What a U.S. Deterrence Strategy Towards Iran Might Entail

Tom Ricks has posted an excellent piece by Zachary Hosford, Best Defense nuclear warfare correspondent, on his Foreign Policy blog.  Hosford’s critique of Bruce Riedel’s National Interest article, “If Israel Attacks,” addresses key questions on what it might take for the U.S. to persuade Israel, through enhanced military aid and security guarantees, to accept a deterrence strategy against a nuclear weapons possessing Iran.

The two key takeaways from Hosford and Riedel’s analyses are:  a) a disastrous Israeli military strike is possible if Israeli leadership genuinely believe that Iranian leadership are “crazy” and b) an effective deterrence strategy can only be implemented if Israel is willing to acknowledge the existence of its nuclear arsenal.

It’s an interesting coincidence that neocon pundits consistently challenge Ahmadinejad’s rationality  (see Bret Stephensmost recent column or Reuel Marc Gerecht‘s article in the October 4 Weekly Standard) while enthusiastically defending Israel against any attempts to force transparency regarding Israel’s nuclear arsenal. (See Elliott Abramsblog in the Weekly Standard after the June NPT conference.)

Hosford writes:

Riedel reaches back to deterrence theory by proposing that the United States offer Israel the benefits of American nuclear umbrella. This, of course, only works if those with their fingers on the hypothetical Iranian nuclear button are rational, and Riedel’s mention of the Netanyahu quote claiming Iran is “crazy” casts doubt on the views of the Israeli leadership, to say the least.

Though Riedel could very well be accurate in his analysis, in order to keep his deterrence argument intact he needs to downplay the possibility that Iran would transfer a nuclear weapon to a third party. So, perhaps not surprisingly, he does not offer any evidence for why Tehran would keep it nukes to itself. On the surface, it does seem as though a Hizbollah nuclear attack on Israel would not be in the interest of either Hizbollah or Iran, but gut feelings and hunches are not likely to convince the Israelis to sit back and watch while Iran goes nuclear.

The second part of the two-fold Riedel plan would call for the United States to bolster Israel’s second strike capability. That is, once the U.S. eases the Israeli population’s fears with promises to employ the formidable American nuclear force in the event the unthinkable occurs, an arsenal of American-supplied hardware would ensure that a stricken Israel would still be able to retaliate with its F-15Is, Jericho IRBMs, and increasingly sophisticated missile defense system. This would enable permit Israel to maintain strategic dominance, even facing a nuclear Iran. Among other items, Riedel advocates selling F-22s to Israel, though they are probably not the most appropriate platform for Israeli defense needs, and are perhaps further obviated by recent Israeli cabinet agreement to allow the United States to give Israel 20 stealthy new F-35s.

Of course, one problem with publicly boosting the Israeli deterrent — which Riedel readily admits — is that it is exceedingly difficult to do without first acknowledging that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. While Israel should, in fact, officially announce its arsenal, there is little benefit for it in doing so, at least at the moment. It would gain little, given that everyone knows of the Israeli nukes anyway, and could potentially entangle them in international debates over the NPT and a nuclear-free zone.

So, could the U.S. out them instead? Doubtful. Washington has been extremely hesitant to adopt a tough approach toward Israel in the past, but if an Israeli action might risk significant consequences to U.S. personnel and strategic interests, perhaps we will be surprised …

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. A featherweight rebuttal to an heavyweight Riedel, E.g.
    “So, perhaps not surprisingly, he does not offer any evidence for why Tehran would keep it nukes to itself.”

    The much touted danger of Iran sharing nuclear technology and/or actual weapons with a terrorist group does not pass even a cursory test of objectivity. “Would any regime just hand weapons-grade uranium over to extremists over whom it had no control?”[1]. There can always be the first time in recorded history that a state actor gives the means for its own extinction to a foreign ‘group’. But, are we to accept as a given that the millennially-minded 3000+ year surviving civilization not only aspires to national suicide, but wishes the timing of its guaranteed obliteration to be at the whim of a foreign terrorist group? Is there no likelier candidate other than Iran for setting a new record in staggering shortsightedness?

    A fallback position to the terrorism-WMD nexus is that Iran’s allegedly “terrorist” proxies will feel shielded and become emboldened whether or not Iran actually gives them the weapons. Larry Berfner [2] points out the argument is ahistorical:

    “[This argument is] vastly underestimating the intelligence, knowledge of history and survival instincts of Hizbullah, Hamas and other radical Islamist groups. The US, USSR and China fought each other’s proxies all over the world for decades without being deterred by the other side’s nuclear weapons. Fear of Soviet nukes didn’t stop JFK from trying to knock over Castro in Cuba, just as fear of US nukes didn’t stop Soviet-backed Castro from fighting back. Likewise, the threat of Soviet nuclear power didn’t stop the US from arming the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan, just as fear of US nukes didn’t stop the Soviets from fighting them. THE LIST goes on and on. Nuclear weapons have never been a defensive umbrella for aggression by anyone. It’s fair to assume Hizbullah and Hamas understand this.”

    [1] http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/03/05/how_not_to_contain_iran
    [2] http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=175946

  2. Also, refreshingly novel as it may be to question an adversary’s ratinality/sanity, I have a couple of questions for you Mr Clifton.

    a)Does this imply that Israel has no basis in fact, data, history, etc. that its best shot is conjectures about ratinality. Also, is this ratinality deficit only likely to surface when Iran has the capacity to get itself obliterated, but remains hidden untill then? Therefore, according to your theory, Iran will not act irrationally with conventional arms, but may go bananas soon as it can sign its own extinction warant?

    b) How serious is the worry about Iran’s potential irrationality? If a genuin worry as opposed to propaganda, then why have folks not attacked Iran yesterday? What are you waiting for? In short, how rational are Iran’s foes inaction?

  3. I think Israel has already accepted a modified deterrence strategy. As I have stated before on this site, I believe the Israelis have calculated that a U.S. attack is not going to happen under Obama, and that a go it alone strike would be problematical from every perspective. They therefore will adopt a deterrence strategy through at least the 2012 US presidential election.

    I used the term “modified deterrence” at the outset. It’s pretty clear that the cyberwarfare being conducted against Iranian networks, particularly those connected to the nulcear program, is coming from Israel (with perhaps some US assistance in the background?). I can also imagine sabotage, assassinations, etc. being employed. But a straightforward military attack is off the table, at least through Nov. 2012. A few weeks ago I said the chance of an Israeli strike was 30-40% and declining. Today I would say 10% (I won’t say zero, because one can never discount the possibility of some radical development in the situation). The chance of a US attack I rate at 0%, at least while B.O. is president.

    I’ll add a personal note here. I’m going to be extremely busy until about Nov. 15, and so the number and length of my comments will be diminished during that time. I will try to keep up with the reading and put in a word here and there.

  4. My impression is that Iran is no more irrational than is Israel. And I’m not all that certain that the U.S. is much more rational (at least, as to it’s policies regarding the Middle East) than is Israel or Iran.

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