Underlying the Obama administration’s approach to the Iranian nuclear program has been an assumption that, if worse came to worst, the world could contain and deter a nuclear Iran. After all, many officials and analysts suggest, the Iranian regime isn’t suicidal. It knows that if it used nuclear weapons against Israel or the United States, it would be annihilated. In addition, some analysts suggest, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked during the Cold War; neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was willing to push the button. So, the logic goes, even if Iran cheats on the deal for which Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing so hard and builds a nuclear weapon, the risk of a nuclear first strike on Israel is minimal.
The problem with such logic is it misunderstands Iran, ignores its ideology, and doesn’t take into account the command and control of any military nuclear program.
Simply put, the Islamic Republic isn’t stable. Over the past 15 years, it has weathered three major mass demonstrations:
- In 1999, student protests morphed into a national movement after vigilantes attacked a Tehran University student dormitory, killing a student and injuring scores;
- In 2001, protests spread across the country after Iran lost a World Cup qualifier 3-1 to Bahrain, a loss which some Iranians believed was due to the government seeking to have the team throw the game so as to prevent men and women from celebrating together; and,
- In 2009, unrest rocked the country after the regime apparently fixed the results of an election so that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could have a second term.
The point is that the Islamic Republic remains deeply unpopular with many segments of Iranian society. That does not mean that the Iranian public is revolutionary; after having one revolution which promised Islamic democracy but delivered neither the Iranian public is decidedly apathetic and cynical. However, Iran is a tinderbox and when a spark occurs, the fire can spread rapidly.
Let’s put aside the fallacy that Mutually-Assured Destruction will always be successful (the United States and the Soviet Union got damned lucky at times, for example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the aftermath of Korean Air 007’s downing). Here’s the nightmare situation: While the government has been more successful at smothering sparks than protestors have been at lighting them, in each of the above three uprisings, it was touch and go for a bit. It’s likely that in the future there will be a spark which again morphs into nationwide protests.
What happens if, in any future protests, rather than putting down the people, some of the security forces join in, much as they did in Romania in 1989? At the end, it was clear that the regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu would not last out the month, although few expected the Christmas Day firing squad in which the hated dictator and his wife met their end.
Back to Iran: If the Islamic Republic develops nuclear weapons, the command, control, and custody of that arsenal would likely be not only in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), but also in its most ideologically pure unit, handpicked for their loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei’s radical ideology. The IRGC isn’t homogeneous. But just because some members join more for privilege than belief doesn’t mean there aren’t many true believers among the guardians of the revolution. The regime may not be suicidal, but if it’s terminally ill so that those in control of an Iranian bomb know that there will be regime change in a matter of days if not hours, then why not launch to fulfill the ideological objectives of eliminating Israel?
To assume the Iranian regime isn’t suicidal is all well and good, but there is a huge difference between a desire for self-preservation and stability. To ignore the Revolutionary Guards and to gamble millions of lives on the assumption that the Islamic Republic will last forever is negligent in the extreme. Alas, it increasingly seems such a description fits Obama and Kerry’s assumptions and actions.