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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go now to one of a series of reports we're bringing you all this week on Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Iran's leaders insist they do not intend to acquire nuclear weapons, and there's no evidence at the moment that they possess an atomic bomb. But if they do eventually become a nuclear weapons state, one option available to the U.S. to counter that awesome power in the hands of Iran's leaders is through an approach that worked for nearly half a century: deterrence. NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: In recent years, deterrence has not been a prominent factor in the debate over Iran's possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. The Bush administration had little interest in deterrence as a foreign policy option, focusing instead on war - preventive or preemptive war - as a tool to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. That proved a disaster in Iraq, says Joshua Pollack, an expert on nuclear weapons issues. And so with the arrival of the Obama administration, deterrence moved to the forefront.

Mr. JOSHUA POLLACK (Expert on Nuclear Weapons Issues): The alternatives to deterrence are what? After all, there's not a lot there. We tried preventative war in the case of Iraq. This turned out to have costs and difficulty that were not entertained at the outset. Most people believe that in the case of Iran, those costs and difficulties would be considerably greater.

SHUSTER: The core argument that critics of deterrence make is that Iran is undeterrable. Why? Because Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other leaders are fanatics who believe in religious apocalypse. Thomas Fingar, former deputy director of National Intelligence and now a scholar at Stanford University, disagrees.

Dr. THOMAS FINGAR (Former Deputy Director, National Intelligence): I don't think this is a suicidal regime. I don't dismiss out of hand at all the idea that they could be deterred.

SHUSTER: The picture of Iran as suicidal regime doesn't work for Muhammad Sahimi, either. Sahimi, who writes for the Web site Tehran Bureau, is a long time critic of Iran's conservative government.

Mr. MUHAMMAD SAHIMI (Writer, Tehran Bureau Website): They know that if they, for example, attack Israel, the Israelis and the United States would have the capability to completely destroy Iran and, in the process, completely destroy the regime.

SHUSTER: For advocates of deterrence, history works in their favor.

Cases in point: the Soviet Union and China. The Soviet Union got the bomb when Stalin was in power, and China when Mao was its leader, points out Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center in Washington, now a diplomat-scholar at the University of Virginia.

Mr. MICHAEL KREPON (Diplomat-Scholar, University of Virginia): Mao Tse-Tung and Josef Stalin make Ahmadinejad look like a boy scout. And I'm not belittling the worrisome nature of Ahmadinejad and the Iranian regime. But we have dealt with far, far worse.

SHUSTER: In the case of China, the U.S. government learned in the early 1960s that Beijing was pursuing a nuclear weapon and might soon test it. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson considered bombing China's nuclear sites, even considered using nuclear weapons for that purpose, says Michael Krepon, but ultimately rejected that option in favor of deterrence.

Mr. KREPON: Several successive U.S. administrations decided to play the long game, to eventually engage diplomatically, to contain, to deter, to shore up friends and allies along the periphery of these two massive states, and to bet that the character of these countries and the threats that they pose would eventually change and abate.

SHUSTER: Still, there is a problem with deterrence that nags at many analysts.

Mr. GARY MILHOLLIN (Director, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control): I think nobody knows whether deterrence would really work.

SHUSTER: Gary Milhollin is the director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, which maintains the Web site Iran Watch. Milhollin argues that even if the American and Israeli nuclear arsenals deter Iran's use of a nuclear weapon, Iran might be, in any case, tempted to behave differently toward its neighbors.

Mr. MILHOLLIN: If Iran gets the bomb, we're going to have a period of experimentation in the beginning where Iran is trying to figure out how much power this new capability has conferred.

SHUSTER: Some critics of deterrence think Iran would share the bomb with others, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. But if a nuclear device ever exploded inside Israel, the Israelis would assume immediately that responsibility rested in only one place: Iran.

Gary Milhollin worries about other unpredictable scenarios, miscalculation for example, where bellicose statements from Iran and counterstatements from the U.S. and Israel might lead to a conflict that no one intended.

Mr. MILHOLLIN: I'm afraid to say that at that point, you're just - you're stepping into the unknown. And I think it would be very risky to assume that a combination of containment and deterrence would be adequate to protect us.

SHUSTER: Deterrence, though, may be already be at work in the minds of Iran's leaders. If they do decide to acquire nuclear weapons, Muhammad Sahimi believes their goal will be to deter an attack from the United States.

Mr. SAHIMI: Whatever they may build, everything that they would build would be for the survival of the regime against foreign attack.

SHUSTER: If Iran does eventually build nuclear weapons, its deterrent is unlikely to grow beyond a handful of bombs. Iran's own supply of natural uranium is believed to be quite small and dwindling already. Acquiring uranium from other nations could be difficult if Iran sought to keep it secret.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And we continue our conversation tomorrow about Iran and the bomb.

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