A stable nuclear balance of terror in the Middle East possible? Illusions versus rationality.

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

Should the current pressure by sanctions prove insufficient to stop the Iranian nuclear program, the risks inherent in the ultimate recourse to military attack are well-known: escalation, destabilization, collateral military and political damage, strengthening of Iranian resolve to acquire such weapons and rallying the Iranian opposition behind the regime. Still, the evolving perception in the current Israeli government and the Obama Administration seems to be that the risks arising from Iranian nuclear arms outweigh those of military attack.

Those that disagree with this relative risk assessment point out that living with Iranian nuclear arms, if need be, is the lesser risk. Beyond hoping to deter forced regime change or invasion, Iran can reap no military or political benefit from them, and therefore will have no incentive to try. This is the clear historical lesson of nuclear arms so far, as President Ahjmadinnejad himself repeatedly points out in interviews.

The view is entirely correct that nuclear arms are useless as instruments of power projection – and hopefully seen to be so – and therefore need not be feared by other countries. But, unfortunately, this reassurance totally misses the point. There is still the very real risk that these doomsday weapons can be released inadvertently by misunderstandings, misjudgments and technical malfuntions. This is another lesson of the Cold War that came to light after it was over; an insight that should be sobering to those who trust the stability of a nuclear balance of terror.

The nuclear balance of terror of the Cold War provides the analogies by which the risks of similar prospects in the Middle East must be asessed. The perceived stability has now proved an illusion.
This illusion was sincerely believed, as demonstrated as late as 1987 by the comprehensive study “Managing Nuclear Operations”.(1) In great and terrifying detail this study discussed how the nuclear balance of terror operated, or should it fail how nuclear war could actually be conducted – and hopefully stopped. Just like all responsible policy makers at the time, the analysts behind the study naively overrated the ability of the individual human mind as well as complex organizations to maintain rational and effective control during confrontation and crisis. The overriding concern of nuclear strategy during the Cold War was to deter, and, if perceived necessary, pre-empt, the ever-present option of the decapitating first strike by the other side. For this purpose, thousands of nuclear arms were kept on hair-trigger alert. In hindsight, we now see that the elaborate nuclear strategies of the Cold War, as set out in this study, conceived by the brightest minds of their time as the apex of logic and rationality, were actually inherently contradictory: nuclear war must at all times be possible to remain impossible. As a consequence the nuclear balance of terror, like the one Iran may now be on the verge on imposing on its region, was dangerously unstable.

Unknown to the overconfident analysts of nuclear strategy in 1987, the much-feared first strike emerged as a serious Soviet option only four years earlier, in 1983, in response to the mistaken belief
that the other side planned the same (2). Contrary to the common belief at the time, the lessons of the dangerous confrontations of the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 had failed to inspire the caution needed to prevent a new skid to the brink of the abyss. Especially perilous was the cowardice of Soviet intelligence operatives, which prevented them from passing on correct information, fearing the personal consequences should the truth they conveyed challenge the conspiracy theories of their superiors in the Kremlin.(3)

All these fallacies of the Cold War decision-making on nuclear arms would be much worse in a region like the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The minimum of communication and cooperation that kept us all alive during the dangerous brinksmanship of the Cold War is practically absent. Both Israel and Iran officially deny possession and plans for nuclear arms, forcing the others to guess the answers to such vital security questions as capabilities, command and control systems, perceived missions, as well as the political and operational nuclear doctrines, should such exist at all. Saudi Arabia could easily aggravate this dangerously unstable situation by exercising their presumed option to acquire a ready set-up from Pakistan.

The rule of thumb is that nuclear deterrence can only be stable as long as it is unilateral, such as now when Israel alone is a nuclear power in the region (4). A bipolar deterrence introduces the terrifying option of a decapitating first-strike, which makes it inherently unstable. For each new nuclear-armed state added, the balance of terror becomes increasingly unstable because there will be more uncertain factors to juggle. In crisis, pressure and stress will impair human minds’ capacity to rationally weigh goals, costs and risks, precisely when this vital ability is most called for.
To keep us all alive under the menace of nuclear arms, rationality must prevail over illusions. The kind of dangerous suspicions during the Cold War that caused the close call in 1983 would be an almost permanent feature of a nuclear balance of terror in the Middle East. Preventing nuclear proliferation in the region is therefore imperative.

1 Ashton B. Carter, John D. Steinbrunner, and Charles A. Zracket Managing Nuclear Operations, Brookings 1987 (reviewed in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists December 1987)
2 Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitroknin The KGB in Europe and the West. The Mitroknin Archive, Penguin Books, 2000, p. 278-279. David E. Hoffman The Dead Hand. Reagan, Gorbachev and the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race, Icon Books, (2009) 2011, p. 60-72
3 Andrew & Mitrokhin, p. 279, Hoffman, p. 62
4 Turkey has nuclear arms under Nato control

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