Iran and the Calculus of Destruction
I know many of you are thinking that the Israelis or even the US will bomb the Iranian installations and that will be that. Sadly, it's not going to happen. Iran will develop the capability to build atomic bombs. Period.
All of us should start to think seriously about what this means. Some say that Iran can be deterred. After all, it seemed to work against the Soviets. Deterrence was based on the concept of MAD, mutual assured destruction. I do not believe this will work for several reasons.
During the Cold War it was the stated, public policy of the US to threaten the annihilation of virtually all Soviet citizens in a nuclear exchange with the USSR. We had more than enough thermo-nuclear warheads to utterly obliterate Soviet and Russian civilization. American citizens accepted this policy because we knew that our existence was at stake. Not 'our way of life' or 'our values' but our existence. Iran simply does not pose the same threat. Iran may harm the US. Iran may threaten our interests in a geopolitical sense. But Iranian atomic weapons and missiles do not seriously threaten to destroy tens of millions of Americans and blast our civilization into dust.
This alone changes the calculation. And it feeds into another change since the Cold War: we have lost the domestic Cold War deterrence mentality. As I said, Americans accepted that their government threatened to kill tens or hundreds of millions of people because Americans themselves felt threatened. Without this personal threat I doubt that Americans will accept a policy of nuclear death on a vast scale.
If the Iranians sneak an atom bomb into New York and kill tens of thousands of people, will we utterly destroy their civilization? Will we retaliate with a nuclear strike that kills 70 million people and ends thousands of years of Persian civilization? Or will we go for a 'measured' response of, say, only destroying the regime and the military?
This is not MAD because the Destruction is neither Mutual nor Assured: they cannot destroy us and we will not destroy them. It may sound morbid but it was the Destruction part of MAD that made it work. Attempts to calculate something like "I will risk losing X for the chance to achieve my objective" are undermined by MAD because X always equals everything. Not just the regime or the military but the villiages, cultural assets, even the very landscape.
This lack of the assurance of destruction puts the mullahs in an entirely different situation from the Soviets. The mullahs can make a calculation that the Soviets could not. Suddenly X equals something less than everything; it equal a real number. For example, is it worth losing even a few million Iranians if they can achieve their objective, whatever that may be? After all, Shi'a Islam and Persian culture will continue even if the regime is destroyed and millions killed. This, from their perspective, is a rational calculation, not pure madness.
The ayatollahs aren't Marxists, who for all their evil were a mutant strain of the Western philosophical tradition. The ayatollahs are theocrats of a mystical religion with a strong martyrdom complex. Who can say what their calculation will be based on? Who knows how a deterrence based on Western secular rationalism will play out with a regime run by religious scholars trained in entirely different traditions of decision-making and logic?
Bad things are ahead. Bad indeed.