Why deterrence won´t work against Iran (STONEGATE INSTITUTE) by Alan M. Dershowitz 03/20/12)
GateStone Institute Articles-Index-Top
Following President Obama´s strong renunciation of "containment" and
his expression of willingness to use military force as a last resort
to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, some on the left
continue to oppose any threat to use the military option. Leading
this approach is Fareed Zakaria, who recently on his CNN program,
characterized the Obama policy as "a serious error," and called
instead for a "robust policy of containment and deterrence."
But the policy that Zakaria is proposing is anything but robust. To
the contrary, it is a call for inaction. It presumed that Iran will
be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, but that they will be deterred
from actually using them by the threat of nuclear retaliation.
Zakaria points to the fact that deterrence succeeded in preventing
war between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as
between India and Pakistan. He claims that each side was effectively
deterred by the threat of mutually assured destruction. He says it
will work equally well with Iran.
Let us pause for a moment to understand precisely what a policy of
deterrence entails. Any such policy is based on the promise that if
one side launches a nuclear attack, the other side will retaliate
with an equally devastating nuclear attack, thus assuring the
destruction of both societies and the deaths of millions of innocent
civilians. The first question therefore is whether the United States
would actually be willing to retaliate against a nuclear attack on
Israel by dropping nuclear bombs on Tehran, killing millions of its
civilian inhabitants. The second question is whether any civilized
country—the United States or Israel—should be willing to kill
millions of Iranian civilians because their leaders made a decision
to use nuclear weapons against Israel or the United States. The third
question—and the one never asked by advocates of deterrence—is
whether it would be legal, under the laws of war, to target millions
of civilians in a retaliatory nuclear attack.
These are the kinds of questions that Fareed Zakaria and his dovish
colleagues refuse to ask. And the reason they refuse to ask these
hard questions is precisely because we know the answers they would
give: They would be categorically opposed to any retaliatory attack
that targeted civilians in a tit-for-tat implementation of a mutually
assured destruction policy of deterrence. If you don´t believe me,
As to the legality of nuclear deterrence, the International Court of
Justice issued a decision in 1996, in a case challenging the
lawfulness of using, or threatening to use, nuclear weapons. The
majority decision declined "to pronounce…on the practice known
as ´the policy of deterrence´." It did rule unanimously, however,
that any "threat or use of nuclear weapons" must "be compatible with
the requirements of the international law applicable in armed
conflict, particularly those of the principles and rules of
international humanitarian law…" These rules, of course, generally
forbid the targeting of civilian population centers and require
proportionality even in the bombing of military targets. Since
nuclear weapons are, by their nature, virtually incapable of
destroying military targets without also inflicting countless
civilian casualties, it would seem to follow that they could not be
used except against remote military targets, such as ships and
submarines on the high seas, or armies in isolated deserts or
mountains. In a divided vote, the court ruled that:
"the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to
the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict…"
"However, in view of the current state of international law, and of
the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude
definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be
lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence in
which the very survival of a State would be at stake."
In other words, it would be unlawful for the United States to
threaten or use nuclear weapons as a deterrent, since its "very
survival" would not be at stake, but it might be lawful for Israel to
do so because it is a small state whose very survival would, in fact,
be at stake were it to be attacked by nuclear weapons.
Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister who ordered the preventive
attack on Iraq´s nuclear reactor in 1981, expressly renounced
mutually assured destruction as a policy. He said that
Israeli "morality" would never permit a retaliatory attack against an
Iraqi city: "The children of Baghdad are not our enemy."
A preventive attack, on the other hand, is always directed against a
military target. Only one person—a nuclear technician—was killed in
the attack Begin authorized.
It would appear to be ironic that Zakaria, and others who purport to
be "doves", would favor a mutually assured destruction policy that
threatens the deaths of millions, over a preventive policy that
targets military nuclear facilities. But it is not at all ironic,
since such doves would be against actually carrying out the threat
that is central to any credible policy of deterrence. For them,
deterrence is a bluff—a hollow threat and the Iranians would see
right through it.
That´s why President Obama is correct in renouncing containment and
insisting that he isn´t bluffing when he says Iran will not be
allowed to develop nuclear weapons, even if it takes a surgical
military strike to stop them.
I am not here arguing in favor of a preventive attack on Iran at this
time. I am arguing against reliance on a policy of deterrence and
containment, because I don´t believe it will work in relation to
Iran, Israel and the United States.
What if deterrence and containment didn´t work, and Iran were to fire
nuclear rockets at Israeli cities? Those who now advocate robust
deterrence—instead of surgical prevention—would simply say to the
remaining Israelis: "Woops. We were wrong. Sorry. We´ll build you a
new Holocaust Museum."
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY