How I Learned To Hate The Bomb: The Renewed Campaign To Spark Hysteria Over Iran

By Tommy Brown

First up, from Foreign Policy’s article on deterring and containing Iran:

Deterrence in the Middle East, they [policymakers and foreign policy analysts] argue, could be just as stable as it was between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. “Israel’s massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon,” wrote Fareed Zakaria in the Oct. 12 edition of Newsweek. “Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran.”

But this historical analogy is dangerously misconceived. In reality, defusing an Israeli-Iranian nuclear standoff will be far more difficult than averting nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. This is true even if those Iranians with their fingers on the nuclear trigger are not given to messianic doomsday thinking. Here are five factors that will make an Israeli-Iranian nuclear confrontation potentially explosive.

Before we dive into these five factors, I’ll just pause to say that comparing a nuclear Iran to the American-Soviet standoff or even comparing Cuba during the Crisis with Iran is pretty specious and silly. And so:

Communication and trust.

The October 1962 negotiations that settled the Cuban missile crisis were conducted through a fairly effective, though imperfect, communication system between the United States and Russia. There was also a limited degree of mutual trust between the two superpowers. This did not prevent confusion and suspicion, but it did facilitate the rivals’ ability to understand the other’s side and eventually resolve the crisis.

Israel and Iran, however, have no such avenues for communication. They don’t even have embassies or fast and effective back-channel contacts — and, what’s more, they mistrust each other completely. Israel has heard Iranian leaders — and not just President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — call for its destruction. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders remain prone to paranoid and conspiratorial views of the outside world, especially Israel and the United States. In any future Iranian-Israeli crisis, each side could easily misinterpret the other’s moves, leading to disaster. A proxy war conducted by Iran through Hezbollah or Hamas against Israel could quickly lead to a series of escalating threats.

This actually is a serious problem. The Cold War MAD-speak for it is “redlines,” a series of negotiated agreements between America and the Soviet Union on what provocations from the other side could cause a nuclear response. The name comes from the Red Line, the teletype device that directly linked the White House and the Kremlin, installed in the wake of several clashes with the Soviets that almost led to nuclear Armageddon.

Of course, comparing the Israel-Iran situation to the Cold War is ludicrous, the best comparison is undoubtedly the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. Here as in a hypothetical Middle Eastern cold war, there are no redlines and no communication between Islamabad and Mumbai on this issue. And, in the author’s favor, we have come to the brink of a third India-Pakistan war that most likely would have involved nuclear exchanges twice since 9/11.

Both times, both sides were slowly pushed back from the brink by Washington. I’ll pick back up on this in a minute.

Goals.

The Soviets wanted to extend their power and spread Communism — they never pledged the annihilation of America. Iranian leaders, however, have called for Israel to be “wiped off the map of the Middle East.” After the street protests that followed the June presidential election, Iran has entered into chronic instability. In a moment of heightened tension and urgent need for popular support, an Iranian leader could escalate not only rhetoric but action.

There is a strong precedent in the Middle East of such escalation leading to war. Arab threats to destroy any Jewish state preceded a massive invasion of the new Israeli state in May 1948. In May and June 1967, Egypt’s President Gamal Abd al-Nasser loudly proclaimed his intent to “liberate Palestine” (i.e. Israel in its 1949 borders), and moved his panzer divisions to Israel’s border. The result was the Six Day War.

The revisionist history that has sprung up around the Cold War in the two decades since its end is quite fascinating. Does Krushchev banging his shoe at the United Nations and shouting “We will bury you!” count for nothing anymore?

The author of the piece is right that despite all the rantings and threats, the main goal of the Soviet Union was to extend their power and influence into the Third World under the guise of World Socialism and to stay militarily competitive with America. But the same is also true with Iran: Despite the loud, blustery threats from the ayatollahs lo these last three decades, Iran has time and again proved itself to be a ruthless and crafty player of the Great Game, certainly not an irrational actor.

The analogy to the Six Day War is baffling and somewhat deceptive. It wasn’t Nasser’s rhetoric that caused the war, it was him moving his armies to the Israeli border. And the analogy is doubly misleading because Iran has very little conventional capability, their influence in the Middle East is almost entirely based on assymetric power.

And by the way: Panzer divisions? Really? That’s about as subtle as a kick to the groin.

Command and control.

In 1962, the two superpowers possessed sophisticated command-and-control systems securing their nuclear weapons. Both also employed effective centralized decision-making systems. Neither may be the case with Iran: Its control technology will be rudimentary at first, and Tehran’s decision-making process is relatively chaotic. Within Iran’s byzantine power structure, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mounts an army and navy of its own alongside the regular army and navy, and internal differences within the regime over nuclear diplomacy are evidence of conflicting lines of authority. Recent events suggest that the IRGC, allied with Ahmadinejad, has increasingly infringed on the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a result, no one can be certain how decisions are made and who makes them.

This one’s pretty easy. The entire nuclear program is under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (the Sepha-i Pasdaran), a shadow military and secret police that reports directly to the Supreme Ayatollah Khamein’i. Simple. There is no issue with unity of command despite their recent civil unrest.

Mutual deterrence.

Both the United States and USSR had second-strike capability made credible by huge land masses. They possessed hardened missile silos scattered throughout the countryside, large air forces equipped with nuclear bombs, and missile-launching submarines. In the Middle East, Iran stretches across a vast 636,000 square miles, against Israel’s (pre-1967) 8,500 square miles of territory. This point was made by ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2001, who noted, “Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack.” If this is the way an Iranian pragmatist thinks, how are the hard-liners thinking?

In contrast, by 1962, the two superpowers implicitly recognized the logic of mutually assured destruction. And yet, they still came relatively close to war — in John F. Kennedy’s words, the risk of a nuclear conflict was “between one out of three and even.” When Iran goes nuclear, the huge disparity in size will pose a psychological obstacle for its recognition of mutual deterrence.

All things being equal, Israel’s small size would be a detriment to a mutually-assured destruction strategy. But things aren’t equal. Even if Iran obtains a handful of nuclear weapons and halfway decent missiles to shoot them at people with, Israel will be the only side that has a credible second-strike capability. Combined with the certainty of American assistance, this doesn’t seem like much of an impediment to MAD.

Even assuming the United States promises Israel a retaliatory nuclear umbrella, Iran will doubt U.S. resolve. The mullahs will be tempted to conclude that with Israel gone, the United States would see no point in destroying Iran. Given the criticism leveled today against President Harry Truman for using the bomb against Japanese civilians in World War II, what are the chances of American retaliation against Iran, especially if the Islamic Republic has not attacked the United States?

I seriously doubt the mullahs doubt American resolve when it comes to the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf. Nuclear missiles exploding near the oil would be seriously bad for business, and if there’s one thing you can guarantee, it’s that America will respond swiftly and strongly to any perceived threat to our energy security. Not to mention, Israel is quite popular here in the States and they have a very vocal political lobby.

And the last sentence presupposes that if Israel is nuked by Iran, that America will have to nuke Iran in retaliation. We just might, but even if we don’t, American conventional power is strong enough to level the entire country in a month (despite its huge size, much of Iran is uninhabitable, and the population is clustered around urban and semi-urban areas). There isn’t a doubt in the world that America would descend upon Iran like the Wrath of God if they were to ever do something so stupid.

Crisis instability.

In view of the above dangers, if and when a grave crisis does erupt, Israel would be tempted to strike first in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear attack, which would devastate its urban core. Iran will be well aware of Israel’s calculations and, in the early years of becoming a nuclear power, will have a smaller and probably more vulnerable nuclear arsenal. This will give it, in turn, strong incentives to launch its own preemptive strike.

This will not happen as long as America has such a heavy military presence in the Middle East. Period. This favorite talking point of war hawk pundits was put to bed decisively in 2007 during the Bush Administration. They came to Washington to ask for the latest generation in nuclear bunker-busters for a strike on Iran (as well as permission to cross Iraqi airspace) and were turned down flat by Condi Rice and Bob Gates, who threatened to end the American-Israeli relationship permanently if they did go ahead and do it anyway.

Yes, you read that right. Israel wants to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program by dropping nuclear weapons on them. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Just a few more points to wrap up:

Once Iran is a nuclear power, the Middle East is likely to enter a fast-moving process of nuclear proliferation. Until now, most Arab governments have not made an effort to match Israel’s  nuclear arsenal.

Already happening. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have all those Chinese ballistic missiles hidden out in the Empty Quarter for nothing. But the fall of Iraq has as much to do with it as Iran’s nuclear program; that’s a whole ‘nother story though.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of some analysts that the possession of nuclear weapons could make Iran more cautious, a nuclear Iran will likely be emboldened. It could press Hezbollah to be more aggressive in Lebanon, flex its muscles in the Persian Gulf, and step up its challenges against U.S. forces in the region.

Iran is pretty bold now. Things really couldn’t be going any better for them if they had tried. Their unconventional warfare power by proxy in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, western Afghanistan and a host of other places makes them the de facto regional hegemon.

The most important point, and the one all these pro-war Iran pieces leave out, is that the critical factor in the Israeli-Iranian relationship is how the American-Iranian one  is doing. And it’s doing very very well, if you’re an ayatollah. With American forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan without sufficient numbers to pacify both countries, Iran has become sort of the unofficial peacekeeper in southern Iraq (where in true Iranian fashion they back every side and just wait to see who wins) and Herat in western A-stan. With a phone call they can make life very unpleasant for American soldiers in Iraq or start another Hizb’allah-Israeli conflict.

Bottom line, as long as these conditions persist America has very little influence to stop the Iranian nuclear program, but enough influence to stop Israel from attacking them preemptively, which is going to mean an enforced stalemate until something crazy happens or the strategic calculus changes drastically.

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