Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Nuclear Weapons vs Nuclear Capability: How Middle East Nuclear Deterrence Works

Yesterday, there were several articles quoting France's president Sarkozy as saying Russia has come closer to France's view on Iran, among other issues. But no specifics were offered. My rule on the Western reporting on the Middle East is becoming if there are no specifics, it didn't happen. Especially if what is being reported is another party's views or position on any issue.

So of course today we read Putin actually discussing the issue of Iran's nuclear program:

"We do not have data that says Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons. We do not have such objective data Therefore we proceed from a position that Iran has no such plans but we share the concern of our partners that all programmes should be as transparent as possible."

Sarkozy has not said that Iran having domestic enrichment of uranium is the same thing as Iran having a nuclear weapon. It is a very basic question to ask, but the press that covers this issue is astoundingly clueless and Sarkozy likely has never stood in front of a well informed reporter who would ask even basic questions such as that.

So we can only assume from Sarkozy's formulation that the alternative to Iran having a weapon is war that Sarkozy does consider domestic enrichment on Iran's part "a weapon". Bush and Condoleeza Rice have said explicitly that technology that could be used to make a weapon is in itself intolerable for Iran. Sarkozy has not been asked to confirm that he agrees with Bush on that issue. He hasn't volunteered that he holds the Bush position because the Bush position is very difficult to defend legally.

Here is Flynt Leverett on the legal difficulties of the Bush position.

I think the administration tried earlier basically to redefine the non-proliferation treaty on this issue and say that somehow Iran no longer had a right to develop fuel cycle technologies. This was a kind of interesting legal argument which I don’t think got very far. I noticed in November of last year, when the president was in Moscow, Stephen Hadley, the White House national security adviser, expressed the administration’s public support for the Russian compromise initiative for getting Iran to process uranium in Russia instead of in Iran. He actually said that Iran did have the right to develop enrichment capabilities, but in the interest of international security, stability, and so forth, we would ask the Iranians to agree not to exercise that right. So I think even the administration is acknowledging now that there isn’t a purely legal basis on which to say Iran can’t have enrichment capabilities.

Several Israeli strategists have publicly given clues as to why the US and Israel hold the view that domestic enrichment is a weapon. The US foreign policy community, using Gary Samore as a representative of that community, essentially consider Iran having domestic enrichment as the same thing as it having a weapon making a pretty weak argument that one necessarily will lead to the other.

Essentially, today's situation in which Israel is the only country in the region with a nuclear arsenal puts Israel in a position where it can get the last word in any escalation. If Egypt were to support Hamas, first Israel would get the US to cut Egyptian aid. But Egypt might then increase its aid to Hamas. Then Israel might strike targets in Egypt where arms for Hamas are being staged, with some collateral civilian deaths. Then Egypt might strike targets in Israel, also with civilian deaths. Then Israel can intentionally target Egyptian civilians - but tell Egypt that intentionally targeting Israeli civilians would lead to the nuclear destruction of Cairo and more of Egypt.

Israel does not have to actually use its nuclear weapon on Cairo, but the threat impacts Egypt's calculations all the way back to whether or not to support Hamas. Substitute "support Hamas" for any number of potential Egyptian policies that Israel might consider detrimental if you don't like the example I just made up. And substitute Egypt for Lebanon, Syria or any other nation in Israel's region.

Iran having a nuclear option begins to change that, and Iran's vision of a Middle East where nuclear technology is widespread drastically changes that.

If Egypt believes Iran would leave the NPT after seeing Cairo bombed and two years later be able to destroy the population centers of Israel, Israel no longer has the last word. Again that impacts the strategic calculations back down to actually plausible policy decisions Egypt could make.

Would Iran actually retaliate for Cairo? Here is a situation where probably not is drastically different from definitely not. Probably not, means that if it happens, Israel is over. If Iran has domestic uranium enrichment, the best Israeli strategists can give Israel's leaders to the question of Iranian retaliation if a situation spirals to nuking Cairo is probably or maybe not.

Here is the thing. If the question "will Iran retaliate, ending Israel, if a situation escalates to the point of the nuclear destruction of Egypt", the answer is the same if Iran has an actual weapon or if Iran has the potential to create a weapon. Either "probably not" or "maybe not" but not "certainly not".

Iran also goes further, saying that it has the right to nuclear technology and will break the prohibition of the acquisition of that technology by other Muslim nations. This presents the prospect of not only Iran being nuclear capable, but also every nation on the region, either directly through Iran or because the US will be forced to offer the technology to allies who can threaten to get it from Iran otherwise.

That would change the earlier question from "would Iran retaliate" to "would any of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan or the remnants of Egypt retaliate". Probably not turns to maybe not and the option of nuking an Arab target becomes too dangerous for Israel for Israel's strategists to contemplate. At that point, Israel's nuclear arsenal, which was expensive to acquire, has absolutely no strategic value. That is the opposite of the situation today.

The United States, across the Atlantic, does not seriously consider a situation that could escalate to an Egyptian strike on the US. The US, for internal political reasons sees the protection of Israel as part of its strategic mission. Actual US interests are not directly threatened by an Iranian nuclear capability. Even an Iranian weapon, while threatening to Israel would not pose a similar threat to direct US interests.

Russia, like everyone other than Israel, is also not threatened by an Iranian nuclear capability - which is why Putin draws his red line at an actual weapon, though Iran's program should be "as transparent as possible".

It is commonly said that the Saudis have a rivalry with Iran that exceeds the intensity of Iran's rivalry with Israel. The Saudis have never claimed an Iranian nuclear capability is intolerable, or that Iranian domestic enrichment is the same thing as a weapon. Like Russia and nearly everyone else, the Saudis are fine with Iran having domestic enrichment that is under IAEA inspection.

So as of today Iran is coasting. It is answering the IAEA questions, assured that they are not a fishing or stalling expedition. There is no support for oil-for-food-level sanctions which are the only thing that even imaginably could force Iran to end its program. Sanctions outside of the UN will hurt the countries that impose them nearly as much as they hurt Iran.

It is difficult to see how Iran's vision of first Iran, and then other Muslim countries having the capability to produce weapons, even if they never make them, coming to pass. In practical terms, this vision means the end of Israel's strategic nuclear advantage and some Israelis, maybe rightly, see that strategic nuclear advantage as crucial for Israel's survival as a Jewish state.


Richard said...

I agree with this analysis except for two small points.

One, a ME where several nations have nuclear weapons doesn't render Israel's nuclear arsenal useless. Israel still has a second-strike capability that other ME nations won't have for decades if at all. They also have the "first initiator" advantage for the same reasons. They also have the larger arsenal.

Second, because of the above, the primary advantage of nuclear weapons to ME countries is defensive. It removes "regime change" - which is Israel's primary policy with regards to the other ME nation, especially Iran - from the table. If a country knows it is going to be overthrown, it might as well throw its one or two nukes at Israel, knowing Israel cannot survive a first strike, despite having a second-strike capability. This, Israel can't tolerate, so it makes regime change by military force impossible.

This is why Israel and the US are so against Iran having a nuke - despite the fact that they know Iran doesn't have a weapons program. They know that if Iran even COULD have one, that regime change will be much harder.

And if regime change is hard, that gives those countries that can withstand it more leverage in the ME.

The key to the ME is that the US and Israel want puppet governments in every state that has oil or any influence on the ME at all. This means Iraq, Iran, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, et al.

Any state that breaks that pattern has to have its regime overthrown. Right now that's Iran, and Syria, and to some lesser degree, Lebanon (because of Hizballah.) The rest are puppets or too small to be of much influence.

And that is why Israel and the US see any nuclear program as bad news.

Egypt just announced they will be building a nuclear energy program - and the US said that was fine. That is because Egypt is fairly stable and a definite US-Israel puppet. If it ever looks like that might change, then the US and Israeli position on that nuclear program will change.

But right now, there is no doubt that Iran, Syria, and Hizballah in Lebanon must be destroyed for the US-Israeli program to continue.

That is why it is a certainty that the US will attack Iran, and that Israel will attack Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon again. They simply cannot allow those states to resist the US-Israeli program.

Arnold Evans said...

Useless was too strong a word for the value of Israel's arsenal in a generally nuclear-capable Middle East.

Much less useful than now. But the Muslim nations could have a virtual second strike capacity in that destroying every country in every direction would in itself destroy Israel, but leaving any country out allows a strike from that direction.

But this is an issue that the press tries to finesse. Nuclear capability has a strategic value to Iran and a threat value to Israel even without a weapon. It is much harder to make that the argument that the US is threatened by a nuclear capability - yet that is where the US draws the line.

Richard said...

I agree. If more than one ME nation has nukes, and if Israel were to first-strike one or more of them, the international community would forcibly disarm Israel of its nukes.

Also, if one ME country attacked Israel conventionally, and Israel retaliated against that one country either conventionally or via a nuclear strike, it could lead another nuke-armed country to attack Israel either in retaliation or in expectation of being attacked next, not knowing Israel's intentions. This again could lead to a general nuclear war in the ME among several nations, and would prompt the international community to disarm Israel (and possibly the other countries as well.)

(This idea, BTW, is what got me banned from TPM, since Josh Marshall interprets this to mean I want Israel "destroyed", or whatever. He can't read apparently.)

So any ME nuclear capability outside of Israel IS a threat to Israel - but again, only if Israel is a threat to them.

None of them would initiate a first strike against Israel absent at least a guarantee of a second-strike from another country or their own country. And given the consequences of a nuclear retaliation by Israel, the guarantee of a second strike by another country is not likely to be regarded as anything less than really risky.

I mean, in the past, guarantees by one Muslim country to support another in war have been occasionally worthless. So I doubt most countries would rely on it for such a serious matter as nuclear war.

For instance, I'm not convinced, if Israel attacks Iran at the US's behest in the near future, that Syria will honor the mutual defense treaty and attack Israel.

Or vice versa, even - if Israel attacks Syria, I don't think Iran will automatically attack Israel. They might activate Hizballah, since Hizballah can expect to be attacked as well anyway, since the goal of attacking Syria will be to clear the way for an attack on Hizballah and Lebanon.

Syria might attack Israel if Israel attacks Iran, knowing that Israel is likely to attack them first anyway as part of the plan to attack Iran. But I don't think they will initiate an attack on Israel absent clear indications that Israel IS going to attack them. In fact, they will probably hesitate too long, giving Israel the initiator's advantage.

So I doubt any ME country with nukes will rely on any other ME country with nukes to second-strike for them, absent evidence that Israel is going to hit them all.

And that's the biggest risk with a terrorist group stealing and using one of Israel's own nukes. Israel might not be able to determine who did it, and might retaliate against all the "usual suspects" - Syria, Iran, Lebanon, even Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. After all, if Tel Aviv or Haifa is destroyed, the Israelis and the IDF are going to be looking for serious retaliation. I've no doubt they would nuke Damascus, Tehran, and Beirut in retaliation. And that would bring down the international community on Israel and disarm them.

There really is no good reason for the international community to allow Israel to have a nuclear arsenal. It's a powder keg that just screws everything up in the ME and just has to explode sooner or later. The number one emphasis in the nonproliferation field should be to disarm Israel, regardless of any concerns about "sovereignty". If Iran can be chastised for not even having a program and while being part of the NPT, then Israel should either be forced into the NPT and disarmed or disarmed even while not part of the NPT.