I was interested to see that AEI’s Michael Rubin has published a paper titled “Can a Nuclear Iran Be Contained or Deterred?” Rubin makes several points.
First, he argues, there is a real chance that Iran may just launch an unprovoked nuclear first-strike against Israel: “There is reason to take the worst case scenario seriously.” He bases this judgment on a quote from Rafsanjani boasting to a domestic audience that Iran may be willing to suffer the nuclear strikes that would result from any Iranian strike against Israel, and argues that the anti-nuclear war statements from numerous other Iranian officials (he only cites one) “should not be taken at face value. They may be taqiya, religiously sanctioned dissimulation meant to lull an enemy.”
What he ignores is the track record of diplomatic behavior in Iran indicating that the most basic imperative of international relations–national self-preservation–has figured prominently (alongside brinkmanship and risk-taking) in modern Iranian diplomacy. Attempting to divine intentions from conflicting public statements or even operational plans (which reminds one of the “Team B” experiment) is far less helpful in ascertaining whether the regime values self-preservation than is evaluating what the regime has done when faced with overwhelming force.
Rubin offers two observations on nuclear deterrence, the first of which is either confused or problematic: that for deterrence to work, Iran’s leaders must “prioritize the lives of its citizenry above certain geopolitical or ideological goals.” Rubin does not cite any academic research on this point, but it should go without saying that his deterring actor–the United States–would be unlikely to focus any response on a countervalue strike as opposed to counterforce. That is, the United States would not focus on holding Iranian citizens hostage to deter the Iranian government from striking, but rather would hold the Iranian government itself and Iranian military capabilities hostage. Rubin’s framing of the issue is skewed toward the former conception, which makes it look much more likely (“well, the Iranian government mistreats its people anyway”) that the Iranian regime could convince itself that it could disregard the enormous costs of American retaliation. Any conceivable response to an unprovoked nuclear strike would mean, at a bare minimum, the end of the Islamic Republic and an end to its “geopolitical or ideological goals,” unless those goals are achieved with self-immolation and handing the mantle of Islam to the Sunnis.
Rubin’s essay makes a number of other highly questionable assumptions and judgments. The unfortunate reality is that the paper appears to have been published without a literature review, which would have uncovered a number of previous studies that dealt directly with the subject of his study and came to different conclusions. I published a paper on the topic in 2006, but there is also Barry Posen, the director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, who authored a paper on the same topic, also in 2006. There is also Christopher Hemmer, a professor at the U.S. Air War College, who authored a paper on the topic in the Autumn 2007 issue of Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College.
It is important when researching topics as central as these to examine the existing scholarly work to determine whether there have been previous discussions that could serve to refine one’s own thinking. The fact that this study (and the study that Dr. Rubin coauthored for the Bipartisan Policy Center) has been published without a literature review raises serious questions about the standards backing up the scholarship.