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Iran Could Be Deterred In the Same Way Every Other State Has Been

Victor Davis Hanson writes:

In contrast, those who favor containment of a nuclear Iran do not quite know how the theocracy could be deterred — or how either Israel or the regional Sunni Arab regimes will react to such a powerful and unpredictable neighbor.

Supposing for the moment that Iran acquired nuclear weapons, we have a fairly good idea how it could be deterred. Israel already possesses a much larger nuclear arsenal than any that Iran is likely to have in the foreseeable future. The possibility of a regional arms race is overstated, as all alarmist claims relating to Iran’s nuclear program are, but that is one obvious way that Iran’s neighbors could react to an Iranian bomb. To date, Iranian regime behavior has been hostile and sometimes provocative, but it has hardly ever been unpredictable. Unpredictability is something that hawks always impute to regimes that they want to build up into major threats, because an “unpredictable” regime is seen as a more irrational regime. The question that Hanson fails to answer is: deterred from doing what? If Hanson is talking about launching a nuclear attack, Iran could be deterred from launching a nuclear first strike in the same way that any other state could be: the threat of massive retaliation. Of course, Hanson knows this, but wants to pretend that Iran’s government is indifferent to its own annihilation. There will never be such a thing as an “undeterred nuclear Iran.” This isn’t a nightmare. It’s a complete fantasy.

Hanson predicts that a nuclear-armed Iran would be “free to do and say what it pleased,” but in practice nuclear-armed states are not freed from any and all constraints. Not only do other nuclear-weapons states limit what they can do, but the possession of nuclear weapons by itself makes the state that possesses them relatively less adventurous and reckless rather than more so. As Waltz has pointed out, “Obtaining nuclear weapons is a sobering event.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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