Iran’s Pre-Nuclear Deterrent

Dan Drezner is bearish on the prospects of negotiations with Iran yielding any major concessions on its nuclear program:

Pragmatically, I seriously doubt that the United States can offeranything to get Tehran to halt its nuclear program. This leads to oneof two possible decisions: pre-emptive action to delay the program, oraccepting the inevitable.

Contra Cohen, the most pragmatic thing for the United Statesto do is to expect nothing fruitful to come from negotiations with Iran– and to (nonviolently) prepare for the contingency of a nuclear Iran.

A question to myrealist colleagues here at FP — why on God’s green earth would Iranever accede to an agreement whereby it gives up any autonomy in itsnuclear program?

What Drezner, and many observers, are leaving out of the equation is the way the nature of nuclear deterrence has changed recently. Historically, a country needed to actually have a deliverable nuclear weapon for it to function as a deterrent. But what Iran and North Korea have demonstrated is that an ambiguous intent combined with a certain level of technological capacity now does the trick — kind of like a mutant offspring of Israel’s policy of ambiguity.

I’d argue that Iran actually stands to gain a lot more by maintaining the current level of ambiguity than it does by actually possessing a nuclear weapon. The former is reversible and offers the potential for getting concessions out of the West. The latter is not reversible, and closes the door on any meaningful normalization of relations for the mid-term future, while offering only an unstable deterrent (in the absence of failsafe delivery systems).

What’s more, conceding an amount of autonomy over its nuclear program allows Iran to forestall the threat of an Israeli attack, thereby enhancing the deterrent effect of its pre-nuclear posture. That’s not to say the Iranians necessarily will make those concessions. But there’s more reason to believe they might than Drezner allows.