Nuclear Deterrence in Iran: Tried but True

As mentioned in a previous post, the students in my World Politics summarized a few policies the US might pursue in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, and were asked to write-up their arguments in an Op-Ed style post.  Given that the most recent talks between the US and Iran have fallen through (with a debate on whether Iran or the West are to blame), this seems like a good time to cover the option of just letting Iran obtain a nuclear weapon.

The opinion expressed therein is the student’s own work – and we’ll be featuring the airstrikes and covert actions arguments soon, so you can hear a different opinion if you follow up!

This cartoon was featured in Kenneth Waltz’s article “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb”

The word containment is a word of the past, instantly bringing forth notions of Soviet espionage, the Red Scare, President Reagan, and old James Bond movies. For nearly fifty years, America devoted itself to preventing the spread of communism, fighting wars in both Korea and Vietnam in the name of containment. Although the Cold War is long over and the Soviet Union can no longer be found on a map, the policy of containment may not be as outdated.

The policy of containment is being brought out again in talks about Iran, this time under the name nuclear deterrence. The gist of the policy is the same as it was during the Cold War: Let Iran have nuclear capabilities and even nuclear weapons, but work to keep the country weak and its power contained within its borders.

There are three requirements for mutual nuclear deterrence:

  1. Each state must have a survivable second strike force.
  2. Leaders must be rational, or at least care about their state’s survival.
  3. In the event of attack, each side can reliable verify where the attack originated.

As with all policies, there are both advantages and disadvantages to nuclear deterrence in Iran:


  • Nuclear weapons are primarily defensive weapons, which is a good way to maintain national security. Analysts have said that Iran is not an irrational or suicidal state so allowing them to grown their nuclear program would not necessarily be detrimental as they would primarily use it to deter regional actors.  In fact, Iran housing the bomb may give them security and would hopefully make them less hostile.
  • With negotiations seemingly getting nowhere, and any type of large military action being highly opposed by the populace, we may end up at deterrence anyway. Why not just skip some steps (steps which are potentially costly), declare a policy of containment, and focus our diplomatic resources on other, more pressing, international matters.
  • Although it would not directly bring a new regime into power, nuclear deterrence could put enough pressure on Iran to encourage that kind of change. Part of a nuclear deterrence policy would include covert assistance to the Iranian opposition.
  • Nuclear deterrence would keep in place economic sanctions that have kept Iran weak in the past, and there is no reason to think these won’t continue to hold. If Iran is economically lacking, it is unlikely it would have the funds to enrich enough uranium to supply a massive amount of nuclear weapons.


  • Allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons could encourage other countries in the region to begin developing similar capabilities. As was seen during the Cold War, as soon as we developed the bomb, the Soviet Union wasn’t far behind. A nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf region would be extremely destabilizing to the area and potentially dangerous. This could lead to a nuclear exchange, whether by accident or by escalation.
  • Chances of nuclear war would increase. If we stop trying to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, other countries will see that as an OK to go ahead with their own nuclear programs. If we don’t hold Iran to the same standards as the other countries under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, there’s no reason for other countries to believe that we would prevent them from creating nuclear weapons. The more countries that have nuclear weapons, the more likely it is that one would be used. Like a loaded gun, there’s more chance of it being used when the temptation is there.
  • Iran has not always acted rationally in the past, and there is no guarantee it will in the future. We cannot assume that the central government has complete control over the nuclear program, or that it could keep the weapons from terrorists or other factional groups that could cause significant damage.
  • A US policy that allows a nuclear Iran would also strain ties with current regional allies, including Israel.

After diplomacy, nuclear deterrence seems to be the best policy to pursue in Iran. It avoids military involvement, doesn’t upset the balance of an already unstable region, and allows the U.S. and other countries to keep a close eye on the nuclear program in Iran. Containment may have been around the block, but it’s worked before and it can work again.


Pollack, Kenneth M.. “Short of a Deal, Containing Iran Is the Best Option –” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., 22 Sept. 2013. Retrieved from

Pollack, Kenneth M., Daniel L. Byman, Martin Indyk, Suzanne Maloney, Michael E. O’Hanlon, and Bruce Reidel. Which Path to Persia? Options for a New American Strategy toward IranBrookings. Saban Center for Middle East Policy, June 2009. Retrieved from

Connolly, Kevin. “Israel PM Calls Iran Leader ‘wolf in Sheep’s Clothing'” BBC News. BBC, 10 Feb. 2013. Retrieved from

Peterson, Scott. “What Would Happen If Iran Did Get the Bomb?” NBC News. The Christian Science Monitor, 17 Feb. 2012. Retrieved from

Record, Jeffrey. “Nuclear Deterrence, Preventative War, and Counterproliferation.” CATO Institute, 8 July 2004. Retrieved from


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