Iranian Threat: Mortal or Deterrable?

Numerous essays have been written in recent months taking up positions on whether or not the United States should use military force against Iran in an attempt to forestall its nuclear program.  Foreign Affairs offers an excellent debate on the subject that iss highlighted by contending essays from Matthew Kroenig and Colin Kahl, taking the pro- and anti-bombing positions, respectively.  Perhaps the silliest offering in this ongoing discussion though was an op-ed in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by Mark Helprin that is filled with contradictions and paints an exceedingly cartoonish picture of Iran.

Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, claims Iran is a nation led by “primitive religious fanatics” incapable of cost-benefit analysis and therefore a “mortal threat” to the United States.  Leaving aside the fact that Iran still does not have a nuclear weapon at this point, even if it were to possess a small arsenal, describing the Islamic Republic as a “mortal threat” is a neat rhetorical trick but wholly hyperbolic.  Even were a hypothetical Iranian nuclear attack on the United States to occur—nearly as unlikely an event as one could imagine—it would certainly cause massive damage and be a absolute tragedy, but it would hardly be the end of America.

Leaving aside the ability of the United States to withstand such an attack, Helprin dreams up some very creative ways by which Iran would actually execute one.  Iran has no ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, and, absent improvement in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s ham-fisted skills with Photoshop, it is unlikely to for some time.  Instead, Helprin believes either Iranian bombers slip past American or Israeli radar, Iran will launch ballistic missiles from a barge, or Iranian agents will smuggle a weapon into Manhattan.  In the last case, the comparison he makes to drug smuggling and smuggling a nuclear weapon ignores obvious logistical differences between the two.  Besides, no one on the planet is threatening nuclear retaliation for smuggling cocaine—a nuclear attack is a different story altogether.  It is somewhat plausible that Iranian bombers carrying a nuclear warhead could slip past American, Israeli, or European radars masked by commercial radar signatures, but there’s just as good a chance they would be intercepted well before dropping their payload—which risks inviting retaliation without even achieving anything.  And, even if a barge could make the extraordinarily long trip from the Persian Gulf to the U.S. coastline carrying a nuclear warhead, ballistic missile, and ballistic missile launcher, and effectively carried out its attack, Tehran would seal its own death warrant considering the multiple ways the United States could, and would, respond—through both conventional and unconventional means.  The point being, under no potential scenario could an Iranian nuclear attack threaten the second-strike capability of the United States, or Israel for that matter, and the retaliation against the Iranian regime would be swift and, likely, total.

Of course, according to Helprin, Iran does not fear such retaliation because it is irrational, suicidal, and uncontainable:

Not the Iran with a revered tradition of deception; that during its war with Iraq pushed 100,000 young children to their deaths clearing minefields; that counts 15% of its population as “Volunteer Martyrs”; that chants “Death to America” at each session of parliament; and whose president states that no art “is more beautiful…than the art of the martyr's death.” Not the Iran in thrall to medieval norms and suffering continual tension and crises.

Leaving aside the nonsensical idea that Iran cannot be deterred because of its “revered tradition of deception”—because, of course, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China were open and transparent societies—his examples of Iranian irrationality are less than impressive.  Yes, “Death to America” chants are an unpleasant manifestation of Iran’s clerical regime, but it is orders of magnitude less terrifying than Mao Tse-tung’s claim that China could not only survive [PDF], but thrive, following a nuclear war with the United States due to its ability to absorb far greater losses to its population.  And yes, it is both tragic and appalling that so many children died clearing minefields and that a large number of Iranian citizens were sacrificed during the war with Iraq.  But those deaths were not the result of a national desire for suicide, but instead just the opposite—defense against an external aggressor.  Besides, Helprin contradicts himself when he says Iran views nuclear weapons as an “existential necessity.”  To a country so intent on martyrdom, the idea of an existential necessity seems somewhat oxymoronic.

Helprin further contradicts himself in his conclusion when he claims there will be no problem if Iran attempts to blockade the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for an American attack because “The Gulf would be closed until Iranian air, naval, and missile forces there were scrubbed out of existence by the U.S., probably France and Britain, and the Saudis themselves, in a few weeks.”  He’s right, of course, about Iran’s inability to maintain a blockade of the Persian Gulf, but it was Iran closing the Strait that Helprin cited at the beginning of this piece as the precipitous act that would lead to the mortal threat he fears.  If Mark Helprin is to believed just ten paragraphs later, that same threat is much less than mortal and will be dispatched in merely a few weeks.

This slight of hand is apparent as well in Matthew Kroenig’s Foreign Affairs essay calling for a bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear program—essentially, not attacking brings about apocalyptic consequences but any adverse fallout from an attack is easily mitigated.  Helprin acknowledges that terrorist proxies acting on behalf of the Iranian regime would seek retribution for any attack on Iran.  But the attacks, he claims, “would peak, they would then subside.”  Any damage done in such attacks would be worth it because “The cost would be far less than that of permitting the power of nuclear destruction to a vengeful, martydom-obsessed state in the midst of never-subsiding fury against the west.”

At one point Helprin even claims an Iranian nuclear weapon might decouple American and European interests in the Middle East—because massive Soviet conventional superiority and the threat of nuclear attack accomplished that so easily during the Cold War.  But the point has been made. The image Helprin casts of an Iran so desperate to kill Americans and Israelis, and so suicidal, as to actively seek its own annihilation is cartoonish.  Iran is a repressive, theocratic state that is certainly in no way a positive actor in the international system, but it is not—with or without nuclear weapons—a mortal threat to the United States.  There are multiple ways in which Tehran would be deterred from attacking either the continental United States, Israel, or Europe.  Those who would continue to argue for an attack would do well to remember that the next time they attempt to make their case.

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