rational actor and virtually none that it operates in the thrall of an apocalyptic vision of the future.

This article is cross-posted at Woodward’s site, War in Context.

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