Streetwise Professor

May 25, 2006

What, me worry?

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:26 am

The National Journal carried an article on whether Iran can be deterred. The question immediately arises: deterred from doing what? The article is not explicit, but it is implicit that the NR writer means that Iran can be deterred from using an atomic weapon through traditional MAD logic.

This is a reasonable proposition, but largely beside the point. The main danger is not that Iran will use a nuclear weapon as a sword, but that an atomic arsenal is a powerful shield behind which an aggressive Iranian state can conduct low and medium intensity and asymmetric warfare against its neighbors. Iran clearly has large regional designs, and also fancies itself as the vanguard of a campaign to bring down the United States. Indeed, from the time of Khomeni Iran has viewed itself as the successor to the USSR as the main adversary of the US. Although the author of the article, Paul Starobin, and most of these he quotes, point to the example of the operation of deterrence during the Cold War as an illustration of the efficacy of MAD in preventing the offensive use of nuclear weapons, this view neglects that the 1945-1990 period was one of low and medium intensity armed conflict around the globe. MAD deterred the Soviets, Americans, and Chinese from using nuclear arms against one another, but fear of nuclear war also made it much more difficult for the West to confront Soviet aggression, roll back the Iron Curtain, and achieve decisive outcomes in Korea and Viet Nam. Millions died, and millions more lived lives of misery under Communist rule in large part because nuclear weapons served as a shield behind which the USSR (and to some degree China) were able to wreak havoc.

If Iran goes nuclear, it too will gain a substantial increase in its freedom of action–and its freedom to exercise its malign influence beyond its borders. This is hardly a pleasant prospect, and although it pales in comparison to nuclear conflict, given the strategic importance of the Middle East to the US and the West–not to mention the human misery that will result from Iranian mischief–it provides a powerful motive to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.

There is also considerable room to be skeptical whether the lessons of the Cold War are fully applicable to Iran. Educated Westerners have a tendency to misjudge messianic individuals with an intense will to power–such as Lenin or Hitler. The tendency to project our rational templates on to such people is very strong, and has led to complacency, with disastrous results. I see the same tendency in the conventional reaction to Ahmadnejehad. Methinks that he should not be dismissed so readily, and that the logic of deterrence is less comforting when dealing with someone like him and the regime he represents than with the Soviets.

Addendum. There are a couple of other dubious contentions in this article. For instance, Starobin says “[t]he world’s biggest nuclear arsenal did not keep the Soviet Union from imploding — and is of little benefit to today’s Russia, which under Vladimir Putin is attempting to regain its global clout by becoming an energy superpower.” Somebody should tell Putin. One of the uses to which Moscow is putting the revenues that flow from energy superpower status is to upgrade the Soviet military–and most notably, its strategic nuclear forces. As this piece from MissileThreat documents, Russia has put considerable effort into upgrading its Topol-M (NATO designation SS-27) ICBM to allow it to defeat any missile defense, and is proceeding rapidly with its development of the SL version of the Topol-M, the SS-NX-30 Bulava. Despite the collapse of the USSR, and despite its massive endowment of energy, Russia still considers nuclear weapons to be the cornerstone of its strategic power. Even with energy, without nuclear weapons Russia is what Bismarck said it was in the 1860s–a geopolitical void, a nullity. (His quote was, in the French that was the diplomatic language of the age, “La Russie, c’est le neant.”) Putin and the Russian establishment recognize this, and are acting accordingly. Iran has the same understanding. A massive endowment of energy resources is not sufficient for that country to achieve its rulers’ broader geopolitical ambitions. Hence their determined–indeed hell-bent–effort to acquire nuclear weaponry. They are not spending massive resources on something that is useless. Even if never used, nuclear weapons can be quite useful indeed.

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