Skip to main content

What is really at stake with Iran

4 min

President Macron of France must be commended for having pointed to Iran as a direct threat to European security. He did this Wednesday in his speech at the Sorbonne at Paris. Europe, he warned, is equally threatened by nuclear Russia and “near nuclear” Iran. It should, he reckons, unite to address both menaces.

Michel Gurfinkiel © Babelio

President Macron of France must be commended for having pointed to Iran as a direct threat to European security. He did this Wednesday in his speech at the Sorbonne at Paris. Europe, he warned, is equally threatened by nuclear Russia and “near nuclear” Iran. It should, he reckons, unite to address both menaces.

The French national defense community — not to be confused with Quai d’Orsay, the diplomatic establishment — has always been influenced on these matters by the pioneering work of a formidable French expert and analyst, Thérèse Delpech (1948-2012) and worked for the French Commission on Nuclear Energy and the Rand Organization. 

Delpech warned at an early date that the accession of Iran to nuclear weapons, combined with increasing ballistic capacities, would not only bring havoc to the Middle East but disrupt global nuclear security as well. A view she summed up in her last book, “Nuclear Deterrence in the 21th Century,” published posthumously in English by the Rand Corporation in 2012.

Even such a friend of Islamic regimes as President Chirac eventually accepted the force of her argument. For a while, France was the most hard-line Western nation on the Iran nuclear issue after Israel. That is to say, until the Obama administration imposed the so-called “Iran Deal” to America’s allies and partners, in July 2015.

Mr. Macron seems to have reverted to the Delpech doctrine by now. So have, albeit a bit less forcefully, the Group of Seven and the European parliament, who both condemned Iran for its April 13 missiles’ barrage against Israel, respectively on April 14 and April 25.

Naturally, there is a difference between setting out a doctrine and implementing it. Monsieur Macron, for one, called for a coalition against Hamas in the wake of October 7, only to switch to an ambivalent “humanitarian” stand in a matter of days. Still, a realistic assessment of the nuclear situation is better than no assessment at all.

Consider what is at stake. Iran, a nation for whom the possession of fully operational nuclear weapons seems to be at hand, was not deterred from launching a massive missile attack against Israel, a nation commonly described as an “undeclared nuclear power” and believed to have both 90 nuclear devices and appropriate vectors.

Welcome to a Brave New Nuclear World

Clearly, the calculation behind Iran’s move was that Israel’s nuclear arsenal could be disregarded, even under such circumstances. There was perhaps a gamble within the gamble. One may argue that the Iranian leadership took into account beforehand Israel’s top-notch anti-missile defense: the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow systems.

Or warnings that the United States and other powers, including several Arab States, would cooperate with Israel to neutralize a missile attack. Indeed, 99 percent of the 350 Iranian devices — from drones to cruise missiles to ballistic missiles — were eventually destroyed before reaching Israel or hitting any significant location in Israel, either by Israeli or allied forces. In particular, the Israeli Arrow-3 system proved highly effective against ballistic missiles. 

According to such a view, the less likely an Iranian attack was to succeed, the less likely was Israel to escalate — and thus, ironically, the more incentive Iran had to attack. 

Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Admirabdoallahan, contended on April 14 that his country had notified the neighboring countries about the missile barrage 72 hours in advance, and assured the United States that it was to be “limited and minimal.”

That’s not the kind of thing you are supposed to do if you want your attack to succeed — or if you believe that it can succeed at least in part. Whether Iran entered into such convoluted thinking or not, the fact remains that the attack took place. 

And that there was a non-negligible risk that the Hebrew State would focus on Iranian strategic intentions rather than Iranian technical failure and thus engage into escalation.

The way it retaliated on April 19 — stealth attacks on targets deep into Iran (and close to Iran’s main nuclear facilities) — seems to confirm escalation has started indeed. Essentially, Israel conveyed the message that it can attack at any moment, undetected, and preempt any future Iranian move by conventional or nuclear means.

Under the Cold War American-Soviet culture of mutual nuclear deterrence, risks had to be avoided, no matter what. Hence the hypercomplex (“gnostic”) Salt and Start regimes that provided for checks and balances at every conceivable level. Since conventional missile operations were indistinguishable from non-conventional operations, they had to be banned altogether.

The mere deployment of missile launching capacities close to the adversary’s territory was seen as a severe breach of confidence and the first rung to Armageddon, as the Cuban crisis would show in 1962, and later on the SS-20 missiles crisis in the early 1980s. 

However, Iran lives under a different nuclear culture. Its predicament is that Western countries, including Israel, can be superior in technical terms, at least temporarily, but are psychologically unable, or strategically reluctant, to “think nuclear,” to envision an actual use of nuclear weapons. The ultimate rationale for nuclear weapons, in this line of reasoning, is not deterrence but blackmail. 

One reason why the French are truly concerned by Iran’s move is that they are a middle-sized nuclear power, just like Israel. If the possession of nuclear weapons does not preclude per se a massive instant attack, either nuclear or conventional, as it was the case regarding Israel on April 13, if Israel’s deterrence is bound to be canceled by Iran’s blackmail, what about France’s own deterrence? Or about an all-European deterrence centered on the existing French and British nuclear firepower?

Twelve years ago, at the very moment the Obama administration was happily polishing its “Iran Deal,” Therese Delpech warned that “the hope to deter or contain Iran in a classical sense” discloses “a misunderstanding of the situation the world will face in case of Iran’s nuclear acquisition.”

By Michel Gurfinkiel. 

The author is a contributing editor of the New York Sun



Subscribe to our newsletter

Mena banner 4

To make this website run properly and to improve your experience, we use cookies. For more detailed information, please check our Cookie Policy.

  • Necessary cookies enable core functionality. The website cannot function properly without these cookies, and can only be disabled by changing your browser preferences.