Iran, Nuclear Deterrence, and Senator Clinton

April 24, 2008

Senator Hillary Clinton made news during a recent TV interview when she was asked what her reaction would be if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons. She left little ambiguity:

I want the Iranians to know that if Im the president we will attack Iran, Clinton said. In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.

As a friend of Israel, I am glad to see strong support expressed for that nation. Hopefully, this will clarify the thinking of the radical clerics who control Iran. That being said, Senator Clintons remarks address only part of the problem.

It is true that Iran might someday lob several of its new missiles at Israels cities after they have been armed with nuclear warheads. That would devastate Israel and might kill tens or hundreds of thousands depending on the size of the devices exploded. But missiles can be traced back to their launch points within seconds, and devastating Israeli not American retaliatory attacks would be launched against Iran within hours. Thus, Iran might effectively destroy Israel, but Persian civilization would almost certainly come to an end that day.

Given the assured devastation that would follow is it likely that Iran would go down that path? The real problem lies in the possibility that the Iranians or North Koreans or Pakistanis might allow a non-state terrorist organization to have a nuclear device that would be smuggled into Israel or downtown Manhattan with no trace-back being possible.

When a smuggled bomb goes off against whom do you retaliate? Should there be an announced policy of deterrence simultaneously directed at all rogue regimes? Something like: Alright, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan if an American city is attacked with nuclear weapons, there will be swift retaliation against all of you.

It was in light of this problem that the eradication of Saddams Iraq regime was so important, for the United States eliminated one of the more significant states that had a long track record of working with and harboring international terrorist organizations. Things have been difficult in Iraq since 2003, but we clearly have one fewer terror accomplice state to worry about now.

Mrs. Clinton has started an important public discussion, but it is astounding that in the six years since 9/11 very little has been done by the United States government to advance our thinking about multi-level deterrence in an age of jihadist and state-sponsored terror. This is especially surprising if one can remember the prodigious body of work that grew out of the Cold War addressing the problem of deterring nuclear war. Entire institutions like the Rand Corporation were created to examine those dire threats. Deterring Soviet nuclear attack was taken seriously.

Unless I have missed something, there has been no similar effort since 9/11. Perhaps, the three presidential candidates can follow-up on Senator Clintons remark by telling us how they plan to deter the use of nuclear weapons against Israel, Europe, or the United States by an alliance, coalition, or temporary partnership of jihadists and nuclear capable states.