The responses from Spencer Ackerman and Michael Cohen both boil down to the same point. Many people in the Middle East say that an Iranian nuclear weapon will tip the regional balance of power in alarming ways, and since there is “nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” the balance will be tipped. There is certainly something to be said for this argument: what people believe is, very often, more important than what actually is. Unfortunately, both Cohen and Ackerman fall prey to the same error. They take the claims of people in the Middle East far, far more seriously than they ought.
The first lesson of nuclear diplomacy is that everyone lies. The proliferating state lies to the world about the extent of its program, and to its people about the return they’ll earn on their sacrifice of blood and treasure. Client states lie to their patrons about the degree of threat that they feel, and warn ominously of how “a change in the balance of power” might force “a strategic realignment.” Non-proliferation agencies warn of the dire consequences of widespread proliferation. American diplomats explain than a nuclear weapon is “unacceptable” because they do not want anyone to wonder whether the consequences of proliferation might be tolerable. This pattern is repeated over, and over, and over, throughout the history of nuclear proliferation. The practitioners of nuclear diplomacy ply an honorable trade, but their duty is to lie, and they do so quite well.
Ackerman and Cohen accept many of these lies at face value. Ackerman apparently believes that the autocrats in Bahrain would not have suppressed demonstrators, but for the specter of Iran. Dead protestors in dozens of states not threatened by Iran might wonder whether the Bahraini government is telling the truth about its motivations. He and Cohen believe that the Israelis will act irrationally, mostly because the Israelis insist that they will act irrationally. To my mind, the Israeli response to the Iranian nuclear program has been quite rational; they have pursued low cost, relatively low impact ways of disrupting the Iranian nuclear program, all while repeatedly insisting to their patron state that they are extremely concerned, and will very soon be launching a disruptive attack that could destabilize the whole region, and wouldn’t it be better if the Americans solved the problem? There is nothing even mildly irrational about this strategy, and there is no reason whatsoever to suspect that the Israelis will become more irrational, or the Bahrainis less autocratic, after an Iranian nuclear test.
In addition to this basic ontological problem, Cohen’s piece in particular is riddled with errors and unfounded speculation. Israeli military policy towards its neighbors has not changed notably since developing nuclear weapons (it invaded its neighbors before, it invaded them after), and he gives little in terms of convincing evidence that Israeli behavior will change after an Iranian nuclear test. He misunderstands the end of the Korean War (nuclear threats played a relatively small role in truce negotiations), misinterprets the Cuban Missile Crisis (the US held overwhelming nuclear superiority at the time), and essentially argues that if nuclear weapons have mattered in any relationship, they must matter in the Israeli-Iranian relationship. He fails to acknowledge that many states have “gotten off scot-free” after sponsoring terrorist attacks against nuclear powers; the Mumbai attacks are not particularly notable or special in this regard. It’s also worth noting that the Indian Army has developed a conventional doctrine designed to devastate Pakistan without triggering the use of nuclear weapons. Cohen falls victim to the extraordinarily common error of assuming that nuclear weapons must have brought about an outcome simply because they are so powerful and so terrifying. It is fair to say that the tendency of policymakers to lie relentlessly about the relevance of nuclear weapons feeds this misperception. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the analyst to look past what amount to propaganda efforts, and to assess the hard realities of the situation. I guarantee that policymakers in Jerusalem and Tehran are doing so right now.
Dr. Robert M. Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination, and is available on Twitter.