Hillary Clinton recently asserted that if she were president and Iran launched a nuclear attack on Israel, the United States would retaliate with strikes that could “totally obliterate” Iran. Here in America her pledge has ignited a flurry of commentary, most of which is likely to be forgotten after the presidential campaign is over. In Iran, it ought to have a sobering, long-term impact.
Iranians appear to have been surprised, even shocked, by Clinton’s stark language. Apologists for the mullahs’ regime and anti-regime exiles alike have filled the blogosphere with offended criticism; some even went so far as to accuse Clinton of espousing “genocide.” Such reactions demonstrate a naive failure to understand the real consequences of acquiring nuclear weapons.
Clinton’s language may seem bellicose, but the substance is hardly new. For decades it has been fundamental to American strategic policy that any country that attacked an American ally with nuclear weapons would face the possibility of nuclear retaliation from us.
This is true whether the ally is Iceland, Australia, Canada, Turkey or Israel. And it is true regardless of the identity, motivation or religious conviction of the attacker. Clinton was asked about Iran, but her answer could be equally applicable to, for example, North Korea.
Iran denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons. It can only be hoped that those denials represent the truth, but if they do not, Clinton’s comments should represent a forceful reality check for Tehran: To possess such weapons is to create the possibility of massive retaliation if you use them, or preemptive strikes if you threaten to use them.
Iranians of every political persuasion need to understand that the development of nuclear weapons would ipso facto propel their country into a dangerous environment in which it would be not only possible but inevitable that their use would bring on reprisals in kind, and in which fatal mistakes could be made.
That reality of the nuclear age was baldly stated and fully understood during the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were constrained from attacking each other by the certainty of Mutual Assured Destruction. It is the reason why both sides stood down in the Cuban missile crisis.
And it is why Pakistan backed away from nuclear confrontation with India in their glacier war a decade ago. India developed its weapons in response to a threat from nuclear-armed China; when Pakistan unwisely followed India’s lead in developing nuclear weapons, it exposed itself to a risk of an Indian nuclear strike that would otherwise not have arisen.
The chilling calculus of mass death and destruction of entire civilizations is the reason no country has used nuclear weapons since 1945, when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. At that time, no other country had nuclear weapons, and thus the United States had no fear of nuclear reprisal. Once the Soviet Union and China developed nuclear capability, the strategic calculus changed.
The certainty of horrifying consequences underlies a fundamental premise of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a party — namely, that the existing nuclear powers will try to manage the world in such a way that it is not necessary or desirable for other nations to acquire nuclear weapons.
India, Pakistan and probably Israel placed themselves outside the treaty’s framework and went ahead with nuclear development. But several countries that had, or could have had, nuclear weapons accepted the treaty’s premise and refrained from acquiring or maintaining nuclear arsenals, among them Japan, South Africa, Brazil and Ukraine. Because they are not nuclear-equipped, there is — and will likely be — no talk of “obliterating” them. Iran should follow the same course.
Clinton was responding on television to a question about what she would do in the event of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. In another forum she might have declined to answer such a question as hypothetical, but in the heat of tightly-contested presidential race, she evidently felt the need to show her toughness.
The corollary of her remarks is that if an attack on an ally comes from a country that does not have nuclear weapons, as in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the United States may take action, but not on a nuclear scale. By virtue of not having nuclear weapons, the attacking country would know that the United States would not reduce it to radioactive ruins.
Iran and Americans who wish for better relations with Iran have seized upon last fall’s National Intelligence Estimate as evidence that the country has no nuclear weapons program. But many specialists argue that the report has been misinterpreted. The report says that while Iran had suspended its effort to build warheads, other aspects of nuclear development were continuing, including enrichment of uranium, and could be applied to the production of warheads with relative ease.
Hillary Clinton appears to understand that no president takes any weapons off the table when confronting an adversary. Whether or not she would really do what she said may be open to question. But what is not open to question is that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would cast a mushroom cloud of suspicion and fear over the Iranian people.
Thomas Lippman, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, is a former national security reporter for the Washington Post.