French President Jacques Chirac caused a stir last week by suggesting that an Iranian nuclear weapon would have little offensive use. “Where will it drop it, this bomb?” Chirac mused. “On Israel? It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed.”
Though he later retracted this diplomatic faux pas, Chirac’s remark represents a fundamental reality.
Some hawks in the Iran debate argue that the Iranian leadership is not rational, and hence, fundamentally undeterrable.
Bernard Lewis, the Princeton historian and adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, argues that Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian government “clearly believe” that “the cosmic struggle at the end of time … ending in the final victory of the forces of good over evil” has begun. Israeli historian Benny Morris posits that a nuclear Iran would bring about a “second Holocaust.”
If Lewis and Morris were right, there would be no point even contemplating deterring a nuclear Iran - Israel’s and even America’s nuclear arsenals would be useless against it. Thankfully, their reasoning is flawed and their evidence thin.
First, Ahmadinejad is not a Stalinesque - or even Putinesque - center of power in Tehran. The Iranian president has increasingly been a target of official criticism, and recent reports indicate that he may not remain in power to the end of his four-year term.
Iran’s powerful Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a more significant political player than Ahmadinejad. Though Khamenei also embraces odious ideas, it is important to evaluate Iran’s actions, not just its rhetoric.
Consider the Iran-Iraq War. Smoldering with radicalism from the Islamic revolution, Iran’s early rhetoric was uncompromising, and in November 1981, it issued clear proclamations that it had no intention of stopping the war as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power.
By 1988, however, a long string of devastating tactical routs had made clear that outright strategic defeat was possible, so the Iranian leadership changed course. They sued for peace, jettisoning their original objective of deposing Hussein and taking a deal that left Iran on the light side of the postwar balance of power.
That the clerical leadership saw this reality and decided to end the conflict suggests that for all its religious bombast, it was making rational strategic calculations. In hindsight, even extreme radicals like Khomeini - who were viewed at the time as irrational - did not meet the description.
The evidence indicates that Iran’s leadership remains rational today. Though it would certainly terrify the Israeli population, Iran has never passed chemical or biological weapons to Hezbollah or other client organizations.
Why? Most likely because they fear Israeli reprisals. And if the Iranians fear Israel’s response to a chemical or biological attack, they are certainly aware how much more severely Israel would respond to a nuclear assault, whether by proxy or directly launched from Iran.
Never in history have leaders made a decision that was absolutely certain to destroy their own country in a matter of hours. Until someone can come up with definitive evidence that Iran is the first such country, we must work from the assumption that Chirac’s reasoning is right.