Interesting article on the Iran nuclear issue in the National Journal

Paul Starobin authored a very interesting and long article On Mullahs and MADness in the new issue of the National Journal which asks: What happens if Iran got the Bomb? Paul interviewed me and quotes me on the topic:
How Deterrence Could Work
In thinking about a new deterrence structure, some analysts advocate a global approach in which nuclear states -- including the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- would in effect cover the greater Middle East region with a protective nuclear umbrella. The proposition would be simple: If the mullahs use or even threaten to use nukes, they would face the prospect of retaliation from these powers. "I think that would make a powerful deterrent," said a leading backer of this tack, Harlan Ullman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former commander of a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Persian Gulf. Perhaps even a treaty could codify the arrangement, he added.

A Middle East deterrence umbrella, enforced by a concert of outside powers, could also be adjusted to cover any others in the Middle East who might come to possess the bomb -- Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example, which might feel compelled to head in this direction, for reasons of prestige and security, should Iran's mullahs gain a "Persian Shiite" bomb. (And maybe Turkey, too.) The perpetually volatile Middle East would thus become a multilateral security responsibility.

The main hurdle, and it is a tall one, is political will. The "Perm Five," as they're known, parted ways on the Iraq intervention and so far have not been able to agree on applying economic sanctions against Tehran for its defiance of international nuclear program inspectors. Moscow and Beijing have stakes in the Middle East that in some ways collide with Washington's perception of its interests there. Is this crowd really capable of jointly operating a deterrence mechanism? Maybe not.

A variant of the Ullman plan is to put the biggest of the big powers, America, in charge of the job. The U.S., on its own, could explicitly spell out to the mullahs the consequences of any attempt to use nuclear weapons -- or to slip a "suitcase bomb" or the like to a terrorist surrogate. Such a threat, given the enormous size of America's military arsenal, nuclear and conventional, as well as America's "eyes and ears" to detect any untoward moves by Iran, could carry a high degree of credibility. Indeed, part of what restrained the mullahs after the Khobar assault, according to a Clinton administration national security source, was that Washington made it very clear that, through its intelligence, "we knew a lot of what they were doing around the world" in terms of terrorism sponsorship.

America's Persian Gulf allies, such as Kuwait, who are not major military powers and who are themselves alarmed about the prospect of a nuclear Iran, might participate as junior partners in this kind of deterrence scheme for their own reasons. Addressing the prospect of a nuclear Iran in a recent memo [PDF] to leaders at West Point, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey counseled against pre-emptive warfare, arguing, "We can bankrupt and isolate the Iranians as we did the Soviet Union and create a stronger Gulf alliance that will effectively deter this menace to our security." McCaffrey toured Iraq and Kuwait during an April trip.

But for this to work, according to the Henry Kissinger maxim on deterrence, there would still have to be fail-safe communication links between Washington and Tehran -- at a minimum, something like the "hotline" between Washington and Moscow, which was installed in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. "The greatest danger of war," Kissinger once said, "seems to me not to be in the deliberate actions of wicked men, but in the inability of harassed men to manage events that have run away with them."

The problem, of course, is that the U.S. and Iran broke off diplomatic relations at the outbreak of the Iranian revolution. Both sides nurse grievances -- for America, the seizure of hostages at its Tehran Embassy in 1979; for Iran, America's treatment of the country as a pariah, a member of President Bush's proclaimed "axis of evil."

And yet, Iran's acquisition of a bomb would probably improve the chances of the U.S. and Iran renewing a dialogue after all these years. Because the mullahs feel so strongly that, in any fresh diplomatic start with Washington, they must be treated as "equals," Eisenstadt told me, "they see acquisition of a nuclear weapon as a precondition of having talks with the U.S." As the China example suggests, the history of nuclear deterrence is replete with these kinds of paradoxes.

Israel's Deterrence Role
The most ticklish issue in the Iran deterrence equation is the role of Israel. The Jewish state is generally averse to entrusting its security to outsiders, even a close friend like America. After all, a principle of Israel, a corollary of the "never-again" ethos, is a commitment to a robust self-defense capability. Israel's last resort, defensewise, is its unacknowledged nuclear arsenal -- the fruit of a research effort launched with the country's founding in 1948. (In 1986, an Israeli nuclear technician said that the country had more than 100 atomic warheads.)

Israel's first leader, David Ben-Gurion, was worried not so much about other Middle East states gaining nuclear weapons as about the need for tiny Israel to have a potent weapon that could effectively counter the huge armies of its hostile Arab neighbors. Once the weapon was gained, Israel, for political reasons, including quiet urging from an anxious Washington, adhered to a policy of "nuclear ambiguity" under which it would neither confirm nor deny its arsenal.

But Israel could jettison nuclear ambiguity if the mullahs get the bomb -- and thus break Israel's regional monopoly. In our talk, Shai Feldman, who wrote his dissertation, in the 1980s, on the Israeli nuclear deterrent, said, "If Iran becomes nuclear, Israel would not be able to tolerate the level of uncertainties and ambiguities and room for misperceptions that exist today." Even now, some Israeli leaders are sending loaded messages to Tehran. "They want to wipe out Israel," Vice Premier Shimon Peres said of Iran's leaders in a recent interview with Reuters. "Now, when it comes to destruction, Iran, too, can be destroyed," Peres asserted.

The most straightforward option would be for Israel officially to declare itself a nuclear power and, as the U.S. and France have done, to make public essential aspects of its nuclear-deterrence capabilities. Israel could also seek a direct dialogue with Iran, so each country's leaders could gain a clear understanding of the others' capabilities and intentions.

This would amount to a kind of regional deterrence system -- the approximate parallel would be India-Pakistan, both of which gained the bomb in 1998. Having fought three major wars before then, the first in 1947-48, those two nations have not waged a big one since, and they have regular, if sometimes heated communications. Lacking a land border, which in the India-Pakistan case has helped keep the pot simmering, Israel and Iran arguably would find it easier to maintain a cold stalemate, argues Leon Hadar, a native Israeli and a former U.N. bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post who is the author of Sandstorm, a 2005 book on the security climate in the Middle East. Hadar is currently a research fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington.

But Israeli leaders could face a request from Washington to, in effect, sit still, maintain nuclear ambiguity, and accept a U.S. pledge of protection from a nuclear Iran under a broad American deterrence umbrella. Why would Washington make such a request? The game-theory-like reasoning among strategists goes like this: If Iran goes nuclear, the chances that Arab powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia will feel bound to follow suit will be lower if Israel keeps quiet. A public Israeli nuclear declaration would be like a face slap, forcing the hand of Arab leaders who have cynically made anti-Zionism a part of their rule and would thus have to call their own bluff.

Such reasoning may lie behind President Bush's recent vow "to defend Israel" from an attack by Iran. Many have seen Bush's comment as a blunt warning to Iran's hothead president, Ahmadinejad. But his warning may also represent something more subtle -- a signal for Israel to stay its hand, to keep the Middle East from being further roiled. Whether Israel would agree to do so if Iran gains nukes is one of the great unknowns of the Iran deterrence debate. "I don't think anyone knows how that will turn out," Feldman told me. (read more)


Armchair said…
You were wise to note the subtle aspect of Bush's pledge to defend Israel from a hypothetial Iranian attack - Was that a non sequitor? Was Bush antipating Iran's possibly reply to Bush moving against Iraq? - What did Bush mean? Afterall, Israel can easily defend herself from any hypothetical Iranian attack. Right? Also - isn't Iran unlikely to attack Israel, save in response to a US or Israel (or together) move against Iran. After all, the Iranian leaders must know that any move against Israel would only lead to Iranian defeat. No doubt Bush knows this - and he also must know that Iran knows this and for that reason, if no other, Iran would not launch such an attack.
So for Bush to frame the issue around Israel seemed odd, for many reasons.

I don't know enough about this issue (or any issue, for that matter) to write with any authority, but I would guess that Israel would prefer that President Bush not frame his arguments that way - even though Bush is ostensbily speaking of his willingness to defend Israel.

Now Bush must know this - he ia very canny at this type of thing and most people don't credit him with that - The fact seems to be (in my opinion) is that Bush uses Israel more than Israel uses Bush - But the world will never buy that, for a number of reasons. The idea that Israel would prefer that Bush not pledge to defend Israel against Iran (at least in the context of the current controversy) is an idea that would confuse many voters - especially voters who wish the Jewish state well, but do not follow the various political games that go on with all the factions.
Why didn't Bush choose to highlight the many things Iran did against the US instead? If you hear Bush bring up Israel in the context of Iran, that seems like a clue Bush has decided not to go after Iran (for now). If Bush starts talking about the 1979 hostages, hizbollah in Beirut, Iranian links to specific terror from the past, or if he brings up the unresolved Khobar atrocity - then that would signal a more imminent plan to attack Tehran. Then again, this is just a guess.
Anonymous said…
If the U.S. is going to extend its nuclear umbrella over Israel, Kuwait, et al., then it should be "by open covenents, openly arrived at". That is to say, we should conclude a formal defense pact with the nations concerned.

The real danger is of miscalculation based on our (and Israels) ambiguities with regards to whether and when nuclear weapons would be used.
Anonymous said…
"nuclear umbrella" - you gotta love that phrase.

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