The extension of American nuclear guarantees in the Middle East has been posed as a question of American guarantees to Israel. This is understandable given the intense hostility to Israel expressed by the Iranian regime. However, there is a broader objective that may be served by U.S. nuclear guarantees in the region. If the United States is not able to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, its goal must be to prevent this development from destabilizing the region as a whole, and to prevent Iran from gaining any political advantage from its new capabilities. These twin aims are served by the extension of the American deterrent umbrella to a full range of U.S. allies.
The question of how Iran will use its new strategic capabilities, or how Iran’s behavior will be affected by the possession of a nuclear arsenal, has already elicited a range of expert opinions. At one end of the spectrum is the view that Iran’s religious elites would order an offensive nuclear attack against the United States or U.S. forces or Israel, despite the certainty of suffering a catastrophic response, because they would be willing to die to eliminate Iran’s infidel enemies. (Some critics of the Bush administration accuse it of adopting this eschatological understanding of Iran’s strategic calculus.) It is difficult to envision any effective U.S. deterrent to a nuclear Iran if this view is accurate.
At the other end of the spectrum is a view that a nuclear-armed Iran would not behave much differently from how Iran behaves now. This might be reassuring or distressing, depending on one’s view of Iran’s current foreign policy aims, and how Iran might seek to advance them under a nuclear umbrella.
Closer to that end of the spectrum, one can envision two possible courses of action by a nuclear-armed Iran that would be of concern to the United States, because they extrapolate current Iranian policies already designed to intimidate and weaken U.S. allies and protégés.
1. Gulf coercion. Projecting out from current Iranian efforts to maximize revenues from natural resources, Iran may try to use nuclear threats to coerce the non-nuclear oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf into transferring oil-producing territories, oil revenues, or maritime rights to Iran. Those nuclear threats might involve mobilization of nuclear forces, demonstrative test launches of missiles into disputed areas, military violations of the air and sea frontiers of Arab Gulf states, and nuclear weapons tests, in ways analogous to the behavior of the Soviet Union in the 1956 Suez crisis.
It is difficult to imagine how the Arab Gulf states could independently resist coercion by a nuclear-armed Iran. But the United States has a clear interest in neutralizing the impact of such Iranian efforts. American nuclear guarantees to its non-nuclear allies in the region, perhaps supported by the deployment of American submarines armed with nuclear cruise and ballistic missiles, could serve this interest. This class of guarantees could include Israel, but need not, since Israel has a perfectly adequate nuclear deterrent force of its own.
2. Proliferating to proxies. Iran may transfer nuclear weapons technology to proxy groups. Every state except India that has developed nuclear weapons technology has transferred valuable know-how to others. The United States shared technology with the United Kingdom; France shared reactor technology with Israel; Israel shared technology with Taiwan and probably with South Africa; China shared warhead technology with Pakistan, and so on. Iran would not be doing anything unprecedented if it clandestinely transferred nuclear weapons technology, not bombs, to others. This might, however, result in nuclear weapons technology in the hands of Syria and then Hezbollah. (In the past, Iran and Syria transferred missiles of a kind never before deployed by a sub-state actor, into the hands of Hezbollah.) An anonymous terrorist use of a nuclear weapon against Israel, perhaps detonated on a ship off shore from Israel, is, therefore, a real worry.
Israel recognizes this potential, and sees the credibility of its deterrent as being eroded by the difficulty of establishing responsibility for such an attack in ways that would seem undeniable to world opinion. This uncertainty increases the likelihood that Israel might act unilaterally to reduce the danger posed to it by Iran’s arsenal. A strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would risk inflaming the whole region and would be seen by Jerusalem as providing, at best, temporary relief. But it is not clear what other choice Israel would have.
|MESH Updater: Read more MESH discussion on deterring Iran in this thread and this thread.
Israel’s compulsion toward a unilateral attack that could destabilize the region might be mitigated by a U.S. statement that it regarded a terrorist nuclear explosion directed against any American ally in the Middle East as an Iranian attack on the United States, to be met by the full force of an American nuclear response. To be sure, such a guarantee might lead Israel to take greater military risks in dealing with Iran. Such a guarantee, then, would have to be part of a formal alliance and a quid pro quo in which Israel did agree to coordinate its actions with the United States.
Israel might refuse such a deal. But the offer would not be unreasonable. It would follow the precedent of earlier efforts of the United States in the 1950s and ’60s to coordinate nuclear deterrent doctrines with NATO, and it might be the basis of a new international doctrine for dealing with terrorist nuclear threats.
Comments are limited to MESH members and invitees.
3 Responses to “Iran and extended deterrence”