The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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With Nothing to Lose: The Limits of a Rational Iran

What Saddam Hussein and Richard Nixon tell us about nuclear weapons and the “rational actors” in Tehran.

Published on April 9, 2013

One of the most important foreign policy debates in the United States today is whether it is acceptable to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. On one side of this debate stand realists of different types, including former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and political scientist Kenneth Waltz. This side argues that Iranian nuclear weapons can be deterred because Iranian rulers, while hardly appealing or praiseworthy, are nonetheless rational, cost-calculating actors who know suicidal behavior when they see or contemplate it. In their view, efforts to halt Iranian nuclear development should be modest and should certainly abjure the use of military force, because it would pose a relatively modest threat that can be managed through the time-tested posture of deterrence.

Others disagree. They assert that Iranian leaders could well be religious fanatics who embrace death in the service of their faith and thus cannot be deterred as were the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Many skeptics of Iran’s deterrability also cite the fact that several Cold War conditions that conduced to superpower deterrence are not present in the contemporary Middle East. There are potentially many actors rather than just two; there are small numbers of vulnerable nuclear forces likely to be on hair-trigger alert rather than plentiful and secure second-strike forces; communication between leaderships is spotty, with “red phones” few and far between; and a good deal more besides. Nuclear weapons in the hands of irrational Iranian leaders, operating in circumstances far more complex than those prevailing during the Cold War, would thus pose a major threat to Israel, the United States and world stability—the latter not least because of the likely impact on global energy markets.1 Thus, they say, Iran must be stopped from developing nuclear weapons—even if it takes military force to do so.

Exactly where President Obama stands in this debate is something of a mystery. The President’s words have strongly mirrored the logic of the second approach, but his and his Administration’s body language better resemble that of the first. Choosing Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, who is on record as being squarely in the former camp, has done nothing to bring this blurry image into sharper focus.

For the most part, these arguments, especially when reduced to their simplest forms, are mutually exclusive. Either Iranian leaders are crazy, in which case they cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons, or they are not, making a nuclear-armed Iran tolerable. But what if Iranian leaders are rational yet would contemplate a nuclear strike against Israel or the United States anyway? This is precisely the situation we might expect if the Iranian leadership finds itself on the brink of being toppled from within. Facing the end of their rule, and possibly their lives, Iranian leaders quite possibly could choose to lash out against the United States or Israel in a parting shot for posterity.

To see how a nuclear-armed Iranian regime might behave under duress, we should consider how other leaders, especially those with access to weapons of mass destruction, have acted in the face of threats to their rule. Studying Fidel Castro during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War, and Bashar al-Assad’s current last stand in Syria can open our eyes to the seemingly irrational behavior that can manifest when powerful people who are used to having their way begin to believe their days are numbered. Even Richard Nixon’s last days in office highlight how erratic behavior goes hand in hand with the prospect of a final exit. Clearly, none of this is good news for Iran’s neighbors or for the United States, all of which must contemplate the possibility of nuclear weapons in a country that is far from immune from the waves of protest that have already toppled several regimes in the region. It could well be that Iran’s aborted “green revolution” from 2009–10 will find a second and more powerful wind.


enneth Waltz’s long-held view—that most any leader would refrain from the use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed state because it would be suicidal—is called directly into question by Fidel Castro’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is little apart from that crisis itself in Castro’s personal history to suggest that he was irrational or even especially extreme in his behavior. He led a disciplined guerrilla army for years, succeeded in overthrowing Cuba’s dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959, successfully defied the United States, and went on to become one of the longest-serving leaders of modern times. As Waltz himself has observed, you cannot be totally crazy if you have the wherewithal to seize power and hold onto it in an often hostile environment.

Yet Castro’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis illustrate how even shrewd leaders can behave recklessly when faced with the prospect of losing power. As is well known, the United States discovered in October 1962 that the Soviets had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba capable of reaching much of the continental United States. The crisis ended when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, following an American naval blockade of Cuba, agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba and a secret agreement to remove American Jupiter missiles from Turkey. What is less well known is that Castro, during those remarkable 13 days, argued for a nuclear strike against the United States—an action that could easily have provoked a global nuclear war and the complete destruction of Cuba.

As the crisis peaked on October 26, with Soviet ships bearing down on the American blockade, Castro sent a letter to Khrushchev imploring him to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. The letter, which has since been published, argued that an American attack against Cuba was imminent “within the next 24 or 72 hours”, making it imperative that the Soviet Union attack the United States first. A horrified Khrushchev responded by urging patience and by reminding Castro that a nuclear exchange would not only set back the course of socialism but also devastate Cuba. After the crisis, Castro argued that Khrushchev had misunderstood his letter, that he was not asking the Soviet Union to immediately attack the United States with nuclear weapons, but to do so only in the event of an American invasion. For Khrushchev, however, this was a distinction with very little difference. 

For Castro, the survival of his regime was more important than the survival of millions of his people, to say nothing of the populations of the Soviet Union and the United States. Even more alarming, Castro sought a nuclear holocaust even in the event that it could not have saved his regime. Nuclear war would have gained him nothing except the devastation of the United States (and the Soviet Union) for the temerity of bringing him down. What saved the world was not the restraint or rationality of Fidel Castro but the fact that he lacked the ability to start a nuclear war.


n August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and then incorporated the Gulf sheikdom into Iraq as its putative 19th province. Facing economic problems at home, enticed by Kuwaiti oil riches, and reassured by a weak and ambiguous American posture (falsely, as it turned out), Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sought a quick fait accompli that the world would eventually come to accept. In this, as in so many things, he erred grievously.

Saddam underestimated the reaction in the United States and the international community to the specter of a country being erased from world maps by military conquest, a very rare occurrence since the end of World War II. Galvanized by Saddam’s blatant aggression, the United States and its supporting coalition launched air attacks against Iraq in January 1991 and a ground assault in March. As coalition troops poured into Kuwait, routing Iraqi forces, it quickly became clear to Saddam that not only would his conquest of Kuwait not stand; he might be overthrown should coalition troops continue on to Baghdad.

In this precarious situation, Saddam lashed out in an act of environmental vandalism that served no purpose other than to inflict as much harm on as many people as he could possibly achieve with the weapons at hand. Saddam ordered his troops to set Kuwait’s oil wells ablaze. Iraqi forces dutifully set fire to more than 700 wells as they evacuated the country. The fires raged for eight months, creating a cloud of smoke and soot over several million square miles of the Persian Gulf, including Iraq itself. For good measure, Saddam poured 11 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, soiling more than 800 miles of Saudi, Kuwaiti and Iraqi coastline. 

Saddam’s torching of the oil fields matters for several reasons. First, it made no sense. It did not enhance Iraq’s security or economic well-being. It was destruction for destruction’s sake, an act of pure, unalloyed spite.

Second, while American statements before the war could have reasonably been interpreted as a sign that the United States didn’t want to get involved in the defense of Kuwait, there was no ambiguity about what the United States thought about the destruction of the oil fields. In a letter from President George H.W. Bush to Saddam, delivered to the Iraqi government in January 1991, the President made it crystal clear that if Saddam used chemical or biological weapons, or if he destroyed the Kuwaiti oil fields, his regime would suffer dire consequences. This may have deterred Saddam from using chemical or biological weapons (though it is still not clear whether the Iraqi military was capable of launching them under the pressure of combat), but it clearly failed to deter him from setting Kuwaiti oil fields ablaze.

Third, although the environmental effects of the oil destruction proved less cataclysmic than some feared at the time, Saddam did not know this when he gave the order. Some scientists predicted that the torching of the Kuwaiti fields would produce a “nuclear winter” spreading environmental havoc throughout the planet. The possibility of creating such a catastrophe did not give Saddam pause; indeed, malignant narcissist that he was, it may even have encouraged him.

Finally, Saddam’s recklessness during the first Gulf War made American policymakers and military commanders virtually certain that if Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, he would feel no compunctions about using them in the face of deterrent threats. That is one reason the George W. Bush Administration went to war: to prevent Iraq from acquiring such weapons. As it turned out, Saddam’s progress toward acquiring such weapons was much less than had been thought. But the near certainty that Saddam would use whatever weapons he had, regardless of American threats, reflected an accurate recognition that dictators, even with weapons of mass destruction, are virtually undeterrable when they believe their regime is about to be toppled. 

Syria vividly demonstrates the dangers of what can happen when a regime with weapons of mass destruction is threatened. Beginning with peaceful mass protests in March 2011, disturbances in Syria escalated within a year to a full-scale civil war that has already killed more than 70,000 people, according to UN estimates. Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, has been steadily losing control over his country to a range of rebel groups. While the loyalty of his Alawi community (roughly 12 percent of the population) has kept Assad in power so far, we know from credible Russian interlocutors and other sources that he recognizes that the end could come at any time. He has told several associates that, like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, he expects to be killed along with his family if his regime falls. In this desperate situation, there is growing concern in the United States, Israel and the international community that Syria might use its huge stockpile of chemical weapons in a last-ditch effort to fend off defeat, or even, in the throes of defeat, to spite its enemies by killing as many regime opponents as possible.

Assad’s behavior has reinforced these fears. In November 2012, Israel notified the United States that the Syrians were mixing sarin gas at two sites, filling dozens of bombs suitable for aircraft to carry the deadly substance to its targets. The bombs were then transported to airfields where they could be deployed in less than two hours. The mixing of the materials stopped after President Obama issued public and private warnings to Assad and his military commanders. Nevertheless, the bombs remain at the airfields, ready for use. The Syrian army has large stockpiles of chemical weapons and can resume readying them for deployment and for transfer to organizations like Hizballah or to Alawi redoubts in Latakia province. These weapons could thus be used against Syrian insurgents now or later, or, in Hizballah’s hands, against Israel’s civilian population. 

The U.S. government has attempted to deter Assad, letting him know that his army’s use of chemical weapons would precipitate an American military intervention that would personally target him and his commanders. It is difficult to know, however, if these threats will work, especially at that disorienting moment when Assad believes he is about to die. He has already declared that he will not leave Syria, preferring to fall in his own palace. Many of his Alawi commanders may also conclude that the end of the regime will mean their demise as well. Even if the Syrian leadership does not decide on its own to use these weapons, they could fall into the hands of Islamist insurgents or renegade commanders who would have few compunctions about using them against hated enemies, either within Syria or beyond. Deterrence is a very slender reed against these kinds of passions in exceedingly desperate circumstances. If there is a silver lining to any of this, it is that Syria does not have nuclear or (probably, operational) biological weapons, limiting the level of havoc its leadership or its enemies can inflict.

Lest we suppose that the downfall of dictators is all we have to concern ourselves with, it is worth reviewing the curious case of then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger during the last days of the Nixon Administration. In the summer of 1974, it became apparent that Richard Nixon would be forced to resign the presidency as a result of the Watergate scandal. In the days before his resignation, senior Administration officials were reportedly alarmed by Nixon’s increasingly erratic behavior. Discreet inquiries by senior Senators of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees revealed that the President had the authority, on his own, to “turn the key in his black box” to launch a nuclear attack. The only way to stop an attack originating in such a manner would be for someone in the chain of command to disobey the President’s order.

With this unsettling thought in mind, Secretary of Defense Schlesinger reportedly reminded the Joint Chiefs of Staff that, per the National Security Act of 1958, any order affecting nuclear weapons must first pass through him before moving down the military chain of command. Schlesinger was saying to the Joint Chiefs, in no uncertain terms, that they had to check with him before carrying out any orders from the President regarding nuclear weapons, especially any orders initiating an attack.

Although the Department of Defense denied these reports, several credible sources have since confirmed them. If true, this episode reveals that even in a stable democracy, the pressures brought to bear on a crippled and fearful leader are enough to cause concerns regarding that leader’s rationality. As it turns out, Nixon retained his senses, at least sufficiently so not to order a nuclear strike. Nevertheless, that those around him feared he might initiate a nuclear war reveals the recognition that desperate leaders who believe they have little to lose need to be watched very closely.


hat do these examples say about Iran? In one sense, they carry a reassuring message. In none of the cases we have sketched were weapons of mass destruction actually used, despite the threat of imminent loss of power to the besieged leaders. (Syria is obviously a drama not yet concluded.) Moreover, the toppling of rulers in the so-called Arab Spring has not resulted, so far, in any cross-border warfare, let alone any use of biological or chemical arms. Does that mean that concerns about a teetering Iranian regime precipitating a regional or global Armageddon are overwrought?

Not necessarily. The Middle East, and indeed the world, escaped cataclysm in the cases examined not because besieged leaders behaved rationally or because deterrence worked. Rather, in each of the cases it was the absence of key ingredients that averted catastrophe.

The components of catastrophe are clear: a leadership that believes it has nothing to lose; a leadership that harbors an extreme hatred against some country or group; and, above all, a leadership with the capability to let loose the harm it seeks. For Castro, Saddam and Assad, the key missing component was the capability to inflict horrendous harm. Castro hated the United States and would certainly have launched nuclear weapons if America sought to remove him, but he lacked control over the nuclear weapons in Cuba. Saddam Hussein, who despised his regional foes, as well as America and Israel, wreaked as much damage as he could by torching Kuwaiti oil fields in the first Gulf War and almost certainly would have unleashed weapons of mass destruction in the second Gulf War had he been able to do so. Bashar al-Assad’s fear of the Sunni insurgents and hatred of Israel give him ready targets for his country’s chemical arsenal. His mixing and transport of chemical weapons suggest that he will use them if he is able. We shall see. As for the other deposed leaders of the Arab Spring, they fortunately had no weapons of mass destruction to employ.

The Iranian leadership, on the other hand, is close to meeting all the requirements for unleashing disaster: waning power, manifest hatred, and capability.

The regime’s hold on power is increasingly precarious, so much so that some analysts believe that, rather than wait for an American or Israeli attack on their nuclear facilities, Iran may lash out first. The major demonstrations of the summer of 2009 and beyond confirm that large numbers of Iranians detest the mullahs’ theocratic rule. The not-so-gentle winds of the Arab Spring are blowing across Iran, and its leaders must recognize that the popular demonstrations that have swept through the Middle East may soon return to Tehran as the economy continues to sink.

Clearly, the mullahs have made no secret of their extreme hatred of the United States and especially of Israel. America is routinely denounced as the “Great Satan”, and pro-regime demonstrators routinely call for “death to America.” Their hatred for Israel is even more intense. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust, famously called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, while the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei referred to Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that needs be destroyed. Any non-casual examination of the mullahs’ writings and sermonizing about Israel and Jews reveals unalloyed anti-Semitism of a very familiar, proto-genocidal type.

Should the Iranian regime teeter on the brink of oblivion, all that would stop it from carrying out its murderous threats against Israel and perhaps the United States is a lack of capability. With thousands of centrifuges spinning each day, however, Iran is well on its way to developing nuclear weapons, giving it the ability to do precisely what it has threatened. Assurances that we have little to worry about because Iran’s rational, cost-calculating mullahs will not commit suicide are not persuasive. If the prospect of horrendous retaliation was not enough to deter Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein, and would likely not work against Bashar al-Assad, why would we expect the hate-filled mullahs of Iran to be any different?

As Iran’s leaders pursue their nuclear quest, therefore, we should indeed be very afraid. We have to hope that the President’s words, not his body language, prevail if peaceful diplomatic means to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout do not succeed. Even with all its horrendous implications, a military solution is preferable to a nuclear-armed Iran whose leaders are likely one day to find themselves with nothing to lose, and everything to destroy. 

1See Matthew Kroenig and Robert McNally, “Iranian Nukes and Global Oil”, The American Interest (March/April 2013).

Steven David is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.