Doctor Science Knows

Friday, August 20, 2010

Iran and Israel at the Atlantic, Day 4

R. Nicholas Burns, career diplomat, wrote on The Strength of Obama's Long Game With Iran:
I am more convinced than ever that a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would be potentially disastrous for U.S. interests. At worst, it could lead to a third war in the greater Middle East without the benefit of stopping Iran's nuclear program. It makes much more sense for Obama to stick to his bet that a combination of diplomacy and toughness might yet compel Tehran to yield.

My comments:

Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability that would destabilize the current fragile pro-American balance of power in the region
Your analysis avoids mentioning that Israel already has nuclear weapons, so "destabilizing the balance of power" translates to "Israel's power is no longer uniquely devastating". You make no argument that having two nuclear states in the region is more unstable than one -- or that Iran would be more likely to use nuclear weapons than Stalin or Mao was.

Logic and experience say that one consequence of multiple nuclear powers in the region should be talks between the powers, to (at the very least) create structures for dealing with nuclear tests, accidents, and the like. I have no idea whether Iran or Israel would be harder to get to the table, but this is an obvious area where US influence would be vital for everybody, including millions of bystanders downwind.

Marc Ambinder reports that
to some in the Obama administration, the "fact" of Iran's eventual nuclear declaration is already priced-in to their Middle East calculus.
They seem to understand your point, as I take it: the long game is the only game.

One question that has not really been addressed in this discussion is, why would Iran want nuclear weapons?
I agree with Mr. Burns that Ahmadinejad is a cynical thug but not messianic or suicidal, and unless the Iranian government is indeed suicidal, it cannot use nuclear weapons offensively against Israel or anyone else in the region.

Nor do I see how a nuclear Iran would somehow indirectly empower Hamas or Hezbollah.
History teaches that nuclear weapons are virtually useless for offensive purposes unless a country has a monopoly on them, as the US did in '45. That's because even in the cases of insane dictators like Stalin and Mao, MAD works. Nuclear weapons are, however, extraordinarily effective as defensive weapons. Nuclear armed nations do not get attacked by other nations (Israel hasn't been attacked by another nation since '73). There has never been a war between nuclear-armed nations (except for a relatively brief war between between India and Pakistan in '99) because of the very logical fear that any war could escalate to a nuclear conflict. A nuclear armed Iran would therefore effectively be impervious to attack.

Against whom is Iran interested in defending itself from an attack? Again, I would submit that the answer is clearly us. Iranian distrust of the US runs very deep, and for good reason.
Your logic is quite persuasive -- if Iran's nuclear weapons program is motivated by logic.

What is curious, though, is that the saber-rattling is between Israel and Iran, even though (a) Israel cannot effectively attack Iran, and (b) Iran needs nukes to defend itself against the US, not Israel. There's definitely a staged quality about this whole thing, but it's really hard to tell who the intended audience is.

It's possible, to my mind, that Iran's nuclear program is only partly logical or "practical", that it is intended more to function as a symbol -- of strength, technological sophistication, and importance on the world stage -- than to be truly strategic. As I've argued repeatedly here, the most important audience for such warlike displays is likely to be local, i.e. domestic. By having a nuclear program, the current Iranian regime is showing its people that it takes their defense very seriously -- attacks and threats from the US, Israel, or other outsiders will make Iranians *more* inclined to believe that only the regime can protect them.

Robin Wright replied to Burns, with What the Successful Containment of Iran Will Look Like:
So what provisions does a viable containment policy need to have? As one of the early steps, for example, should containment include trying to cut off Iranian access to foreign refineries, which Iran needs, given that it doesn't have enough refineries of its own to process oil for its domestic market? Sounds easy, but to work it needs full international cooperation -- in principle at the United Nations, and in practice from countries or companies servicing Iran -- as well as an enforcement mechanism to prevent smuggling. That's only one option of many, and we should imaginatively be thinking through others before racing into military action.

[democraticcore commented:]

I am very skeptical that any of this will work (if "working" is defined solely in terms of causing Iran to abandon a nuclear weapons program), although to the extent that it can buy time by preventing the neocons from taking over and starting a war against Iran, it probably doesn't do any harm. However, it seems to me that "containment" should be viewed as a strategy for dealing with a post-nuclear Iran.
1. Make sure that all countries in the Middle East, not just Israel, have a solid nuclear deterrent, which the US will provide.
2. Forge a military alliance to prevent any military adventurism by Iran, including proxy wars if necessary. The pillars of this alliance would be Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
3. Get widespread international support for the containment strategy. Most importantly, this means looking beyond Europe, and instead looking for diplomatic support from the rising powers of India, China and Brazil, and of course Turkey.

Economic sanctions and direct military action against Iran really would play little role in such a containment strategy, just as they had little to do with the success of the containment strategy in dealing with the Soviet Union.

"Like" is far too mild a term for my emotions toward this comment.
Trade relations would also be very helpful to opening up Iran to soft power influences, which at the end of the day, are what are going to bring down the Iranian regime. Like the Soviet Union, the Iranian regime will be taken down by jeans and hip-hop, not bombs and sanctions.
It seems clear to me that US policy/security circles, at least, have great patience with aggressive approaches even when they fail, and don't see negotiation and "soft" power as worth spending time on. The fact that someone from the "Institute of Peace" can't come up with anything more humane -- and workable -- than "really mean sanctions" is very discouraging. I had hoped that Ms. Wright might be able to think outside the psychological issues of some of the other contributors here, but apparently not.

J.J. Gould, who is editing the debate, highlit our comments exchanges about whether Israel's leaders believe an attack would work. I commented:

Thank you for highlighting this discussion, J.J. Looking it over, I realize I referred to the IDF when I should have said IAF, because clearly this would be an Air Force operation, not Defence Force (=Army).

I would like to add that what I call the Clausewitz-O'Neill Principle predicts that the most important audience for this saber-rattling is other Israelis -- which indeed is sort of what Goldberg suggests page 4 of his article, when he writes about the Israeli people's desire for a sense of safety through nuclear pre-eminence.
Israelis will seriously weigh whether or not an attack is worth it knowing that its enemies on its immediate borders will be poised to strike.
And yet, most Israeli commenters (here and elsewhere) seem to figure that the enemies are poised to strike *anyway*, and need an excuse more than a reason. So Israelis (or a significant segment within the Israeli population) might feel more positive toward their government even after a failed strike, even one with large civilian casualties, even one that alienates the US.

Another way of putting it is that Netanyahu's coalition may feel that their elected mandate entails striking at Iran's nuclear program, regardless of whether it has a realistic chance of operational success. It could be an *operational* failure, but still a (domestic) *political* success.

Basically, I'm with Clausewitz: politics *always* drives policy.

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