Thinking Through the Thinkable

Nobel Laureate Thomas C. Schelling made an appearance and shared his views on soon expected nuclear Iran yesterday on the New America Foundation. Schelling, who is a Distinguished Professor of foreign affairs, national security, nuclear strategy and arms control at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, was born in 1921. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (shared with Robert Aumann) in 2005 for “having advanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” His Nobel Prize lecture on “An astonishing sixty years: The legacy of Hiroshima” can be found here.

Schelling’s pretty much creepy anecdotes about lack of any security over American nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s and gradual and most relevant improvements were also meant to appeal to the Iranians to accept responsibilities once they have in fact developed such a weapon. He won’t have any confidence in Iranians dealing with security issues. The question of who has control, who commands, who has custody of nuclear weapons in Iran may be very difficult to answer. Are they distributed in the army, navy, and/or among the Revolutionary Guards? If Iranians are not allowed to talk in particular to western pundits about these sensitive issues they might not even think about nuclear security.

Interestingly, Schelling finds it in fact a good idea of Iran to follow the Japanese example: getting into the position of being able to produce, within a couple of months or even weeks, several bombs. So, it might still be possible to persuade them, not to take the final step. Would Iran dare to use a nuclear weapon against, say the U.S or Israel? Most probably not. Some Iranians he had talked to two years ago, when having been invited to Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, expect that they might indeed explode one to intimidate the whole Middle East. One reason for playing the role as the ‘bully of the block’ rather than attack is certainly that Iranian leaders are not these irrational Islamists, as what they are perceived most of the time in the west,  but rather Persians, fully aware of their history and cultural achievements. It is highly unlikely that they would consider a nuclear weapon for anything other than deterrence against nuclear attack. It is amazing that Schelling seems to consider here that Iran could get a sense of security if it could secretly put or smuggle a few nuclear weapons to the U.S. or some western European states in order to blackmail respective governments; a rather bizarre scenario of state terrorism. Schelling entertained these expectations in particular in the discussion section when having been asked why he has not mentioned Iran’s efforts for developing warheads and middle- and long-range missiles which might reach Israel and even the U.S.

According to Schelling, the Iranian leaders might be well-aware that most of the world considers nuclear weapons to be not usable except in extreme threats to national existence. He concludes that he might be a little less worried about the Iranian weapon, which he thinks is in our future, than most people, partly because currently there is no progress of turning the Iranians around. In the discussion, Schelling stressed that the rulers in Iran would in fact be scared to death to use a nuclear weapon anywhere but especially on Israeli territory, then having to expect even a declaration of war out of the UN Security Council. In that regard, targeting Iran and North Korea in the recent Nuclear Posture Review by the Obama administration might have deflated the nuclear horrendous taboo at least to some extent, which has been the most important safeguard for U.S. security on any use of nuclear weapons for the past 65 years.

Last update April 18, 2010

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