Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Essay: The Deterrence Myth

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Hezbollah and a nuclear Iran

By Gerald Steinberg

European diplomatic efforts notwithstanding, Iran continues to violate its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), hide facilities and activities from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and move steadily to a nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, the extent of this activity and the constant discovery of Iranian efforts to hide the evidence is the most telling evidence of the weakness of the European approach. But instead of moving to a more visible and credible effort, including sanctions and the threat of military action, European diplomats such as Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy czar, dismiss and undermine the Bush Administration’s reminders that military options have not been ruled out. As a result, Iranian decision makers can confidently assume that they can achieve a nuclear weapons capability without a significant penalty.

In private conversations, the Europeans are increasingly ready to admit the obvious – that without credible threats, Iran will not end its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But then they continue to argue that this is not disastrous, and that Iran will, of necessity, act as a responsible nuclear power, in order to avoid catastrophic destruction. They point to the history of the US and Soviet Union as an example of successful deterrence, and draw a highly simplistic and dangerous analogy from this case to the threat that would be posed by a nuclear armed Iran with respect to its neighbors in the Middle East.

Upon more serious analysis, the potential for the development and maintenance of stable deterrence relations with a radical Islamic Iranian government armed with nuclear weapons is highly problematic. Instead, this regime could trigger confrontations and crises that would quickly escalate out of control, particularly given very limited knowledge of and contact with the outside world, and its close links with terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Given this assessment, and the prospects of more failure in the diplomatic arena, military approaches are likely to be examined carefully, despite the inherent difficulties and risks.

Stopping Iran - Too Little Too Late

Iran, with its allies and subsidiary groups, poses the greatest danger to Israel’s survival, and frequent emotion-filled declarations of intent to "wipe Israel off the map" are often matched by actions. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, as well as Turkey and other countries that are within range of Teheran’s growing "sphere of influence", as well as in the US, the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran – a core member of the "axis of evil" -- is very unsettling.

IAEA head El-Baradei: Access by his inspectors to Iran has been limited

This nightmare scenario is not new and did not suddenly become apparent following the revelations regarding the extent of the links between Iran and A. Q. Khan, the head of the Pakistani "nuclear Walmart", to use IAEA director Dr. Mohammed El-Baradei’s terminology. The evidence that Iran has been secretly acquiring facilities and materials for an illicit nuclear weapons capability, in violation of its NPT commitments, has been increasingly evident. Continued development of large-scale uranium enrichment facilities, as well as other key components of the atomic fuel cycle, clearly show Iran’s goal of obtaining nuclear weapons.

Over the past decade, high-level international committees were formed to consider the diplomatic and military options and their implications in detail. Attempts were made to persuade Russia and China to stop the flow of unsafeguarded technologies and expertise into Iran. This supply-side approach to non-proliferation was clearly an example of "too little, too late". Similarly, discussions of international fuel-cycle facilities that would prevent individual countries, such as Iran, from acquiring the technology and materials to make nuclear weapons, are also well intentioned but unrealistic in the time frame in which action must be taken before Teheran reaches the finish line.

Taking another approach, the European "troika", consisting of Britain, France and Germany, tried the opposite route, offering Iran advanced technology, including civil nuclear facilities but without the fuel cycle, in exchange for abandoning their illicit weapons program. In November 2003, with great fanfare, an agreement between Iran and the Europeans was announced in which Iran agreed, or so it seemed, to freeze its uranium enrichment activities and also open up the facilities to IAEA inspection. But a few months later, when IAEA inspectors began to arrive at these sites to check for signs of enrichment and other fuel cycle activities, their access was limited, and what they found confirmed that the Iranian activities were continuing. So the Europeans tried again, and a year later, another agreement was announced, but at the same time, Iran continued to move closer to an indigenous weapons capability.

If the current regime that controls the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot be persuaded to drop its nuclear ambitions, perhaps a different and more liberal regime would be less obsessed with this project, and also recognise the inherent dangers. Indeed, a few years ago, many diplomats and analysts thought that the reformist movement under President Khatami would be that moderating force in Iran that would slow, if not stop the pursuit of nuclear weapons, and would pursue a more stabile foreign policy. However, in the past few years, Iran’s "hardliners" have reasserted control, making regime change in the next few years seem unlikely.

As a result of the failure of these initiatives, the "window" within which Iran might be stopped short of the finish line is closing quickly. Hopes that the political leadership of the IAEA would suddenly acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of cheating, which the agency’s own reports (available at the IAEA internet site) show began almost two decades ago, are disappearing (if such hopes were ever realistic), and the time remaining for the imposition of sanctions to prevent the production of enriched uranium is fading. The European efforts may have slowed the pace of uranium enrichment during the past year, and may be able to further extend the timeframe for a diplomatic solution. But the odds of success are small.

If, as is feared, diplomatic efforts, led largely by Europe, fail, this will leave two main options for responding to the Iranian nuclear capabilities – military action in the form of a preventive attack, or acceptance of the situation and reliance on deterrence. As will be discussed below, military action would be complex and risky. But at the same time, stable deterrence may be even riskier, particularly for Israel, but also for the US and Europe.

Assessing the Military Option

In July 1981, the Israeli Air Force launched a daring raid that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear research reactor complex. The small sortie overflew Saudi Arabia and dropped a number of gravity bombs (as distinct from the more modern precision guided weapons) on the target before returning to Israel. The decision to use military force, despite the complexity and the inherent risks of detection and possible confrontation, was taken after the Israeli government had tried for many months to persuade the French, who were building and supplying the uranium fuel rods for this reactor, that this project would place nuclear weapons in the very dangerous hands of Saddam Hussein. When the diplomatic options had all failed, and the reactor was about to go operational, the military alternative was chosen and implemented.

The result was that Iraq and Saddam Hussein never were able to realise their nuclear ambitions. The French never came back to rebuild the reactor at Osirak, and the Iraqi nuclear program only began to recover at the end of the decade. While Saddam sought to make up for the lost time with a crash program, the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent rigorous inspection program kept him from realising this goal.

Iran's Natanz nuclear enrichment plant

But there are many differences between Iraq of 1981 and Iran of 2005. Learning the lessons of Osirak, Iran has dispersed, hidden, and hardened its nuclear facilities, making them far less vulnerable to attack than was the case in Iraq. No single air attack would be able to destroy the multiple elements that constitute the Iranian program. In addition, Iran has a significant retaliatory capability, including Shihab 3 missiles with a range of 1300 kilometers, which could be equipped with chemical or biological agents.

Nevertheless, the military option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat cannot be ruled out. Although the Iranian decision makers have taken steps to ensure the survivability of these targets, they remain vulnerable. The US and Israel have also advanced significantly in terms of intelligence, targeting and penetration in the past 24 years. Ground attacks and massive waves of airborne missiles aimed at Iranian military assets are also unnecessary to destroy the 15 to 20 key installations that are at the heart of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. And even if some survive, and others are well hidden and are not subject to attack, the large buildings housing the banks of centrifuges used for enrichment, as well as their very visible power supplies and related systems, would be damaged to the point that rebuilding would take many years.

However, preventive attack is an option of "last resort". It would unite the Iranian public behind the current regime, ending or at least delaying hope for emergence of a moderate and representative government for many years. As noted, Iran might seek to use missiles and weapons of mass destruction, or terror groups, in attacks of revenge and retaliation. Therefore, decision makers and analysts are considering the prospects of deterrence vis-a-vis a nuclear armed Iran.

The Myth of Stable Deterrence with Iran

Opponents of military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons often argue that while a preventive attack could unleash a cycle of retribution and counter-attack, the Iranian leadership is cautious and would not use nuclear weapons to attack other countries, including Israel. Indeed, a strong (if incomplete) case can be made for this relatively benign analysis. Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons has numerous sources, including regional power ambitions, the sense of vulnerability in a hostile Arab and Sunni-dominated region, and a history of warfare, including the Iraqi invasion and 8-year long war during the 1980s. In addition, the survival of the regime is under threat, both from internal pressure and from the US government, and WMD is seen as a form of insurance policy.

But the evidence also shows that the Iranian regime has aggressive objectives that contribute greatly to instability in the region. In the terminology of international relations theory, Iran is a revisionist state, uninterested in preserving the status quo, but rather, seeking to expand and use its capabilities to alter the international and regional political framework. The regime’s extreme Islamic ideology, declarations of unmitigated hostility, and support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas are seen as posing an existential threat to Israel. In 2001, former President Rafsanjani called the establishment of Israel the "worst event in history," and declared, "In due time the Islamic world will have a military nuclear device, and then the strategy of the West would reach a dead end, since one bomb is enough to destroy all Israel." Similarly, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei declared "that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted …" This obsession is also reflected in highly antisemitic programs on Iranian television, as well as the transfer of shiploads of missiles, explosives and weapons to Palestinian terror groups.

Iran is also the major supporter of Hezbollah, which continues to launch limited attacks across the Lebanese border with Israel, and has deployed over 10,000 tactical missiles, including the Iranian made Fajr 5, with a range of 75 kilometres. These weapons provide an umbrella for periodic attacks on the Israeli side of the border is also the model for Palestinian groups operating in Gaza. This confrontation is inherently unstable, and at some point, Hezbollah’s salami tactics are likely to trigger a rapid escalation into a full-scale confrontation. Hezbollah (via its Al-Manar satellite television broadcasts) has emerged as one of the most virulent sources of incitement and antisemitism.

Historically, in response to other threats to national survival, Israel has placed primary emphasis on maintaining a credible and robust deterrence capability. The deep structural asymmetries in the region (territorial extent, demography, etc.) make Israel appear to be vulnerable to a crippling first strike, and the capability to inflict overwhelming and disproportionate costs regardless of the extent of the initial attack has been a central feature in deterring attack. This is the case with respect to conventional warfare (based on overwhelming air superiority and highly mobile ground forces), as well as providing the foundation for the development of the policy of "deliberate ambiguity" with respect to nuclear capabilities.

This policy has served Israel well to date. Egyptian military planners have acknowledged their decision to opt for a limited strategy in the 1973 war in order to avoid triggering an Israeli strategic response. In 1991, the fact that Saddam Hussein did not use chemical or biological warheads in the missile attacks on Israel is also attributed to fear of overwhelming Israeli retaliation. Furthermore, Israel’s nuclear capability and the realisation that Israel could not be "wiped off the map" without massive retaliation were important factors in initiating peace processes with Egypt, Jordan and beyond.

However, the development of an Iranian nuclear capability and a multipolar nuclear environment would end the stability resulting from the ambiguous Israeli nuclear posture, and would fundamentally change the calculus of strategic deterrence in all major dimensions. In the context of a multipolar nuclear Middle East, and the need for a credible second-strike capability, maintenance of Israel’s policy of deliberate ambiguity ("don’t ask, don’t declare, and don’t test") would become increasingly difficult.

Credibility and communications are central components of stable deterrence, and a more overt and visible nuclear weapons capability may be seen as necessary to avoid Iranian (and wider regional) misperceptions, particularly given the isolation of decision makers in Iran. However, the isolation of Iran’s leaders, the fog that surrounds its decision making structures, the absence of direct channels of communication, and its radical religious-based revisionist objectives will make the development of stable deterrence extremely difficult. While the Iranian leadership is not seen as suicidal, or particularly prone to high-stakes risk taking (in contrast to Saddam Hussein and other Arab leaders), there are likely to be many misperceptions regarding Israeli intentions and red-lines. And with many potential triggers for crises and escalation between Teheran and Jerusalem, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and extremist elements within Iran, the difficulties in managing these crises in a nuclear environment will pose formidable challenges.

In comparing the potential Israeli-Iran deterrence relationship to the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War, the key event is the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The successful management of this crisis, which brought the two nuclear superpowers "eyeball to eyeball" and to the brink of mutual destruction, depended on the existing diplomatic ties and channels of direct communications. There were periodic summit meetings between US and Soviet leaders, and at the height of the confrontation, they could at least fall back on these shaky links. This is also true with respect to India and Pakistan, which came close to mutual destruction following their respective decisions to test nuclear weapons. But no such links exist in the case of Iran, which maintains a policy of boycotting the "Zionist entity" and support for terrorist groups maintaining a proxy war against Israel. This policy is particularly irresponsible and dangerous for a country armed with nuclear weapons and itself a target for massive retaliation. As a result, while deterrence theory provides a basis for hope for survival in this dangerous environment, in practice, in the Iranian case, this relationship will be highly dangerous and unstable.

Messianic Visions: A Middle East Zone Free of WMD

One of the proposed means to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is a "grand agreement" that would include, in addition to resolution of US-Iran issues, a trade-off involving Israel’s nuclear deterrent option.

However, as long as the Middle East conflicts are unresolved, the "grand bargain" concepts are unrealistic. As the cases of Iraq, North Korea, and now Iran clearly demonstrate, the ability of international mechanisms such as the IAEA to effectively monitor and assure compliance with non-proliferation treaties is far from adequate. Furthermore, the US and the other members of the UN Security Council have shown that they will not take risks regarding their own interests by using force or even imposing effective sanctions to gain compliance. From the perspective of core security perceptions and requirements, these idealistic hopes are not credible options in a Middle East characterised by warfare and continuous terrorism, which are, in turn, fuelled by deep hostility and perceived threats to survival.

In the long term, however, and assuming that the region survives the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the potential for negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone is likely to increase. In contrast to the international and universal arms control framework, including the NPT, IAEA, CWC, etc., which have proven highly ineffective in the case of Iran, as well Iraq and Libya, a system of mutual inspection based on a specially tailored verification regime, could, in theory, be successful.

In the process of learning to develop and manage a stable deterrence relationship, direct communication links will eventually be established. The populations of the respective players, including Iran, may go through a process similar to that of the US and Soviet Union, as well as Europe during the Cold War, and demand measures that reduce the risks of mutual assured destruction. This process will be assisted by, and could also lead to internal political changes, including democratisation, in order to create more responsive and accountable governments (although, realistically, the politics of extremist nationalism and religious exclusivity will remain very powerful forces).

At the same time, the zero-sum frameworks that have dominated may evolve into more cooperative situations.

But, for all of the reasons explained in this analysis, this process, if it happens, could take many years or decades, and during this period, avoidance of nuclear destruction will be tenuous, at best. For the current political and strategic horizon, as this analysis has indicated, the prevention of Middle East nuclear proliferation by focusing on halting the illicit Iranian acquisition of fissile material, remains the best policy option. Other regional steps, such as mutual recognition and reliable communications will be necessary in order to manage the relationship and prevent nuclear destruction. At the same time, proposals that lack credibility and are based on amorphous and unreliable "international guarantees", such as those which have failed to prevent Iranian, Iraqi, Libyan and other violations of their NPT commitments, and that will endanger Israel’s survival, are counterproductive and unrealistic.

Professor Steinberg is Director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel, and Fellow, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.