Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions & Deterrence Theory

December 28, 2009

Albert Einstein

Did helping invent the Nuclear bomb bring peace ?

If you could spend a day chatting with anyone from history who would you pick? This question came up over dinner with friends on Saturday night. John Lennon, Socrates, Buddha, Michael Jackson, Jesus, Oscar Wilde, the Prophet Mohammad, Cleopatra and Einstein were some of the names that came up.

We stopped at Einstein and got to thinking: In helping prompt the invention of a nuclear bomb, is Einstein worthy of the historical acclaim he receives? Soon into discussion, we realized that the question itself relies on the assumption that the nuclear bomb is capable of nothing more than destruction. Which led us to thinking of deterrence.

Has the invention of the atomic bomb perhaps prevented more conflicts, therefore saving more lives than it has taken?

Deterrence theory suggests that when two countries obtain the nuclear bomb, the consequential risks of using them become so high, that the likelihood of usage decreases. Meaning the monumental destruction that would result from using an atomic bomb on another country also equipped with the bomb who would retaliate and cause similar monumental destruction outweigh interests to ever use the bomb. Another way to put it is that if two countries have the bomb, they are less likely to use it because Mutual Destruction would take place.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is a military strategy related to deterrence that suggests states equipped with enough nuclear armaments to annihilate one another become less likely to use nuclear bombs because it would ultimately destroy ones own state. Thus, proponents of deterrence assert a nuclear capacity actually decreases the likelihood of conflict.

It can sound dicey and common criticisms of the idea question what happens if a government is headed by a fanatical, or irrational leader with no rational regard for consequences or fear of mutually assured destruction. Another criticism relates to the arms race that ensues when two countries spend billions of dollars amassing arms, increasing deficits and applying resources away from the daily needs of citizens over long periods of time.

But deterrence was effective for decades during the Cold War. The United States and former U.S.S.R., engaged in a massive arms race equipping themselves with enough nuclear power to completely destroy one another and proxy wars were fought, but direct combat and nuclear war were avoided.

South Asia might be another example. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since Partition in 1947, and despite perpetually volatile (mostly hostile) relations, war has been avoided since both countries tested their nuclear bombs (Kargil being a conflict, not a full scale war).

So can deterrence work today in the case of Iran? There’s an article in the Economist this week underscoring the first task which is ascertaining the motive for Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Are they after a bomb, or nuclear technology for civilian purposes? Either way, President Obama keeps “all options” on the table for future dealings. That’s diplomatic speak for, “the United States will use force if necessary”. And that itself could be why Iran is seeking the bomb.

Would a bomb bring decreased chance of conflict because states would think twice before using “all options”? Might it coerce Iran and other states to work things out diplomatically given escalated risks involved in conflict with a nuclear power?

I don’t know whether deterrence would apply in the case of Iran and am vehemently opposed to nuclear proliferation. Plus, considering the changing face of warfare given an age of terrorism, non-proliferation should be a primary, international aim. But the deterrent angle is rarely considered in discourse on Iran and I think scholars and policymakers should delve into why or why not the theory would apply to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.



  1. when one follows their politics and the general rhetoric from their leaders & clergy, irans “peaceful” nuclear ambitions seem to take on a nihilistic slant. thats an upsetting thought pertaining to a region steeped in geopolitical troubles over centuries. therefore, any experimentation with the deterrence theory in this context may come with a massive opportunity cost attached to it 🙂


  2. wow. that’s a great insight on how deterrence might apply to Iran. Thanks for sharing Ali 🙂


  3. I whoileheartedly agree with these views which are accurate and commendable.

    Pakistan has been harassed and persecuted for indigenously developing Nuclear knowhow without reinventing the wheel. Its Nuclear knowhow is for Defensive purposes only.
    There are several other countries that developed Nuclear technology (you cannot just outrightly quasntum-jump it, that happen to be how the cookie crumnbles).

    Hue and cry about and against Nuclear Technology stems from US: Military Industrial Complex to promote more sales and less unemployment while The Third World must sit back and enjoy it (brings Confucius to mind). They bwont and now they cant.
    We are upto our necks with sanctimonious Double Standards and getting fedup.

    More dangerous than Nuclear Technology are corrupt politicians and bureaucRATS on-the-take in the South, actually all over the South. Their demented ‘moralities’ are the prime concern and ought to be tackled on a priority basis, but in stead US:MIC promotes and encourages these to supplement its economic grip for more Exploitation of the down-trodden unweillinbg to voluntarily become somnamubulant and apathetic.

    InDifference ought to be Out.

    Pakistan Inst of Human Rights NPO/NGO


  4. Honourable Barrister Jafree, you make a very fine point.

    if I may, what practicable solutions, in your opinion, should be applied to curtail corruption?

    at the grass roots level, how does one explain to a clerk with a family to feed that his actions are in fact “immoral”; while he is exposed to wild affluence via several media and spends his life filled with a yearning to experience an iota from his meagre take.
    And at a higher level, what event would make these politicians behave differently?

    thank you, ali


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