Louis Rene Beres
Targeting religious sites could play a role in deterring a nuclear Iran
From the beginning of the nuclear age, deterrence has rested squarely upon assumptions of rationality. But what, exactly, is meant by "rationality," and does present-day
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For several tactical reasons, the remaining prospect of any operationally viable pre-emption options for
What does this mean? Irrationality is not the same as madness. Unlike a "crazy" or "mad" adversary, which would have no discernible order of preferences, an irrational Iranian leadership might still maintain a distinct and consistent hierarchy of what it wishes. The top of this hierarchy would be represented by certain clear and widely held religious values and sites.
Although such a leadership might not be deterred by more traditional threats of military destruction -- because a canonical Shiite eschatology could actually welcome "end times" confrontations with "unbelievers" -- it might still refrain from attacks that could elicit harms to its religious values. Obviously, Iranian concern for safeguarding the holy city of Qom should come immediately to mind.
It is also plausible that an Iranian leadership could simultaneously value certain of its core military institutions, and would also be deterred by credible threats to these institutions. A prime consideration would be the
This is because such defenses would require a near-100 percent reliability of intercept to be useful for any "soft-point" protection of cities; this extraordinary degree of reliability could never be reasonably expected. In such systems, there would always be too much "leakage."
There may have been a core element of precisely such reasoning by
But what if an Iranian adversary were presumed to be irrational in the sense of not caring most about its national survival? Here, there would be no deterrence benefit to assuming any posture of pretended irrationality. The more probable threat of a massive nuclear counterstrike by
"Do you know what it means to find yourself face to face with a madman?" inquires Luigi Pirandello's Henry IV. While this query does have residual relevance to our current security concerns with
This framework for decision would identify and correlate all available strategic options (deterrence; pre-emption; active defense; strategic targeting; and perhaps nuclear war fighting) with critical survival goals. It would also take very close account of possible interactions between these discrete strategic options. Calculating these interactions or "synergies" will present a computational task on the very highest order of intellectual difficulty.
Nuclear strategy is a "game" that sane and rational decision-makers must play, but to compete effectively, a would-be victor must always first assess (1) the expected rationality of each opponent; and (2) the probable costs and benefits of pretending irrationality oneself. These are undoubtedly complex and glaringly imprecise forms of assessment, ones that will require corollary refinements in intelligence and counterintelligence, but they are also indispensable.
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