Not the End of the World As We Know It: Nuclear-Armed Iran and the Mid-East Balance of Power

By Dr. Robert M. Farley* 

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.

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38 Responses »

  1. Yes. By all means. Lets allow an eighth century theocratic dictatorship to develop the power to subjugate their neighbors. What could possibly go wrong?

  2. Did u even read the article? I think the point he's making is that nukes WOULDN'T give Iran the power to subjugate anybody.

    • What part of eighth century theocratic dictatorship are you haveing trouble with? They will gleefully murder their own people in the streets and send out their proxies to intimidate and subvert their neighbors. But nuclear weapons? Sure. No problem.
      Given their history, what in the world makes you think they won't use every asset at their disposal.
      That's like believing, when confronted with an armed assailant, that the gun is empty.

      • Not really. In fact nuclear weapons only have limited ability to force one state's will upon another and only under certain circumstances*. A far more likely outcome would be a confusing mess of other nations trying to decide whether or not they want to go nuclear, the U.S putting pressure on them not to, Israel and Iran fighting (more) proxy wars and conservative infighting in Iran.

        People constantly say 'that nation/leader/political group' is irrational and will use force on everyone else if they get the bomb. History doesn't bear that out. China, the U.K, the U.S, Russia and France all gained a nuclear capacity but most of their calculations about nuclear weapons seemed to be more about each other and not so much about how they could bully small nations. Given Iran's conventional limitations it seems more likely that they would use them to deter a U.S attack. Obviously (as I mentioned) there will be blood and chaos but we aren't looking at a Persian conquest of the Middle East.

        *Specifically when war seems imminent or is already happening. Despite how much attention wars get in our books most nations do not spend the majority of their time at war.

      • I seriously doubt you know anything about Iran's history. I am certainly missing the eight century dictatorship. Cyrus is 25 centuries old. Islam 14. Shia did not become the official religion in Iran until the Safari’s dynasty in the 16th century. Iran has not had a democracy but for very brief periods, after the constitutional revolution of 1905 and perhaps in early 1950s under Prime Minister Mosadegh.

        But as Shaun Tan stated, it does not appear that you read Dr. Farley's article and sarcasm only shows your ignorance not intelligence. As Dr. Farley stated with much evidence, Iran cannot use its nuclear capability to intimate other countries with or without nuclear arsenal. And the mullahs are only martyrs in the eyes of the seriously deranged genocide obsessed hawks and religious zealots. The mullahs have ruled for over thirty years and are firmly in power. They have never martyred themselves or their children, only other Iranians and other Iranian's children.

  3. Iran would not necessarily use its Nuclear capbilities the same way other global powers use them. Israel has a "Class B Nuclear Deterent" which means it only has nuclear capability to influence policy of countries such as the US to intervene if Israel's existence is threatened (exactly like in1973).

    Other nations like Russia have a desire to live...and use Nuclear Weapons to ensure their complete autonomy of what they do in their sphere of influence.

    North Korea's deterent only ensures the survival of the regime.

    What is Iran's intentions? To restablish the Caliphate. That is the meaning of the Iranian Revolution.

    With Nuclear weapons, Iran can more aggressively accomplish this.

    I always thought Yale was a school of idiots.....

    • Actually the goal of the Iranian leadership (religious and secular) seems to be based around guaranteeing the survival of their state and keeping the liberals out of power. To date Iran hasn't done much to recreate the Caliphate* as much as fight proxy wars with Israel, an open one with Iraq and seek influence in the new Iraq.

      *Which, incidentally, was Sunni. Try a course of religious studies (Islam) at a local college.

  4. Passing off the built technology to "non-state" terrorists is a real threat. They would do such a thing and there are prime targets for such an action.

    The first domino is not the threat.

    How does one retaliate against a non-state terrorist with nuclear intentions? The finger will point back at the pipsqueak President and the mullahfia...but, they will deny involvement.

    What then?

    • The exact same thing was said about Iraq. Interestingly enough, no state so far has shown any inclination to hand over a Weapon of Mass Destruction to any terrorist group. Pakistan hasn't sent any to Indian-controlled Kashmir, Israel hasn't sent any to Baloch groups in Iran, China never gave any to the Japanese Red Army, etc.

  5. 12th Iman anyone? Google it.

    Iran with a nuke, will be disaster.

  6. This whole article is absurd because of one key problem, the concept of rational actors. The Author, an academic speaks of national suicide. But it's not the *nation of Iran* we are talking about here in general as the author does, it's a rogue regime that is the topic, a farce 'democracy' which is actually a military butressed theocracy.

    The author projects the usual western rationale and logic onto an entity which is nothing like Yale or the west, or even communism and the east. In one phrase you can rip this entire argument apart, spoken not by Iran which does not get to choose national suicide or not, but by its fundamentalist Islamic regime and adherents..

    "You value life, we value death more than life."

  7. This brilliant article read like one of those pieces from history that are used to measure just how clueless and blind the credentialed morons were just before something very bad happened.
    "Peace in our time" anyone?

  8. It's ok for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, but not the US or Israel. What upsets me more than anything is when the Iranians had their Green Revolution against Ahmadinijad, no one from this Administration gave them, at least, a round of applause. If that revolution brought down that regime, they would not be where they are now, within the capacity to have a nuclear weapon. I quess it is OK if you just don't detonate it in my back yard.

  9. Here's another fact, conveniently left out.:
    Outlaw theocracy that seized an embassy in 1979.
    Kentucky....yeah.....genius land....NOT.

  10. To all the fear-mongerers who responded to this article...

    What you are all failing to realize is that you are treating the other countries in the middle east like children. You all seem to believe that Israel is a defenseless little lamb... Have you ever heard of Saddams Ossiraq nuclear facility? 1989?

    Jesus, all of you are so arrogant to believe that the US should be the worlds big brother...

    When you treat all the other nations like children, they will continue to behave like children.

    The most recent IAEA report says that Iran has all the materials needed should they desire to build one... Meaning, we don't even know if they truly want to, or if they are rattling the saber to intimidate us into doing something stupid like invading them.

    • Kramer:

      You are SO right. Fear mongering is the right wordm, and I support your conclusion.

      When book ended by US occupation in Iraq and in Afghanistan, it is the Iranian homeland that seems at risk to them. Without this threat to their existence, perhaps a difference strategic course of action would appear both more reasonable and less expensive.

      Countries have aspirations, and sometimes its not so difficult to see what they are. For Iraq, they feel threatened and victimized.


  11. One question; Why does Iran need the bomb?

    • It's main use would be to deter the U.S and Israel from attacking. Saddam Hussein was driven from power with relative ease and even though Iraq did enter a civil war to the embarrassment of America I don't think many Iranian leaders would want to watch their nation be torn apart and other Iranians take over.

    • Maybe they don't want what happed to they neighbor to the east or their neighbor to the west to happen to them. Otherwise, as Dr. Farley aptly noted, it will be a huge liability.

  12. The color of the sky is blue. How 'bout you?

  13. Note that the Iranians themselves repeatedly insist that a nuclear bomb would not actually help them.


  1. How Alarmed Should We Be About Iran? : Lawyers, Guns & Money
  2. Meta Report: Collected Reactions to the IAEA on Iran | Plastic Manzikert
  3. Beating the Diplomacy Drums On Iran | Instrumental Of Songs Make A Beat
  4. » Nuclear-Armed Iran:Not the End of the World ….. uhm.. just Israel | |Byte For Byte People's Informative Blog
  5. Spencer Ackerman Responds to Robert Farley on the Significance of an Iranian Nuke | Yale Journal of International Affairs
  6. Michael Cohen Responds to Robert Farley on a Nuclear-Armed Iran | Yale Journal of International Affairs
  7. Who shoots first? « Slouching Towards Columbia
  8. Bombs in Tehran | Shadowy Silk Blog
  9. Hadn’t planned another linkpost– « Fraser Sherman's Blog
  10. The Logic of Iranian Nukes «
  11. Why Mehdi is correct. « Guerrilla Thoughts
  12. Iranul, noua sperietoare mondială | Camil Stoenescu's blog
  13. Uncle Sam’s Search for Missing Atom Bombs in Iran | वसुधैव कुटुंबकम
  14. No permanent threats, only permanent threats « Thinking Strategically
  15. No permanent threats, only permanent interests « Thinking Strategically

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