By Dr. Albert Wolf January 11, 2021 – ISRAEL – BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,878, January 11, 2020
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The recent killing of Mohsen Fakrizadeh, the “father of Iran’s nuclear program,” is another in a long series of attempts to disrupt Tehran’s dogged drive for nuclear weapons. These strikes, which have ranged over decades, have included the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, cyberattacks on the Iranian nuclear program, and mysterious explosions at the regime’s nuclear sites. Yet no one, including the US, has conventionally attacked Iran’s nuclear sites despite the clear and present danger posed by a nuclear Iran to American national interests and general international security. Why not?
Iran has managed to successfully deter the US and just about everyone else threatened by its nuclear weapons programs by punishing them via its terrorist network. It has been able to rely on its widespread terrorist network to bolster its deterrence capabilities in the event that anyone should attempt to attack its nuclear sites.
In a study published in Security Studies in 2018, Jan Ludvik argues that only conventionally well-armed states are able to deter against attacks on their nuclear programs. This is not necessarily true. Conventionally weak states are able to deter against attacks on their nuclear programs through their ties to terrorist proxies.
In the case of Iran, their terrorist proxies (from Hezbollah, to Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to, more recently, the Taliban) help the regime exact deterrence by punishment (as opposed to deterrence by denial). In maintaining these ties, Iran has bought itself both time and insurance against attack from states that are threatened by its acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
Scholars often focus on deterrence by denial and forget entirely about deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by denial is about preventing another state from obtaining its objectives on the battlefield. However, relatively weak states such as Iran rely on punishment to raise the costs of victory in hopes of convincing an opponent to give up.
Should Israel attack one or more of Iran’s known nuclear installations, it is likely Tehran would retaliate through groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Several wargames have found that the US would be drawn into such a conflict. If the US struck Iran’s installations, Israel and possibly America’s allies in the Persian Gulf would be drawn into the fighting as well.
The US has three options. First, it could prepare itself to live with a nuclear Iran. In the interim, it could delay the inevitable by sabotaging Tehran’s efforts to mate nuclear weapons with ballistic missiles through such means as cyberattacks.
Second, the US could decide to take a more hawkish stance against Iran. It could bolster its capabilities with respect to its ability to deter potential terrorist actions and decide that the opportunity costs of striking Iran are worth suffering when compared to the long-term costs of living with a nuclear Iran (such as falling nuclear dominoes in the Middle East or a potential nuclear accident brought on by a bureaucratic screw-up).
Third, the US could focus on its great power competitors, starting with China, and attempt to drive a wedge between them and Iran analogous to the one the Nixon administration drove between Sadat’s Egypt and the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. Under this arrangement, Iran would agree to end its arrangements with China and distance itself from Beijing in exchange for access to the international economy, led by the US. Iran would give up the military components of its nuclear program in exchange for discreet inspections and security guarantees, while the US would limit Chinese influence in the Middle East.
Dr. Albert B. Wolf is an Associate Fellow at SAIS Johns Hopkins and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University of Central Asia. firstname.lastname@example.org