When Iran Goes Nuclear

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting in Tehran on October 25, 2023. (Photo by Iranian Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu/Getty Images)

Since the October 7 Hamas assault on Israel, Iran’s allied militias and proxies have launched missiles and drones at international shipping and U.S. troops. Hezbollah, the crown jewel in the Islamic Republic’s “ring of fire” around the Jewish state, has dueled with the Israeli Defense Forces, driving nearly 100,000 Israelis from their homes. The Biden administration has responded with two aircraft-carrier groups on patrol (one has now departed), missile barrages and bombing runs against Iranian proxies, and a lot of peripatetic diplomacy, including multiple trips by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and envoys Amos Hochstein, Brett McGurk, and CIA Director William Burns.* All this activity has obscured the fact that Tehran is moving deliberately toward nuclear breakout. Based on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) documents, Reuters reported late last year that “Iran has enough uranium enriched to up to 60% purity, close to weapons-grade, for three atom bombs … and is still stonewalling the agency on key issues.” The clerical regime’s large stockpile of 20 percent uranium, which can quickly be spun up by advanced centrifuges, keeps increasing. 

The Islamic Republic’s unconstrained progress toward nuclear-weapons capability and its continuing stonewalling of the IAEA raises the question of whether a nuclear-armed Iran would be more aggressive and prone to take risks that might ignite an escalatory spiral engulfing much of the Middle East. There is a theory that proliferation can ultimately lead to a relatively benign state of deterrence through fear of “mutual assured destruction.” The late Robert Jervis argued in his enormously influential book, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution, that “crises will be rare, neither side will be eager to press bargaining advantages to the limit, the status quo will be relatively easy to maintain, and political outcomes will not be closely related to either the nuclear or conventional balance” once states have accepted the notion of mutual vulnerability.

This happy ending to nuclear proliferation rests on the idea, first articulated during the Cold War by political scientist Joseph Nye, that “nuclear learning” goes on among policymakers. Nye argued in his seminal 1987 article “Nuclear learning and U.S.-Soviet security regimes” that the “initial beliefs and definitions of interest” of both U.S. and Soviet leaders were “altered as a result of new information and experience.” This process of learning contributed to “crisis stability” even if the impact on “arms race stability” was less easy to discern. 

Scholars of nuclear proliferation have adopted and refined this idea to deal with emergent atomic powers suggesting that there is a good news-bad news story here. The good news: The Cold War suggests that nuclear learning happens. The bad news: Nuclear learning needs to take hold fast enough to foreclose the possibility of catastrophic escalation. 

There are several reasons to wonder whether this self-soothing narrative will apply to the Islamic Republic. At the core, Western politicians and analysts have failed to appreciate the importance of ideology to successive generations of clerical leaders. The Islamists in charge do not wish to move on or abandon their patrimony for the sake of commerce. The clerical regime has seen its legitimacy collapse at home; it explicitly seeks it abroad by creating and supporting radical Islamic groups. 

The saying goes that every revolution contains the seeds of its own destruction. After a spasm of overreach, the revolutionaries yield to the temptations of pragmatism. Like the French Revolution, all subsequent regimes have their Thermidorian Reaction. No nation can live on ideology alone, and the imperative of governance compels militants to soften their edges. 

The Islamic Republic has, so far, defied this pattern. Internally, it is more oppressive today than in the 1990s, when so many thought Thermidor was underway. In its willingness to torture and kill young women, the clerical regime may be more wicked than it was in the 1980s when revolutionary zealotry and conspiracies radiating from the Iran-Iraq war were white hot. 

Despite unending adversity (or perhaps because of it), the ruling clergy has remained loyal to the ideology of the founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who foresaw and ardently tried to abet the expansion of Islamic militancy beyond Iran’s borders. Both traditional and radical Islamic political thought recognizes no perimeter restricting God’s writ. Khomeini’s disciples, particularly his successor, Ali Khamenei, divide the globe into two competing entities: states whose priorities are defined by Western conventions and Iran, whose purpose is to serve as an Islamic lodestar and paladin. 

Iran’s Islamist internationalism mandates a Western antagonist, a foil against which the Islamic Republic can define itself. Iran’s theocratic elite sees Western powers—especially the United States—as rapacious imperialists determined to exploit the Muslim world’s wealth for their own aggrandizement. But Iranian Islamism sees a Christian-turned-secular West as seeking to subjugate believers by imposing its culture in the name of modernity and “universal” values. Most offensively, the Jewish state has displaced Muslims from their land, and its extinction is a religious obligation. In this worldview, Arab monarchies and military-led republics are usually treasonous accomplices. Iranian Islamists want to emancipate the Middle East from all this Westernizing wickedness. 

To do so, the Islamic Republic has constructed a multinational auxiliary force that it dubs the “Axis of Resistance.” This amalgam of militias has been remarkably successful, from helping to evict America from Iraq to sustaining the Assad regime in Syria, to Hamas’ daring attack on israel on October 7. If Hamas, a Sunni organization that blends militant Islamism and Palestinian nationalism, rises from the rubble, tying down a significant number of Israeli soldiers in Gaza for an indefinite period, Iran will reap benefits from its ally surviving. 

Which brings up the question of what added advantage Iran might glean from a nuclear weapon. Best guess: The bomb would likely make the Islamic Republic even more aggressive toward Israel and improve the regime’s standing with Russia and China, granting Tehran perhaps more freedom of action in the Persian Gulf, especially against Saudi Arabia. For example, the Houthis in Yemen haven’t fired a missile at their northern neighbor since China brokered a deal restoring relations between Iran and the Saudis. An Iranian nuke would no doubt give Tehran more clout with its great-power patrons. 

It’s hard to imagine a scenario, however, where Tehran would desire a nuclear exchange with Jerusalem. Israel has too many nuclear weapons (arms-control advocates often put it at 100, with at least another hundred possible) long-range missiles, and fighter-bombers that can successfully penetrate Iran’s airspace. Tehran has repeatedly avoided escalating directly against Israel even though Jerusalem has been killing, continuously, senior Revolutionary Guard commanders in Syria. 

Khamenei has stayed his hand even though Iran likely has enough ballistic-missile capacity to do real damage to Tel Aviv, at least temporarily. He may fear that Israel’s conventional strength is just too punishing, especially to a nuclear program that may not yet be sufficiently protected against aerial bombardment. Plus, the supreme leader is old enough that discussions about his succession are finally getting serious. So it would be unsurprising if Khamenei would rather not test Israel now: Israel’s devastation of Gaza reinforces the perception that Jews can go biblical in their wrath. 

Whether Tehran has ever pulled its punches, either directly or through its proxies because it feared Israel’s nukes, is unclear. The bomb might well change Iranian calculations, just as, on a smaller scale, Tehran’s ever-increasing ballistic missile capacity has. Iran’s “ring of fire” strategy grew out of its impressive accomplishments in developing a wide array of ever-improving missiles and drones. While the West largely ignored or just sanctioned (Barack Obama’s nuclear deal didn’t cover ballistic missiles) those efforts, Hezbollah’s huge stockpile of Iranian-supplied missilery has certainly affected Israeli policy on how to respond to the group’s provocations.  

An Iranian nuke likely would make Tehran less fearful of Israeli escalation. The clerical regime could test the limits of what’s possible through longer-range missiles fired from Lebanon and Syria, provided Iran can get those missiles into the Levant and Washington removes its forces near the Iraqi border. Donald Trump wanted those forces removed; only disobedient, obfuscating underlings kept them in place. If Trump wins in November, the odds are good he won’t again let his subordinates deter him. 

Yet it still seems unlikely that Tehran will seek a potentially catastrophic confrontation. Iranian Islamists haven’t been nihilists since the early Iran-Iraq war, when tens of thousands of death-wish believers sought to martyr themselves upon the battlefield. That searing experience left the Islamic revolution intact, even fortified. But the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite became more cautious and surreptitious about how to defeat its enemies. 

Rather, a nuclear weapon is more likely to change Israeli and American calculations than it is to make Iran more aggressive. With an Iranian nuke aimed at Tel Aviv, Israeli leadership is bound to become more cautious. The low-intensity duel with Hezbollah, which would permanently depopulate the northern borderlands, could become acceptable since the likely alternative, a massive Israeli offensive, including ground troops penetrating deep into Lebanon, may become just too dicey given the possibility of Iranian nuclear escalation. As the former Iranian clerical major domo, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, once half-joked, just one nuclear weapon on Tel Aviv could destroy the Jewish state. Israeli volition to strike Iran directly, which certainly appears already to have been checked by Tehran’s and Hezbollah’s missile stockpiles, would evaporate. A doctrine of mutually assured destruction works to the clerical regime’s advantage: Israel bleeds and the most Jerusalem will do in response is to martyr Iran’s Arab proxies.  

Iranian nukes shouldn’t fundamentally affect American calculations given the U.S.’s overwhelming conventional and nuclear firepower. But the Iranian capacity to destroy Tel Aviv would. Under both Republicans and Democrats, Washington has for years been losing steam against the Iranian challenge. The increased use of sanctions under Trump and the assassination of Qassem Suleimani don’t really negate that trend given Trump’s constant rhetoric about “forever wars” and his unwillingness to intercede directly against Iran when it attacked shipping in the Persian Gulf and Saudi oil facilities. 

To put it simply: The Middle East matters more to the Iranian theocracy than it does to Washington’s foreign policy set and the populists and progressives who are very close to transforming the foreign priorities of both parties. The clerical regime is willing to kill and die for the cause; we seem unwilling to kill in sufficient numbers to make deterrence credible. To have clout in the Middle East now, Washington needs to duel, to escalate whenever and wherever necessary for as long as necessary until its enemies are either defeated or deterred. If Tehran adds a nuke to this equation, it’s a certainty in Washington that the voices of retrenchment and caution will gain strength. 

Non-proliferation was once a sacred, bipartisan religion in Washington. It’s crystal clear that creed no longer has much, if any, hard power behind it. However, our Middle Eastern enemies, who grew to adulthood on conspiracies revolving round American power, aren’t educationally inert. We shouldn’t be surprised when they show us what they’ve learned. 

*Correction, March 12: This article initially misspelled Antony Blinken’s first name.

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