The following is in response to an op-ed by Dr. Robert Farley
In Saturday’s Republican national security debate, GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney offered the sort of scare-mongering on Iran’s nuclear program that has become the norm in America’s foreign policy debates. “The gravest threat that America and the world faces,” said Romney, is an Iranian nuclear bomb. This is, to put it mildly, hysterical – a point that Robert Farley takes to its most extreme position in his recent article on the effect of Iran going nuclear.
According to Farley, if Iran is able to get a bomb it will have no demonstrable impact on Middle East politics. While I appreciate his efforts to tone down the panic-stricken pronouncements over an Iranian bomb, his argument relies on dubious historical analogies and ignores the irrationality of various Middle East actors, particularly Israel. The impact of Iran getting a nuclear bomb is almost certainly overstated and defined as much by hysteria as actual real-world effects. But hysteria matters; so, too, does strategic calculus and perceived national security and military flexibility – all elements that Farley ignores or glosses over in his analysis.
First the historical perspective: Farley argues that Iran having a bomb won’t change the power dynamics in the Middle East because “nuclear states cannot use nukes to force non-nuclear states to comply with their demands.” But during the Korean War, President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles used the implicit threat of nuclear attack to push the Chinese government toward an armistice agreement on the Korean War. He also claims that “nuclear weapons cannot ensure the safety and security of client terrorist groups.” Yet, terrorists responsible for the Mumbai massacre, who reside in Pakistan, got off scot-free, in part, because India was unwilling to risk a larger war in responding to the attack. It’s not hard to imagine that the threat of nuclear war between the two countries had something to do with that.
Farley cites examples where nuclear powers were unable to get their way with non-nuclear powers such as the US and Iraq in 1991 and 2003; the Serbs in Kosovo; China in Vietnam; Russia in Georgia, etc. According to Farley, “The biggest difference between these examples and the Iran one is that the nuclear power, in all of these cases also possessed overwhelming conventional superiority.”
This is a rather huge caveat and gets to the point of why Iran having a bomb is, in fact, a game-changer. If Iran threatened its neighbors militarily, most of them could laugh off the challenge because, as Farley points out, Iran has a weak conventional capability. Would that calculus change if Iran had a bomb? It’s not difficult to imagine that it would shift how countries in the region think about Iranian power and influence. Precisely because Iran lacks a significant conventional military superiority makes it getting a bomb a potentially big deal.
Moreover, Farley argues that Israeli nuclear weapons did not deter Egyptian and Syrian attacks against the Jewish state in 1973. He’s right, but of course both attacks were limited in scope and were aimed at reclaiming lost land. If either country had entered Israel proper or threatened Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, would the threat of a nuclear response stifled their ambitions? It’s hard to believe that it would not.
The problem here is that Farley is taking a far too constrained view of how nuclear weapons impact national decision-making. As he said to me in a Twitter conversation, Israel would likely still pound Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Gaza even if Iran had a bomb and on this point he is probably correct. But if Iran has a bomb, future Israeli military actions would almost certainly be constrained. If Israel went into Lebanon to respond to a provocation from Hezbollah, would Israel think twice about expanding the scope of operations? How would Israel respond if Iran threatened the use of nuclear force in support of its proxies? In Farley’s argument, Israel would pull back or Iran wouldn’t take such a measure because neither country wants to contemplate “national suicide.” It’s almost as if brinkmanship and miscalculation don’t exist in Farley’s conception of international affairs.
By his argument, the United States never should have quarantined Cuba in 1962 because, after all, neither Havana nor Moscow would contemplate national suicide by using such weapons (the fact that Castro did is an inconvenient point).
As Farley must know, countries don’t respond rationally to what they consider to be provocations or actions that hinder their perceived strategic flexibility. Quite clearly, the United States was willing to risk national suicide in 1962, as was the Soviet Union – and with a different US president it might very well have done more than risk it. Why does Farley think that Israel and Iran would be different, and would not stumble their way into a similar episode of nuclear brinkmanship? Considering the level of animosity between both countries and lack of communication, such an episode could spiral dangerously out of control.
This gets to the final point. Israel has reason to be concerned about an Iranian nuclear bomb. The Iranian president has made provocative statements about wiping Israel off the map and Israeli society has a deeply ingrained fear around the issue of national elimination. Indeed, one of the more obtuse elements of Farley’s argument is that he ignores the role of political culture and domestic politics in foreign policy decision-making. He says, for example, “Regional leaders would be best advised to explain to their people the actual dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon, rather than feeding the hysteria.” Considering the legacy and language of national elimination that has long surrounded Israel and the Jewish people, this seems like an academic argument completely divorced from the reality of Israeli politics.
But lastly, and most importantly, Farley ignores the importance that Israel applies to being the only nuclear power in the region. He says, “Israeli nuclear weapons have not granted it the ability to dominate the Middle East,” but this is simply incorrect. Israel can act practically in an unfettered manner across the region. It can bomb nuclear power plants in Iraq and Syria; it can invade its neighbors (most recently Lebanon); and it can maintain the occupation of several million Palestinians. Israel can do all these things, in part, because of a vast military superiority that includes nuclear weapons. If Iran suddenly were to have a nuclear bomb, it would not only shift the balance of military power in the region, it would limit Israel’s military flexibility and its own perception as a regional hegemon. No longer could Israel operate with virtual impunity.
One can argue whether this is a good thing or a bad thing but it most certainly is a thing. And it’s something that will transform the security calculation of the region’s most important military actor. Farley’s notion that rational security concerns should make the development of an Iranian bomb a non-event is correct. But if the last ten years in particular have taught us anything, it is that we do not live in a world of rational actors. The difference between what should happen if Iran gets a bomb and what will likely happen is far wider than his analysis would suggest.
Michael Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. He blogs at democracyarsenal.org and you can follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.