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Research Report

Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran: Questions for Strategy, Requirements for Military Forces

Thomas Donnelly
Danielle Pletka
Maseh Zarif
With a Foreword by Frederick W. Kagan
Copyright Date: Dec. 1, 2011
Pages: 65
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. vii-viii)
    Frederick W. Kagan

    The challenge of a nuclear Iran will be among the most difficult the United States has faced. Iran will not soon pose an existential threat to the United States in the way that the Soviet Union did from the 1960s until its collapse—at least, not in the sense that it will have a nuclear arsenal capable of literally annihilating the United States. But Iran will reach another threshold by acquiring nuclear weapons—the ability to keep America and its allies in constant fear. For a state that has formed its national security policy largely around terrorism, that is quite...

  2. (pp. 6-7)

    It has long been the policy of the United States government that a nuclear-armed Iran would be unacceptable. “It is unacceptable to the United States. It is unacceptable to Israel. It is unacceptable to the region and the international community,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared last year.¹ As he was running for president in 2008, Barack Obama told Fox News that “it is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon; it would be a game changer.”² This was only an extension of previous Bush administration policy; an Iranian nuclear weapon “to blackmail or threaten the world” would be...

  3. (pp. 8-8)

    Containment is hardly a cost-free policy. Substantial research exploring the nature of and prospects for biting sanctions designed to dissuade Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons already exists. Research institutions and various militaries and intelligence agencies have repeatedly gamed military options. Others have examined ways and means to aid and influence the Iranian opposition. Beyond the kind of policy sketches of the sort offered by a number of sources—including the 2008 Bipartisan Policy Center report;12 the Lindsay and Takeyh article; and a rebutting Foreign Affairs article by Eric Edelman, Andrew Krepinevich, and Evan Montgomery13—little thought has gone into what...

  4. (pp. 9-14)

    The public discussion of Iran containment has been conducted in a haze of good feeling about the successes of the Cold War, but as Lindsay and Takeyh suggest, containing the Soviet challenge was hardly simple. As John Lewis Gaddis, perhaps the period’s foremost historian, has written, the Cold War witnessed many different—and substantially varying—codes of containment. In the early 1980s, Gaddis had already identified five such codes; arguably Ronald Reagan formulated a sixth and George H. W. Bush, responding to the unanticipated break-up of the Soviet empire, formulated a seventh.14

    The seeds of the Cold War containment policy...

  5. (pp. 15-18)

    As with the broader policy of containment, the vast literature of Cold War deterrence provides a useful framework for thinking about deterring a nuclear Iran. The nature of the Iranian regime is much different than the Soviet regime, and the extent of Iranian power is a fraction of Soviet power, but while the particular circumstances may be unique, there are structural similarities.

    What is deterrence? In a classic 1983 study, John Mearsheimer defined it broadly as “persuading an opponent not to initiate a specific action because the perceived benefits do not justify the estimated costs and risks.”31 A decade later,...

  6. (pp. 19-38)

    The United States has been practicing a loose form of deterrence against Iran for the better part of three decades, since the revolutionaries inspired by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized the US embassy in Tehran and held fifty-two diplomats hostage for 444 days. Yet the range of possible conflict points has mushroomed. What might be called the canonical military threat from Iran—the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint through which approximately 17 percent of the world’s crude oil passes40—remains a serious concern, as do a variety of direct Iranian threats such as regular harassment of US...

  7. (pp. 39-44)

    While there can never be certain deterrence, Cold War presidents often had confidence that the United States had sufficient military power to support a policy of containment through a strategy of deterrence; for most of the period they felt that deterrence was assured. It is worth repeating Dean Acheson’s basic formulation: “American power would be employed in stopping [Soviet aggression and expansion], and if necessary, would inflict on the Soviet Union injury which the Moscow regime would not wish to suffer.”128 Assured deterrence began with assured destruction of the Soviet regime.

    Having briefly assessed Iran’s behavior by the standard measures...

  8. (pp. 45-47)

    It is always possible that Iran will be deprived of its nuclear option by military action, that the current regime in the Islamic Republic will be overthrown, or that sanctions will bring the regime to the table with meaningful concessions, but there is every possibility that none of these scenarios will come to pass. Indeed, the history of aspiring nuclear powers is relatively uniform: barring military action (or the perception of imminent military action in the case of Libya), would-be nuclear states such as Pakistan and North Korea have achieved their goals.

    Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, these options will...