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Disturbing Questions on Nuclear Deterrence


Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Image via Wikipedia)

By Gabriel Avner

Frequently when a state finds itself in a position of genuine weakness, it will seek out courses of actions that it believes will best secure its interests at the lowest possible cost. Since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has attempted to ensure its status as a dominant regional power. In addition to its considerable conventional military forces and heavy handed influences in the affairs of regional states, many in the international community now contend that the Shia regime is attempting to achieve nuclear weapons capabilities. With a rapidly deteriorating economy and a deadly fear of Western backed regime change, the leadership is desperately seeking the proper balance to ensure the continuance of their regime. While it would stand to reason that a regime on the defensive would choose to pursue nuclear deterrence, an analysis of the costs and benefits might explain why certain policies might prove to be less practical than they might appear upon first glance.

The Islamic Republic now faces its greatest perceived threats in recent memory. The economy has been hard hit with high levels of unemployment and inflation. In 2010, the rial was valued at around 9,000 rials to the dollar. It now trades for somewhere between 12,000 to 19,000 according to the inflated official and black market rates respectively. Sanctions from the West aimed at raising the cost of nuclear development have significantly affected the price of imports and are rapidly depleting crucial foreign currency reserves. The American led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan along with the decade of neoconservative political rhetoric have further convinced the Shia theocracy that the longevity of their domestically unpopular regime is under threat.

More often than not, a regime will misplay their nuclear hand. Possession of nuclear weapons comes with certain advantages. In the case of the Islamic Republic and other semi-isolated states, it can mean a veto against foreign intervention within their sphere of influence. For some, it has ensured the continuance of their regime that otherwise would have been overthrown long ago. However these advantages often come at a great cost, turning a contentious regime into a pariah state. At the same time, abandoning one’s nuclear weapons program can severely weaken a leadership that lacking their key bargaining chip, becomes vulnerable to overthrow. The two ideal cases of these principles can be seen in the dealings between the West and North Korea as well as the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. The North Korean dictatorship inherited by Kim Jung Il was a starving state facing the combined South Korean and American military forces sitting on its border threatening regime change. Kim realized that he could ensure his regime’s security through developing nuclear weapons. While it is true that he has managed to secure monetary aid and assurances against intervention, Kim further established North Korea as a pariah state cut off from most of the international community. On the other side of the spectrum is Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. In the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi opted to surrender his weapons of mass destruction programs in hopes of avoiding a fate similar to the Iraqi leader. This strategy appeared to be successful until the 2011 uprising by his people that was aided by Western powers, most of whom would never have considered confronting Gaddafi had he maintained his arsenal of deterrence.

In considering these cases of cost benefit analysis gone wrong, the parameters of actions open to Iran assists in assessing how the regime is likely to proceed with their program. Iran cannot afford to become a total pariah due to its dependency to access global energy markets. Oil exports are estimated to comprise over 60% of state revenues. Iran is also unlikely to give up what is a nationally popular program while fears of Western imposed regime change appear to be imminent. There is perhaps a third middle ground option that would allow both sides to save face while maintaining their primary objectives. Whether the course will include IAEA inspectors at nuclear sites or assurances for continued low level enrichment, there are numerous creative solutions that could be expected to rise out of a negotiated agreement is yet to be seen. What is certain is that a continuance of the status quo is untenable for all sides involved. With the effects of sanctions biting away at the economy and the threat of an oft predicted Israeli air strike in the spring, the clock is ticking for such a compromise to be found. One can only hope that the regime will be able to sort out their internal calculations in time.


From → Iran

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