People tend, when facing equally unacceptable alternatives, to rationalize inaction. They either insist that the anticipated evil will not be so bad after all (or may even be a blessing in disguise) or propose miraculous solutions.
Lately, this propensity has warped U.S. understanding of the Iranian threat. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, released late last year, intensified this misunderstanding; it emphasized the closing down of weapons development programs in 2003 but downplayed Tehran ’s unflagging efforts to enrich the uranium crucial to nuclear weapons production. Meanwhile, prominent voices in the United States have been saying there is little to worry about. Deterrence theorists assert that a nuclear Iran may even prove a stabilizing force in the region. They suggest that a nuclear Iran may provide the foundation for a regional order based on the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD).
At the same time, proponents of democracy promotion draw a different analogy between Iran today and the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. They focus on Iran ’s economic situation and the attraction of the younger generation to Western culture, arguing that U.S. “engagement” with civil society in Iran will generate an Iranian revolution, just as U.S. involvement with the opposition in the USSR contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire.
Unfortunately, both the deterrence theorists and those who put their faith in the triumph of democracy have pinned their hopes on flawed analogies.
Cold War nuclear deterrence was based not on small nuclear arsenals in the hands of several countries but on large stockpiles held by two nations (or two alliances) that truly did ensure mutual destruction. Moreover, the Cold War was, in essence, a bilateral struggle between U.S. and Soviet blocs, which simplified the signaling of intentions and lessened the likelihood of misunderstandings. And public discussion of nuclear weapons in the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War tended to be restricted to experts, meaning that policy makers could develop rational strategies with little public pressure to take more-belligerent positions. Crowds in Washington or Moscow never demonstrated, as they have in Pakistan, while holding aloft effigies of nuclear bombs and calling for them to be used.
None of the stabilizing characteristics of the Cold War strategic balance is present in the wider Muslim world. A nuclear Iran would provoke Saudi Arabia and Egypt to acquire their own military nuclear capabilities, leading to a “polynuclear” Middle East in which the potential for nuclear error would be greatly multiplied. The notoriously weak and fragmented autocracies of the Muslim Middle East have shown a much higher predilection for recklessly resorting to military force than the United States and the Soviet Union ever did. Religious and nationalistic fervor has led countries in the region into countless military debacles, such as the long, bloody war fought by Iran and Iraq in the 1980s that devastated both countries. Religiously inspired confidence in divine providence —including the Shiite belief that the Hidden Imam will fight on the side of Allah’s soldiers and protect them—heightens the risk.
The hopes for imminent democratic transformation in Iran also depend on a misleading comparison. The disparity between the Soviet Union before its collapse and Iran today is vast. The communist ideology that went bankrupt in the Soviet Union was a secular ideology superimposed on the nation ’s root culture and religion. Its abandonment did not entail giving up basic beliefs. In contrast, the Islamic government in Tehran, though lacking popularity, does represent a strong tradition in Iran that existed before the revolution and retains the devotion even of many of those who oppose the regime. Furthermore, the Soviet Union did not fall overnight. Its collapse began with the first stages of d étente in the 1970s, followed by a series of destabilizing leadership changes, the ruinous effort of keeping up with the U.S. arms buildup in the 1980s, and the demoralizing defeat in Afghanistan. At best, Iran presents weak analogies to these factors.
Even if, despite the substantial dissimilarities to the Soviet Union, one accepts that Iran is tending to a democratic counterrevolution, the time line makes the transformation largely irrelevant to the nuclear crisis. Even the optimists do not see democratic change happening within the next year or two, the time most experts believe Iran needs to cross the threshold to a military nuclear capability.
So what should be done if Iran refuses to cease enriching uranium? All options short of military action should be explored and exploited. But if, as seems increasingly likely, they prove unavailing, the most effective choice may well be a full-blown naval blockade of Iran, cutting off supplies of refined oil and other strategic goods. Because of Tehran ’s dependence for roughly a third of its refined oil on imports, a blockade would bring the regime to a breaking point within months, if not weeks. The rationing of essential commodities might cause key regime leaders and respected clerics to question the wisdom of sacrificing the country to acquire nuclear weapons.
A blockade, if necessary, would certainly entail major risks for the United States, but fewer than a military strike on nuclear facilities in Iran. Moreover, such a course would have the virtue of facing up to, rather than wishing away, the Iranian threat.