The year of the Berlin airlift was 1948. This effort, led by the United States and the British Royal air forces was in response to the Soviet attempt to annex all of Berlin into the USSR. The airlift was successful and served as a peaceful and effective solution to the immediate Soviet threat. However, that did not have to be the outcome. At the time of the airlift, the United States had over 100 nuclear warheads and the capability to deploy every single one of them. The USSR had one warhead and no delivery mechanism. Furthermore, the USSR was economically and physically staggered while the United States was coming off the largest economic boom in its history. There are those who argued, then and now, that the United States should have used its immense tactical and economic superiority to batter the larger USSR into submission and, thus, avoid the Cold War in its entirety.
Now, 70 years later, this argument has come up again in the tensions between Israel and Iran. Israel is, for all practical purposes, a nuclear power. Not only is it highly likely that they possess at least a modest stockpile of nuclear missiles capable of striking Iran, but they are also solidly backed by the heavily armed United States. Iran is not a nuclear power. However, there is overwhelming evidence that they are pursuing a nuclear program and, in the meantime, maintain one of the most powerful and effective militaries in the region. The Israeli government strongly supports taking any measures necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Specifically, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been pushing for a red line against Iran. That is, he wants Israel and its allies, chiefly the United States, to agree on a point at which the Iranian nuclear program is developed enough to warrant destruction via military strikes. Obviously, he would strongly prefer that the line be placed at a point before the Iranians produce an operational warhead.
Much to the irritation of the Israeli government and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the United States has been largely content to strangle Iran with economic sanctions while continuing to monitor the country through satellites and reconnaissance drones. Furthermore, by refusing to meet with their prime minister and through fairly scathing speeches by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the Obama administration has been sending very clear messages of disapproval to the Israelis political tactics. There are two likely reasons for this attitude. Firstly, the American government is more than a little hesitant to take any actions that could lead to an Iraq-style war in Iran. Not only are the American people intensely war-weary but, also, such a conflict could throw considerable hurdles into the already fragile American economy. Thus, it seems to be the agenda of the American government to engage in as little direct confrontation with Iran as possible. However, this raises an important question. If the Iranians are poised to obtain a nuclear weapon, would it not be less costly for the United States to support an Israeli-backed attack now and avoid the potential costs of nuclear conflict later?
I see five possible outcomes to this situation. The first is that the Iranians do not get a nuclear warhead because the Israelis and/or Americans destroy their production facilities. However, contrary to most expectations, the Iranians do not retaliate with their conventional weapons. The only casualties would be the few hundred Iranians who work at the nuclear facilities and perhaps a few pilots. This possibility is excessively wishful thinking and I do not plan to consider it in any serious way.
The second option is the same as the first, Israeli/American airstrikes and all that, but the Iranians respond with their military. Very likely, they would send troops pouring into Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. In this scenario, Israel ends up at war with Iran and the United States is forced to recommit troops to the Middle East in order to protect the fledgling states in Afghanistan and Iraq and secure Israel from other Arab states who will have sizable populations calling for war against Israel. In addition, hot war with Iran is not likely to go over well with the Chinese and the Russians. Although events would not likely unfold into a full on third world war, thousands, if not tens of thousands of people could die and billions of dollars will burn, especially if the Iraqi and Iranian oil industries are heavily disrupted.
The third option is that Iran develops a nuclear weapon and attacks someone with it. Even the nation’s semi-allies such as Russia, China, and other Arab nations are not likely to stay all that friendly if Iran sets off a nuke. In all likelihood, most nations would condemn and embargo Iran. The reaction would be similar to the First Gulf War against Iraq but multiplied by one hundred. A coalition of NATO or UN backed militaries would bomb Iran into smithereens before sending in ground troops to dismantle the government. In this case, depending on the power and target of the nuclear weapon, thousands to millions of people could die and the nation of Iran ceases to exist.
The fourth option is where Iran develops a nuclear weapon that finds its way into the hands of a terrorist organization. Terrorist organizations are hard to pin down and even determining that the weapon was Iranian would prove to be a challenge. This is the most dangerous and uncertain possibility for the United States and the world as effective retaliation would be all but impossible. However, I should state that having a nuclear weapon and being able to use your nuclear weapon are two very different things. No terrorist organization is likely to have the expertise or resources needed to operate an ICBM launch pad or a nuclear bomber, much less without anyone else noticing. Thus, they would be forced to deliver the bomb by truck or ship into a major city or region. A decent sized fission-based nuclear weapon weighs about as much as a car and is a signal flare of radiation. Simply getting the device out of Iran, without getting spotted by a satellite or killed by a drone, would be dicey at best.
The fifth possibility is that Iran develops a nuclear weapon and then uses it as a deterrent against other nuclear powers, specifically Israel. This is the calmest and least bloody possibility. It is also one that I think the United States may find most agreeable. As much as we may despise them, nuclear weapons kept the Cold War cold. True, there were proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan that killed millions, but the cost of those conflicts pales in comparison to the potential costs, in life and resources, of a direct war between the Soviets and the Americans.
My point, at the risk of sounding like a gutless appeaser, is that the only option with a shot at avoiding death and destruction is the fifth one. Is it possible that an Iranian nuclear deterrent, rather than destabilizing the region, could stabilize it? If the Iranians hold on to their nuclear weapon, then it functions as an effective deterrent and all but rules out the possibility of war with Israel. Furthermore, simply owning the weapon would compel other nations to support a stable Iranian government in order to ensure the weapon’s security. This is by far the most peaceful outcome. However, there is always the risk that the Iranian government does not care or understand the principles of nuclear deterrence and will strike out with their weapon at the first opportunity and that will result in the most chaotic, deadly, and destructive outcome.
Personally, I do not know what should be done. The idea of a nuclear armed Iran is terrifying simply because the nation is so unpredictable. Initiating a first strike on Russia in the 1940s would have almost certainly been far worse for the world than simply wading through fifty years of cold war. However, this was only because the Russians never used their nuclear arsenal. The Russians understood the game of nuclear deterrence and the world was safer for it. This is what we must decide about Iran. If they plan on using their nuclear weapon, once they get it, then we should thoroughly support the Israelis in preemptive strikes in order to prevent them from acquiring one. But, if the Iranians are rationally building a nuclear deterrent, then we should seriously consider allowing them to do so.