False alarms on Iranian ICBMs

The Pentagon’s announcement last month of the proposed expansion of its missile defense shield is evidence that the hype over the Iranian threat continues to spread unabated.

According to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, the impetus for the five-year project is Iran’s development of intercontinental missiles, which may reach operational capability as early as next year. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank known for its staid analysis of military developments around the world, disagrees. Decrying alarmism over the alleged Iranian threat, IISS argues that such capability will not exist for some time, if ever. The argument over when and if Iran can hold American cities at risk misses the point. Even if Tehran acquired nuclear weapons, the United States already has the posture and capabilities sufficient to safeguard its territory.

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Since the Soviet Union achieved ICBM capability in the mid-1950s, the United States has proven remarkably capable of deterring nuclear attacks on its territory and possessions. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the Soviet nuclear arsenal numbered somewhere around 40,000 warheads. Addressing Western diplomats, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev famously declared: “We will bury you!” With so much destructive power aimed at New York and Chicago as well as Omaha, Colorado Springs, and elsewhere, Americans were right to be nervous about their future. Despite this anxiety, the concept of deterrence held against an arguably more capable and advanced adversary. After decades of mutually assured destruction, what have we to fear from a country that may, at some point in the distant future, have a questionable capability to attack some place in the United States?

It is true that Iran is developing ballistic missiles with a range of up to 6,000 kilometers, capable of holding parts of the American homeland at risk. However, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, such capability is still only theoretical because as scientist David Wright points out, building ICBMs is tricky. In fact, it is unlikely that Iran would be capable of fielding an ICBM until 2020 at the earliest and even then its missiles would be “too large and cumbersome to be placed on a mobile platform.”

That immobility is a problem. Without the ability to shift or conceal nuclear assets in a crisis, Iran’s arsenal would be sitting ducks for a conventional or nuclear attack and thus more prone to protect their weapons with a first strike. The principle of second strike survivability is an article of faith in deterrence circles and without it a country’s nuclear stockpiles provide tempting targets. This fact brings to light what the debate over Iran’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile program has missed: so what? Even if Iran were to acquire nuclear warheads and the means of delivering them – an assumption that overlooks the challenge of balancing missile throw weight, achieving miniaturization, and incorporating systems for a reasonable error probability – the United States possesses a range of nuclear options sufficient to deter a strike on the homeland.

When it comes to deterring small arsenals from regional adversaries, the old admonition against re-inventing the wheel still applies: deterrence works. The American nuclear arsenal can hold the Iranian regime at risk and thus, deter attacks on the continental United States and Middle Eastern allies. The same holds true for North Korea and American allies in the Pacific. Missile defense, which is an attempt to nullify an adversary’s capability to hold American targets hostage, weakens deterrence by opening windows of opportunity – or at least the perception of such – for a disarming first strike. To restore strategic stability, Iran would intensify warhead and missile production in hopes of overwhelming interceptors. In its terrifying logic, mutual vulnerability maximizes safety.

The real fear of a nuclear-armed Iran is not a bolt-from-the-blue attack on the East Coast but rather the immunity such weapons impart against American coercion. Iran is indeed dangerous and its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology is troubling, but such circumstances do not pose an impossible problem. In fact, American policymakers have been here before and would do well to take their cue from Khrushchev: “Tehran, attack us or our allies and we will bury you.”

Stalcup is a Center for Strategic and International Studies Nuclear Scholars Initiative fellow and a defense policy analyst in Arlington, VA. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the Dallas Morning News, and The Diplomat current affairs web magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @TravisStalcup.

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