No, I’m not going to argue that Iran has nuclear weapons.
Deterrence goes beyond nuclear weapons, although the discussions of the Cold War seem to have inextricably combined the two words into ”œnuclear deterrence” and substituted the combined concept for the more general single word.
Deterrence is convincing others that it would be a bad idea to attack you. That can start at the personal level with male swagger or the legal protections that surround all of us. For countries, it’s more complicated. Military might, including nuclear weapons, is an obvious component, but there are other deterrents. With all the money the United States owes China, an attack by either side seems a nonstarter, even if there were a reason, which there isn’t at present. And there are legal protections in this arena as well. Although international law doesn’t function in the same way as the personal protections, it provides a normative framework that makes attacks by one nation on another less likely.
The last week has seen another burst of attack threats from Israel against Iran. The full purpose of these threats can’t be known; softening up public opinion in preparation for an attack; urging the United States to attack before Israel does or to enact further sanctions on Iran; making Iran more fearful of an attack; or the leaders’ personal anxiety run amok. Probably all of these have some influence.
The net of those attack threats, however, seems to be that there won’t be one any time soon. Public reactions from American officials ranged from dismissive to undercutting. Israel ratcheted up its rhetoric one more notch, and the result was nothing. No promise of attack by the US, no threats of worsened sanctions, nothing. At least in public. The uproar over a US intelligence report that may or may not exist almost certainly has provoked an angry US response in private.
The ratcheting up has its consequences. Don’t ask a question if you don’t want to hear the answer, it’s been said. The latest level of Israeli bluster implies a question: Will the US do what Israel wants? The maxim refers to all possible answers to a question. Israeli leaders would have been happy if that question had been answered ”œYes.” But other answers are possible.
Pressure on Iran to deal with the world’s concerns about its nuclear program has relied on a certain degree of ambiguity in the threats of force. That’s not the only source of pressure; sanctions are important, too. Last week’s outcome removes some of the ambiguity in those threats: Israel cannot attack Iran by itself, and America will not join now. Israel’s limitations were communicated by the panic and fear evident in many of the Israeli actions and statements. America was explicit that its preferred track, for now, is diplomacy. Israeli officials asked, and the answer was not the single one they were counting on.
That takes some of the pressure off Iran.
If we look further out at the question of whether America would ever attack Iran, it seems doubtful. America does not need another war in the Middle East. And there’s Iran’s deterrent.
That deterrent is the probability that an attack on Iran would give them the reason to develop nuclear weapons and a level of international support for that action. There would be other consequences as well: an Iranian missile attack on Israel, a rapid rise in the oil price, and knock-on effects in the already unstable Middle East. Mark Hibbs points out today that an attack would imperil the IAEA inspectors in Iran. All those are part of Iran’s deterrent. It’s in effect already, and they don’t even need to complete a nuclear weapon.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.