Every now and then, even The New York Times publishes an op-ed which suggests that war with Iran is maybe not the best option.
Yesterday at the Times, foreign policy realist and author of The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities John Mearsheimer described how the US regimes policy of applying “maximum pressure” is achieving the opposite of the US’s stated goals. by threatening the Iranian regime with obliteration, the US only increases the Iranian state’s need of nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
The basic claim of the US regime is this: if the US continues to impose ever-harsher sanctions, while threatening ever-more violence military intervention, then, the Iranian regime will, as Mearshimer puts it: “alter its foreign policy in ways that suit the interests of America and its Middle East allies.”
But Mearsheimer notes a problem:
Although there has not yet been a significant military clash, the United States has effectively declared war on Iran,” and the US drive to heightened conflict “is threatening Iran’s survival as a sovereign state.”
The natural outcome of all this is a situation in which it is only natural for Iran to strongly want nuclear weapons. Mearsheimer notes:
The Iranians had good reason to acquire nuclear weapons long before the present crisis, and there is substantial evidence they were doing just that in the early 2000s. The case for going nuclear is much more compelling today. After all, Iran now faces an existential threat from the United States, and a nuclear arsenal will go a long way toward eliminating it.
Nuclear weapons are considered the ultimate deterrent for good reason: Adversaries are unlikely to threaten the existence of a nuclear-armed state, especially one with a deterrent that can survive a first-strike attack, because that is the one circumstance in which a state is likely to use its nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine, for example, Israel or the United States attacking Iran — even with conventional weapons — if Iran had the bomb, simply because there is some chance that escalation might lead to nuclear use. Moreover, if its survival was at stake, Iran could credibly threaten to use a few nuclear weapons to completely shut down the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf.
Moreover, Iran knows that the US intervenes far less in states with nuclear capability than those without. While the US claims it opposes nuclear proliferation, it never took steps to attempt to reverse proliferation in China, India, or Pakistan. And now that North Korea appears to be nuclear capable, the US is unlikely to risk a war on the Korean peninsula in the name of anti-proliferation.
Part of the reason for this inaction on the part of the US is the fact that nuclear weapons are great for deterrence, but have proven to be ineffective in other ways.
As Zackary Keck discussed in The Diplomat in 2014, the reality of nuclear deterrence is one of the more rock-solid laws we have in international relations. And, it is even more useful than we might think since nuclear coercion — making people do things based on threats of nuclear war — fails. That is, nuclear arms are useful in frightening potential aggressors away from conflicts, but at the same time, potential aggressors fail when they try to use a threat of nuclear war to force compliance from foreign regimes.
Basically, nuclear arms are the best insurance a regime can get against constant meddling and threats of annihilation from the US regime. Meanwhile, the US has little to fear in terms of aggression from a smaller nuclear-armed state. Thus, a more stable status quo results, which is to the benefit of the smaller country, and offers no sizable threat to the larger country.1
Nationalism and Resistance to Foreign Intervention
But even if Iran is nowhere near getting the bomb, and if the state’s leaders don’t even think there are realistic odds of succeeding at doing so, the Iranian regime would still resist constant US attempts to destroy the Iranian economy and the Iranian regime.
There is no evidence that Iran is likely to capitulate to American demands. If anything, the historical record demonstrates that great powers can inflict enormous punishment on their adversaries — with blockades, sanctions, sieges and bombing campaigns — and yet the pain rarely causes target states to surrender.
American sanctions killed well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians in the 1990s, but Saddam Hussein remained defiant. Nationalism is a powerful force that invariably causes the people being pummeled to hang together, instead of rising up to demand that their leaders surrender to the enemy.
States are also reluctant to capitulate to coercive pressure because it may tempt stronger powers to escalate their demands. If “maximum pressure” works once, Mr. Trump and other American hawks might conclude it would work again. Tehran has no interest in showing that it can be browbeaten. In fact, Iran has already shown that it will not sit by while its people die and its society is wrecked.
If the US really wants to decrease the chances of a nuclear-armed Iran, it will have to adopt a less hostile policy. Mearsheimer concludes:
The one slim chance for heading off a nuclear-armed Iran is a radical reversal of American policy. Mr. Trump would have to begin by parting company with the hard-line advisers who helped lead him astray. Ultimately, he would have to return the United States to the 2015 agreement, ease sanctions and appoint an experienced and fair-minded representative to negotiate a new deal. He would also have to endure the storm of protests that would come from his own party, influential donors, and allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Regrettably, Mr. Trump is more likely to escalate the pressure on Iran to salvage a flawed policy rather than accept the political costs of a course correction — a blunder that will drive Iran to join the nuclear club.
For anti-interventionists, Mearsheimer doesn’t go far enough here. The US should do more than “ease” sanctions. It should abandon them. And while there’s no reason why the US can’t have a role in extending a peace deal with Iran, there’s no reason why the US ought to be in charge of unilaterally enforcing it. Nevertheless, the plan outlined here should be seen as a step in right direction even for those who remain agnostic on whether or not Iran is actively attempting to attain nuclear capability. There is no denying that current US policy creates an incentive to obtain nuclear arms for any country that fears US aggression. Not every regime in this position has the wealth or resources to pursue a nuclear capability at this time. But there’s no doubt US policy means many regimes wish they did. The US could act to undo this state of affairs. Thanks to interventionists in the White House, however, the US is unlikely to change course.
- 1. The power of nuclear arms as a deterrence was understood by Pres. Eisenhowever, which is why he cut back defense spending just as the Soviet Union was increasing its nuclear capability. Deterrence works even against other large states. See: https://mises.org/library/no-military-has-not-withered-away-under-obama
Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
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