The following facts about Iran are largely beyond dispute. It is outspent militarily by three of its closest neighbors, including Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Its only friends in the Middle East are a few terrorist groups and Syria, a nation beset with domestic furor. It has extraordinarily hostile relations with the United States, and only relatively polite relations with Russia and China. Iran’s existing conventional military forces are obsolete by regional standards. The country suffers from substantial domestic discontent and has undergone serial crises of governance structure since at least the late 1980s. Iran is heavily dependent on resource exports, inextricably and directly linking its economy to the international market and inviting all of the problems normally associated with the “resource curse.”
These things are true today. They will remain true the day after Iran tests its first nuclear weapon.
What things will change if Iran tests a nuclear weapon? No one knows but many fear the worst. Among others, Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg has argued that an Iranian nuclear test will set off any number of dire consequences. Some believe that Iran will launch a nuclear war against Israel. Others suggest that “instability” will result from Iran’s increased ability to intimidate its neighbors. Still others insist that the deterrent umbrella of a nuclear weapon will allow Iran and its regional proxies, including Hezbollah, to make more mischief. Goldberg himself insisted that if Iran were to successfully test a nuclear weapon, “American power in the Middle East will have been eclipsed” and Iran will have won “a three-decade war for domination of the Middle East.”
In fact, Iran will not have eclipsed American power in the region -- not by a long shot; nor will it have won domination of the region. It will quickly discover what all leaders of all nuclear powers know: that the weapons themselves are the bluntest of instruments. Nuclear states cannot use nukes to force non-nuclear states to comply with their demands. If they could, nuclear and non-nuclear states would not fight. Nuclear weapons failed to compel the surrender of Saddam Hussein in either 1991 or 2003. They failed to force the Serb cession of Kosovo in 1999. American nuclear weapons failed to cow the Vietnamese in 1965 and Chinese nukes failed at the same task in 1979. Sometimes, non-nuclear states actually start wars against nuclear powers. Nuclear weapons did not deter Syrian and Egyptian attacks on Israel in 1973, nor did Russian nuclear weapons deter Georgia in 2008. The biggest difference between these examples and the Iran is that the nuclear power, in all of these cases also possessed overwhelming conventional superiority. Given that Iran doesn’t even have conventional superiority over neighborhood foes, suggestions that Iran can bully its neighbors with its nuclear weapons range fall somewhere between absurd and ridiculous.
Nuclear weapons cannot guarantee that a state’s neighbors will cater to its every whim nor can they resolve border disputes. Nuclear weapons cannot ensure the safety and security of client terrorist groups. They also cannot topple foreign governments. cannot prevent terrorist attacks. Indeed, as Pakistan has recently discovered, nuclear weapons don’t even guarantee territorial integrity..
We do not need to look far in order to see the limited influence that nuclear weapons provide. Israeli nuclear weapons have not granted it the ability to dominate the Middle East, and have not relieved Israel of the need to pursue military dominance across the combat spectrum. US nuclear weapons alone have not granted it the ability to dominate the Middle East either, even to the extent of influencing Iran or Iraq. Similarly, Iranian nuclear weapons will not grant the Islamic Republic the ability to dominate its region.
But is Iran different? Many have argued, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among them, that Iran is effectively run by a messianic apocalyptic cult which cannot be contained or deterred. There are indeed many ways in which Iran is different than other nuclear powers, the most notable of these being the weakness of its military and the vulnerability of its economy. But the Iranian leadership is by no means the first nuclear aspirant to be branded an apocalyptic cult; the same charges were lobbed, with considerably greater justification, at the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong. While Iran undoubtedly exerts a negative influence in the region, it has not in any way indicated that it plans to undertake national suicide. To bully its neighbors or to provide an umbrella over Hezbollah, Iran would have to credibly threaten the use of nuclear weapons, which means -- given overwhelming Israeli and American nuclear superiority -- that it would have to credibly threaten national suicide. The phrase is self-contradictory, and as Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, even the Israelis don’t believe that Iran will use nuclear weapons against Israel.
But what of how other states might react to an Iranian nuclear weapon? Israel appears deeply concerned about the Iranian nuclear program, and has suggested through a variety of channels that it will attack to prevent full weaponization. The Gulf states have also expressed concerns about the Iranian program. Jeffrey Goldberg argues that Turkey and Saudi Arabia will initiate their own nuclear programs, although their apparent lack of effort thus far should raise serious questions about the claim. Concerns about international hysteria are well founded, but separating the hysteria from the effects of the actual weapon --and noting that the former has little foundation in the latter-- is a worthwhile effort. Regional leaders would be best advised to explain to their people the actual dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon, rather than feeding the hysteria.
There are excellent reasons to prefer that Iran never build a nuclear weapon. The regime might collapse at some point in the future, leaving the weapons up for grabs between contending factions. New nuclear states run a higher risk of dangerous accidents. Substantial non-proliferation efforts are an appropriate response to Iranian efforts, in no small part because sanctions and international isolation help deter other would-be proliferators. Exaggerating the consequences of a successful Iranian weapons program, however, does no one any favors.
Dr. Robert M. Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination, and is available on Twitter.