Marching Towards Tragedy in the Gulf

The triangular crisis between the US, Israel and Iran has the appearance of an almost unavoidable tragedy.  

Again the question of attacking Iran is on the table, especially since the recent publication of the IAEA Report on Iran’s nuclear programme, and some recent sharp debate sparked by Matthew Kroenig’s piece in Foreign Affairs.  

Three considerations suggest a tragedy, or a collision of actions and unintended reactions and our collective inability to deal with it. Here they are:

1. Iran’s nuclear ambition is strong, resilient and probably irreversible. In Hugh White’s words, it will have its nuclear way. That does not necessarily mean it is determined to acquire a fully developed nuclear capability, but at least a latent, ‘breakout’ capability to nuclearise at short notice.

Its not hard to see why dissident opponents of the Iranian regime agree that Iran should have a nuclear programme. Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood, not only including its loathed enemy Israel, but a set of Arab states who oppose its growing power in the region and who are being armed by the United States. The  US itself has a large military presence in the Gulf. And with its allied regime in Syria meeting growing resistance, it must be wary of isolation. 

Tehran has witnessed, in the past decade, a superpower and adversary attack and overthrow regimes that had no nuclear deterrent, including the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Qaddafi. Two of those regimes were its neighbours. And while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have added to its insecurity, they have also created vacuums into which it can increase its power and influence. This may well have created a dangerous witches brew, in which the regime psychologically is both more frightened and more confident. 

To be sure, a range of considerations may given Tehran pause about going nuclear. Its strategic nightmare would be facing a combined Israel-American-Arab bloc, not to mention a sanctions regime finally and fully embraced by China and Russia, who would be willing to go beyond limited sanctions to contain a nuclear Iran. Hence its continuing and vocal support for the Palestinian cause, as a way of splitting Arab popular opinion and Arab governments.

But the arguments for going nuclear may well tip the balance. The US is already lavishly re-arming states such as Saudi Arabia as an insurance measure. Israel is already rattling its sabre. Attacking Iran is an open and mainstream proposal in American political life presently, and among Beltway insiders. For a regime strongly motivated to survive, and a fractured polity that agrees on this one big question, not only might nuclear breakout capability be attractive, but an attack could lead it to accelerate in a ‘crash programme.’ 

 2.  Israel believes that war works. In my little book published a few years ago, I wrote a chapter on the Israel-Hezbollah-Lebanon war of 2006, arguing that in many respects, Israel’s bombing and ground campaign failed, especially in their attempt to destroy Hezbollah as a political force. Whether or not that was right, at least three smart and relatively moderate Israeli military thinkers disagreed profoundly and told me so. 

Israel was being rocketed from Lebanon, waged war on Lebanon, and the rocket attacks have dried up. Israel was being rocketed from Hamas-ruled Gaza, struck back with Operation Cast Lead in late 2008, and the rocket attacks dried up. Both wars triggered internal inquests and debate in Israel, but the general reading of those operations was that the focussed, prepared and swift use of force can ‘mow the lawn’, so to speak.

As Dana Allin and Steven Simon argue, a confidence in the use of force can be buttressed by other parts of its strategic memory:

‘when Israel acted in the past, it was usually happy with the results. In 1981, Israeli planes destroyed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak – to loud international condemnation, and quiet international relief. In 2007, the Israelis destroyed a nuclear facility in Syria; this time even the Syrians kept quiet. To do what needs to be done, and then ride out the reaction, can seem a reasonable approach in a hostile world.’

3. A nuclear Iran will present grave dangers – but so will attacking a pre-nuclear Iran.

While I agree with the conclusions of realists like Stephen Walt, that attacking Iran is a bad idea, I don’t share their assumption that because deterrence works, a nuclear Iran does not pose a significant security risk.

Even if nukes do often deter, and even if acquiring nuclear weapons has historically made states such as Mao’s China moderate their behaviour, nuclear proliferation is still dangerous. Firstly, as the history of the Cold War shows, it took luck as well as skill for us all to live with a nuclear rivalry. The extreme danger posed by such weapons, as well as incomplete information, human fallibility, quick decision windows and the hair-trigger status of these systems means that accident and misperception have come close a number of times to a catastrophic nuclear exchange – from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Able Archer incident to the mistaking of flocks of geese or a Norwegian weather satellite for an incoming strike. 

Moreover, an Iranian nuclear capability, latent or complete, could well trigger an arms race, escalating buildup and at minimum, dangerous confrontation. 

But attacking Iran probably would increase its determination to go nuclear, and make it both more insecure and more angry. It would probably provoke it into some kind of retaliation: a closure of the Straits of Hormuz and a resulting oil shock; attacks on American or allied forces in the region; or unleashing its proxies into further aggression.

And, however unreasonable it would be, an attempt to forestall an Iranian bomb through force would be received as a major step towards a clash of civilizations. Arab states might quietly be relieved – but Arab populations may well not. An external crisis of this kind could well have a unifying effect on Iranians and delegitimise domestic opposition with the charge of fifth columnist disloyalty. The chances of Iran going nuclear would be increased politically, while the chances of a milder regime being in office when it did would plummet. 

We could be in for stormy days ahead. 


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