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Who shoots first?

November 16, 2011

There’s something about Iranian foreign and defense policy that lends itself to intractable debate. After a variety of stimulating conversations with bloggers such as Jon Rue and Galrahn, I’ve decided to spare everyone online either the annoyance of trying to follow the sprawling conversations, or inundating the uninterested with an endless series of tweets.

One of the first things I would like to point out is that Iran has no plausible incentive to launch a nuclear first strike on Israel, contrary to some recent claims. In fact, not even fear of an Israeli nuclear first strike gives Iran an incentive to launch a nuclear weapon first. Now, there will doubtless be people who claim that I am relying on a false and outmoded model of rational actors which does not apply to Iran. Instead, I am assuming Iran is no more or less irrational than most other nuclear powers have been about the use of their own weapon.

First off, Iran has no incentive to launch a nuclear weapon first because it cannot disarm an Israeli second strike. While it only takes one nuclear bomb to seriously harm the population and infrastructure of Israel, it would take significantly more to ensure that Israel did not have a survivable second strike in the form of its air force, its ballistic missiles, or its submarines loaded with nuclear surface-launched cruise missiles. It would also take an extreme degree of precision targeting and a rapid acting ASW capability in the Mediterranean, which is virtually impossible for the Iranian military. A successful first strike must be a counterforce strike to disarm the enemy capability to retaliate. This is much, much, much easier said than done, and in the case of the Iran-Israel dyad, more than likely impossible.

Ah, but might Iran miscalculate because it is afraid of an Israeli first strike? Well, if it is cognizant of an Israeli nuclear capability, then it would have to be aware that it does not have enough bombs to win a nuclear war through launching a first strike. What about the case where Iran wants to deter a conventional attack from the Israeli air force? Might it use it bomb before it is destroyed? This model is rather bizarre, because it assumes that Iran is more afraid of an Israeli Air Force bunker buster than it is of a Jericho III with a nuclear warhead. This is not a question of rationality, it is a question of consistency. Explaining why Iran would launch a nuclear attack because of fear of an Israeli first strike, conventional or nuclear, requires explaining why the Iranians think Israel would not respond with its own nuclear weaponry.

It also requires explaining the Iranian decision to escalate a conventional Israeli attack on Iranian territory into a nuclear war. The purpose of a nuclear bomb is not to deter all conventional attacks, nor are they particularly effective at doing so. Countries generally only rattle their nuclear weapons over conventional incursions if they believe them to be part of a serious and sustained threat to their national interests. The tolerance for conventional defeat can be quite high, as Israel demonstrated in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which is probably the closest that a conventional war has come to triggering a nuclear exchange.

In the case of Iran, however, there’s little evidence that Iran seems particularly afraid of the Israeli Air Force – and they do not need to be. After all, Israel cannot, without using nuclear weapons, prove an existential threat to the Iranian regime or the Iranian state in general. The IAF would have a hard enough time toppling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. There is no evidence that even sustained bombing lasting for months would break the will of the Iranian people or regime. Israel’s army cannot geographically invade Iran and threaten it that way, nor do its troops or Iran’s share a common border in a 3rd party country, as the US and USSR did in Germany. In other words, without dropping the bomb, Iran has nothing to fear from the Israelis without them escalating to a nuclear level, which is exactly why Iran’s foreign policy has been so revisionist in the first place – it can get away with it.

Ah, but surely those proxies could lead to a nuclear conflict? There’s nothing to indicate that so far. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a good example of a proxy conflict that nearly resulted in nuclear war, but it’s also instructive as to why we don’t have nearly as much to fear. For one thing, why exactly would Iran be willing to back Hezbollah up with nuclear force if it was not willing to back them up with conventional presence? Yes, Iran provides massive amounts of support to Hezbollah and would not want to see its client lost. That said, countries generally are not willing to risk their own nuclear annihilation for clients it does not even bother having official military deployments to protect. The US and USSR had a panoply of proxies they supported with merely special forces and funding, but none of them merited a nuclear bomb in their most dire moments.

Cuba had significant conventional support from the Soviet Union, indeed, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred because the missiles themselves were in Cuba! Cuba had to receive formal support because it was the only way the USSR could establish a credible missile threat to the US homeland (ICBMs were in their infancy), and therefore a US threat to Cuba was not just a threat to a client, but a direct threat to a major deployment of strategic-level nuclear forces. Hezbollah is not nearly as important to Iran, and if it was we would have seen, as the Soviet Union did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a mobilization of conventional assets in theater to support their ally in the invent of a crippling foreign invasion. In fact, the record, with 2006 included, has no examples of Iranian willingness to commit even conventional forces to Hezbollah. We do not need to assume Iran is rational, merely roughly as ‘irrational’ as it has been in the past.

So what’s the likely purpose of Iranian nuclear weapons? Deterring existential threats to the Iranian regime, most notably an Israeli nuclear bomb or a US invasion. A nuclear weapon will not make Iran more aggressive, it will merely reinforce the status quo. When North Korea got a nuclear weapon, it did not automatically make the state more aggressive – the sinking of the Cheonan was behavior remarkably consistent with the country’s pre-nuclear policies, in which it made assassination attempts against Korean government officials, bombed airlines, seized a US vessel, shot down US aircraft, and hacked unarmed men in the DMZ to death with axes. Iran has an aggressive irregular warfare capability now and it will continue to exercise it. All it takes off the table were two options that were never very good ideas in the first place – Israel nuking Iran and America (or some other coalition) actually invading it to conduct regime change.

There is nothing in Iranian history to suggest that Iran would ignore the threat of an Israeli nuclear strike, or that it would be willing to “lose” a nuclear war. The Iranian willingness to use children for mine clearing or mistreat its people are vivid but hardly compelling proof of the regime being willing to martyr itself. Stalin and Mao sacrificed their people at a scale that dwarfs Iran’s and a ruthlessness to match, if not exceed them. In fact, Mao spoke openly of winning a nuclear war because China could afford to lose hundreds of millions of people. He even took steps that Iran has not, such as encouraging the building of tunnels and stockpiling of grain to survive a nuclear war with the USSR. Yes, every nuclear dyad is different. Yet of all the nuclear dyads, we’ve never seen a country in a position like Iran’s contemplate a first strike, even when they thought they could endure against enemy nuclear retaliation or outright win a nuclear war.

It’s worth noting that I’ve taken some time in coming around to these opinions. Robert Farley has done a lot of the work in convincing me, and while my piece here has been narrowly concerned with the issue of Tehran ordering a first strike, he has an even more provocative argument about Iran’s nuclear program as a reinforcement of the regional status quo, rather than a revolutionary upheaval. Tom Barnett has another excellent post detailing many of the takeaways surrounding the Iranian nuclear program, and although I am not so convinced of the regime’s fragility, many of his other points are very important. In a way, the overreaction to the Iranian nuclear program is also a pretty predictable event. Certainly there was much undue fear over other states acquiring nuclear arms – yet few of these states have ever been seriously tempted to make a first strike – even if it fears an Israeli one.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2011 2:52 am

    It’s possible that Iran doesn’t come into the equation other than as a patsy.

    From the rhetoric it seems that Israel is the tail about the wag the USA dog—the possibility that Iran might be suicidal is being used as a probability (okay, a certainty) in order to engender popular support within the US for yet another war.

    It worked once (Iraq) and it seems the same olds are being dusted off and recycled; someone in Washington is working frantic overtime crossing out ‘Iraq’ on all those documents and inserting ‘Iran’. No?

  2. November 16, 2011 4:49 pm

    Though you acknowledge the argument that Iran is not rational by claiming only to assume equal rationality to every other nuclear weapons state, I think this position somewhat misses a key point of the debate. Whether or not one agrees with the view that Iran is an irrational actor intent on destroying Israel and therefore not subject to conventional deterrence (I personally do not), the key question is whether Israeli or American decision-makers do. It does not appear as though any key American policymakers hold this view, but Netanyahu, based on his rhetoric, may. Thus, it seems to me that the best course of action to avoid military conflict with Iran (which I believe would likely be initiated by Israel, or at the very least, by us at Israel’s urging) would be to develop a strategy to reassure Israel in the face of an irrational, nuclear Iran, rather than lecturing them. I don’t have much constructive to offer on this point, or know if it’s even possible, but I think that at least we should be preparing for a situation where Iran has a nuclear weapon and Israel believes they will use it.

  3. Collin permalink
    November 16, 2011 9:23 pm

    I really appreciate where you’re coming from on this issue, and I think you make logical points. One question I would have liked to see you address, however, is what do you think about the threat of Iran secretly giving a nuke to terrorist organizations? Could you perhaps elaborate on this scenario, and its feasibility (or not)? Thanks!

  4. November 18, 2011 10:00 am

    I think it’s important to consider the history of the Iranian program, and the history of Iran’s strategic situation, when considering the utility and possible use of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

    First of all, I think it’s pretty clear at this point that the Iranian program, begun in the mid-1980’s, was a response to the threat from Iraq. At that time, Israel was a covert ally of Iran, working to defeat the Iraqi’s. Some claim that Iran’s nuclear program is a response to Israel’s weapons, but that doesn’t make much sense given when Iran began it’s program and what was going on at that time. Additionally, the strategic purpose for an Iranian nuclear capability is completely rational in the context of the threat Iraq posed and the knowledge that Iraq was working on it’s own nukes. Even after the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq remained the central consideration in Iran’s defense planning. It’s forces were concentrated near the Iraqi border and it training and doctrine were primarily geared toward fighting another war with Iraq. Despite the defenestration of Iraqi capabilities after 1991, the strategic logic of a deterrent against Iraqi aggression remained.

    Fast forward to 2003 when two big things happened. First, the US took out Iran’s biggest strategic threat and the impetus for developing nuclear weapons. Secondly, Iran’s clandestine nuclear program was discovered – or at least part of it was discovered. It was around that time, according to the 2007 NIE, that Iran ceased work on weaponization (ie. working on a warhead). It was also around that time that the Iranian leadership sent the US administration a letter offering a grand bargain and normalization of relations (a bargain the US basically ignored.). It’s also prudent to note that Iran’s conventional forces reorganized after 2003, a process that is still ongoing. They realized they didn’t need a military focused on fighting Iraq anymore.

    Given this history, what is the rationale – the strategic purpose – for Iran acquiring nuclear weapons now? The assumption in all these conversations seems to be that Iran wants nuclear weapons, has always wanted nuclear weapons, and will always want nuclear weapons. Attached to that assumption are any number of rationales, most of them quite dubious, IMO. In short, I think that assumption is worth questioning, given that Iran’s strategic circumstances changed dramatically in 2003.

    The danger of a policy based on an assumption that Iran simply wants nuclear weapons is that it is self-fulfilling. The US-Israeli alliance is in danger of replacing Iraq in the minds of Iranians as a strategic threat worthy of a nuclear deterrent. Maybe it’s already happened. Whatever the case, I agree with you completely that Israel does not present any kind of serious threat to Iran. It doesn’t have the capability to do much. However, the perception in much of the Middle East is that Israel is the dog and the US is the tail and therefore Israel can use the US as essentially a proxy force. I don’t know and can’t really speculate on how the Iranian leadership views all of this, but I think it’s something that we need to consider in formulating our own policy toward Iran.


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