Reading Jim Scanlan in Tehran

From time to time, I have directed the attention of Power Line readers to the work of James P. Scanlan. Specifically, I have linked to and discussed his analyses of disparate impact theory in various contexts involving allegations of discrimination.

Years ago, Jim wrote a piece for the Midwest Quarterly on a very different subject — nuclear deterrence. It was called “Facing the Paradox of Deterrence.”

The paradox Jim posited was this: In order to deter the Soviet union from attacking us with nuclear weapons, we must intend to retaliate if they do; but after the Soviet Union has unleashed a massive nuclear attack there will no longer be any purpose to retaliating, at least no purpose sufficient to justify the level of retaliation we must threaten in order to deter.

Jim worried that the Soviet Union would eventually figure this out, and that when they did, we no longer would be able to rely on deterrence. He also suggested that we might escape the paradox through a system of automatic retaliation that would deny us the option of declining to retaliate.

Fortunately, the Soviet Union was on its way out when Jim published his article. Why, then, do I bring it up now?

Because the world, in all likelihood, will soon be dealing with a new and extremely hostile nuclear power, namely Iran. And because, according to Jim’s web page tracking, someone at the Cyberspace Research Institute in Tehran has read Jim’s article.

One hears two theories about Iran as a nuclear power. The first is that Iran, like other hostile nuclear powers, will be deterred from using nukes (at least against us) due to our overwhelming ability to retaliate. The second is that Iran is run by fanatics with an apocalyptic vision in whose thinking deterrence will play no part.

The fact that someone at a think tank in Tehran has read Jim’s article suggests a third possibility. Maybe deterrence does play a role in Iran’s analysis but the regime, if it develops a sufficient first strike capability, may not be deterred because of a perceived hole in the concept.

The fact that someone at a think tank in Tehran has read Jim’s article also suggests that Iran expects to have a nuclear strike capability in the not too distant future. But I think we already knew that.