Thursday, March 09, 2006

Dr. Thomas P.M.Barnett has long advocated a new detente leading to a " grand bargain" with Iran over its nuclear program to acheive its political and economic reintegration into the world community. This would reestablish the strategic status quo ante that existed prior to the 1979 revolution that destroyed the Shah's modernizing regime and instituted implacable ideological hostility between Teheran and Washington.

The strategic logic and the cost-benefit analysis here has considerable attraction. So much so that, like Tom, I suspected that the Bush administration might try a " Nixon goes to China" manuver, particularly after the productive sub rosa coorperation between the the United States IC and its Iranian counterparts leading up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. However the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the seubsequent power struggle between his ultrahardline faction based primarily in the Pasdaran senior leadership and a minority of senior Ayatollahs to Supreme Guide Khameini's right and the " pragmatists" like Rafsanjani and "reformists" led by Khatami to the Left have effectively paralyzed that option.

I have to disagree with Dr. Barnett here however:

"Where is the history of states acquiring the bomb and then using it irrationally? History has consistently proven just the opposite, even with Islamist regimes like Pakistan and quasi-theocracies like Israel. This is just another example of the sad American tendency to demonize all potential foes as irrational. You take down a country on either side of Iran and they reach for the bomb: who's being irrational or naive on that one?"

The rub here is " use" and " rational".

Yes, the existence of deterrence provided by existing members of the nuclear club has an effect of inhibiting first use nuclear strikes by new nuclear powers. No argument. However there are indirect as well as direct uses for nuclear arms.

The record of serious miscalculation in non-nuclear domains by nuclear powers brought on by overconfidence provided by ownership of nuclear waepons is both serious and long -- stretching back to 1945. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes began the tradition of overestimating nuclear status when he expected to use America's nuclear monopoly to pressure the Soviets to make diplomatic concessions on a range of geopolitical issues, largely to no effect whatsoever, with the lone exception of (ironically) the evacuation of northern Iran in 1946 which the Soviets had, in principle, previously agreed to do.

Some other examples of nuclear overconfidence or hubris causing negative effects short of WWIII:

Stalin, who acquired the bomb in 1949, giving permission to Kim Il-Sung to invade South Korea in 1950.

Khrushchev, who acquired not only the hydrogen bomb but crude ICBMs, provoked repeated crisises over Berlin, Cuba and rattled nuclear sabers over Suez.

Charles DeGualle whose much longed for Force de Frappe led him to pull France out of NATO's military command, greatly weakening the alliance.

China, which had acquired the bomb in 1964, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with the USSR over a few tiny islands in the Ussuri river inhabited primarily by trees and polar bears.

By my count I see the possession of nuclear weapons leading statesmen to gamble in a way that almost caused a nuclear war at least twice and a serious conventional war at least once ( without even considering the recent history of the Indian subcontinent).

My confidence in the self-restraint of the current President of Iran is several orders of magnitude below that of Nikita Khrushchev.
Well that won't really matter since I'm pretty sure we won't be depending on Ahmadinejad's restraint. Do you think those nukes would actually go anywhere if the Khameni faction didn't want them to?
I think there is something to be said for the early adventurism by young nuclear powers, but as these states aged and as the world as a whole gained greater experience with nuclear weapons--their strengths and their limitations--I think most have learned that nuclear compellence is difficult. There is a learning curnve here I think. Your examples are plausible but its instructive to note that while Khrushchev certainly probed a great deal in Berlin he never got what he wanted and Cuba was more of an excercise in restoring what he saw as an imbalance in the nuclear realm. I do not think Iran would be able to extract great changes in the status quo once they acquire nukes (wrote about this a while back here). On balance, I do belive nuclear weapons encourage restraint rather than adventurism, Iran should be no different...
I have to agree with Dr. Barnett (especially on the point of "why wouldn't you want nukes with US forces on both sides of you and an overly aggressive White House attitude"), and I'm pretty sure that Dr. Friedman (STRATFOR) does too. It may seem like Iran's leaders are religious fanatics immune to the logic of cooperating on the global stage and therefore irrational, but that's an act that pleases the public and keeps them in the press as a contender against the Great Satan. I suspect many of Iran's leaders are highly educated and very keen of political issues, and they know their limitations, especially post-1988, after they had to tangle with the (then) 4th largest armed force in the world.

What I find disingenuous is this administration's wardrum beating against Iran - I think it shows that they still haven't gotten the idea that Cold War muscle movements don't work in the Middle East (or Southeast Asia for that matter). Don't discount the Iranian leaders as irrational. Even Saddam at his high and low points in power wasn't irrational in as far as military actions - he just underestimated the US political responses.

Strongly suggest reading Schelling's "Arms and Influence" on his discussion over nation states' rational exercise of force and promises of lack of force, and the extension of that to nuclear weapons. I've seen more and more people note how nuclear weapons preserved the peace rather than heightened tensions, there must be something there.
What's irrational about using a nuclear weapon if you have one and you have little reason to believe that there will be any negative repercussions (that you aren't already experiencing) from its use?

The real irrationality is in those who believe that nuclear weapons are anything other than weapons.
And BTW while

"You take down a country on either side of Iran and they reach for the bomb: who's being irrational or naive on that one?"

is a nice rhetorical flourish, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons precedes our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by more than a decade and, therefore, they cannot be considered to be causative.
Yes, Dave, Iran's been looking toward nukes for a while, and although the recent saber rattling is our fault, the past is the past. However, it's still the RATIONAL desire of Iran not to be screwed with by Iraq or other neighboring countries that its leadership seeks the bomb.
My point precisely, J. My concern is not that Iran will use nuclear weapons irrationally. My concern is that they will use them rationally.
Hi everyone,

For Matt & J.

The most likely organizational outcome of Iranian nukes would be that they would be placed under the operational control of a special unit of the Pasdaran. While Khameini is nominally the supremo in military chain of command I question the loyalty of senior guard commanders which are by all reports, ideologically more in line with Ahmadinejad. There's a power struggle going on inside the Iranian elite and the dynamics situation is far from transparent.

For Bill,

In the long run, I agree with you regarding stability and nuclear arms. The problem is that Iran's leadership begins on the bad end of the learning curve with a sizable amount of ideological baggage. My concern is that Iran's wackier factions might not get through the initial euphoria of nuclear status without provoking a major calamity along the way.


That too is another concern beyond miscalculation. Excellent point.
What's irrational about using a nuclear weapon if you have one and you have little reason to believe that there will be any negative repercussions (that you aren't already experiencing) from its use?

Ummm, nuclear annihilation would be a pretty big repercussion.
Why would the Iranians believe that was a possibility? Contrariwise, I believe that they think they've got the world literally over a barrel—an oil barrel.

It reminds of the discussions some years back of companies that were simply too large to be allowed to fail.
"Why would the Iranians believe that was a possibility?"

It seemed to work pretty well with the Soviets for 40 years.
That was because the Soviets believed us. The Iranians have little reason to do so.
The Politburo also wasn't filled with a wacky derivation of Twelver Shiites.

The Soviets, for their many faults, also had a coherent and rigidly vertical chain of command. Iran's political system at the highest levels has overlapping and competing parallel authorities. Not my idea of secure nuclear command and control.
Excellent point, mark. This seems like an appropriate time to bring up a point I've made before: judging by the escalating level of violence in their repression using hired foreign thugs, I'd say the Iranian regime was unstable.

An unstable regime with a history of suppporting terrorist (and Al-Qaeda “guests” by their own admission) with nuclear weapons. Now there's a confidence builder. But that's a different subject than your post.
I'm really confused here Dave, why wouldn't the Iranians have reason to believe the US?
I've put my explanation over at my blog here.
Dave, as you know I'm all in favour of a public reformulation of nuclear policy, and I'm taking it as assumed that this would be necessary for deterrance to be effective.

Frankly I think it's a big stretch to say that the bickering over Iraq would lead any observer to believe that Americans don't have the stomach for killing -- quite the opposite in fact, I think everything that's happened since 9/11 (wuth the nonsense over DPW being the most recent example) should be enough to show that Americans are significantly on edge and not averse to lashing out. All Iraq proves is that Americans don't have much stomach for long, drawn out operations where there's no clear sense of progress.

A nuclear strike, on the other hand, would happen in a flash and is exactly the kind of thing the US would be more prone to do. In this case it's a more convincing threat than the threat of a conventional military conflict.
And as for the economics of it, you've got to be kidding me. An oil shock would be bad, but far worse would be the consequences of breaking the nuclear taboo. There's no comparison.
Matt, I'm not saying what I believe to be the case. I'm laying out what I believe the regime in Iran is thinking. This stuff is exactly what they've been saying over the last few weeks and months.

As I said in my post, I don't think that's irrational. I just think it's looking at the facts as they see them and drawing different conclusions than we might.
Mark, nice post. Sorry to come to the party so late, but I’ve been trying to speak Estonian all week. I think I’ve got something to add, but, võib-olla homme päev, um, maybe tomorrow.

Hi Cheryl,

correct me if I'm wrong but aren't the Estonians an ethnolinguistic anamoly for the region ? A Non-Western Slavic group in a East and West Slav borderland....where are they on the Indo-European family tree ?

Not that this has anything to do with Iranian nukes but I'm curious.
The Estonian language is a Uralic language of the Finno-Ugric branch. It's most closely related to Finnish and more distantly to Hungarian.

Not Slavic. Not even Indo-European.
Isn't the nuclear issue really a red herring? Iran is buying a lot of time while it solidifies its terror lines, and who knows what else.

The logistics of any operation probably has our military logisticians pulling their hair out.

I say the more Iraq and Afghanistan get developed and headed towards another phase of stabilization, the less likely something happens with Iran. That is why we have not dropped bombs on North Korea yet--it is sandwiched by one highly developed community and one slowly on the way. Plus a more stabilized Iraq and Afghanistan will be much more involved in regional, foreign affairs.
Hi Shawn,

"Isn't the nuclear issue really a red herring?"

Good question. To which I answer both yes and no.

Dr. Barnett often describes Iran's quest for the bomb as " slow motion" - which it is considering that the Shah initiated a nuclear program circa 1972-1974. There has not been the crash program effort we saw with Saddam, North Korea or Pakistan where Ali Bhutto vowed that Pakistanis " would eat grass" in order to direct all resources to going nuclear. Iran has been slow but steady and methodical in comparison.

This leads a lot of people in the international diplomatic set to view Iran's nuke program as a critical bargaining chip with the West the way the U.S. used SDI with the Soviets.

As with SDI, there are those in Iran who will have the bomb at all costs and not trade it away for a generous trade deal with the EU and normalization of diplomatic relations with America or anything else. They are also the same nasty factions who view the use of terror as a religious duty of jihad and not a tool of realpolitik to acheive some state interest of Iran.

A bad combination in my view.
Hey Dave,

Thanks ! I knew the Estonians were an odd fit for some reason.
Dave has it right about Estonian.

But Mark's comment reminds me of something the Estonians like to say of themselves, which is quite true: The East of the West, and the West of the East.

Or Laane Ida, ida Laane. (I think that would be how you'd say it.) What's fun is that sometimes the Estonian is much longer than the English, sometimes the other way around. I've given you examples of both.

Still not ready to deal with the nuclear.

Here's a comment about what a sane person/country should do:

You know, in a sane world, every country would unite against Iran and blow it off the face of the earth. That would be the sane thing to do, just go in and remove the government, because this is a terrorist state.
Bill O'Reilley

In retrospect, countries seem to make sane decisions, but I'm not so sure in the short run.
Okay, since I'm coming in so late, I get to sort of summarize (but with my very own spin) what's gone before.

1. I wouldn't discount Ahmadinejad's rationality. His more outrageous statements appear to be playing to his base at home. (Ever wonder what some of Bush's statements sound like outside the US of A?) As Mark points out, there are divisions in Iran's government that he has to balance.

People who reach those heights of governing are quite bright. Their brilliance may be manipulative or it may be strategic, or it may be some combination of characteristics.

2. I agree that Iran offers Bush a "Nixon in China" opportunity. I haven't figured out how to play it, though. I'll post when (and if) I do.

Unfortunately, it appears that Bush has no such intention. Today's WaPo has an article on their attempts from outside to prompt an Estonian-type internal revolution. Ain't going to happen, for reasons I hope to post at WhirledView later today.

3. What I particularly like, Mark, about your analysis is the indirect use of nuclear weapons. This has, with one exception, been their primary use, and your list of misjudgments is a good one. They don't get the same attention as misjudgments in the use of weapons because they're not as spectacular, although they may lead to spectacular use of weapons.

4. Dave Schuler asks a good question

What's irrational about using a nuclear weapon if you have one and you have little reason to believe that there will be any negative repercussions (that you aren't already experiencing) from its use?

and Matt McIntosh provides an even better answer.

Ummm, nuclear annihilation would be a pretty big repercussion.

I tend to agree with Matt that any use of nuclear weapons that could be traced to Iran, particularly delivery via missile, is likely to be met with immediate nuclear destruction. The US and Israel are the primary candidates, but I can also see Russia doing it, depending on where and how the strike takes place.

Nothing in current international relations suggests to me that retaliation wouldn't take place, but even if Iran's rulers are more sanguine than I am, they have to consider this possibility, which will make them more cautious, particularly if they have only one bomb.

Turning Iran's cities into smoking nuclear ruins wouldn't necessarily remove oil production. An occupying force could turn the oil back on. Residual radiation would be localized, and don't forget that the US Army occupied Hiroshima and Nagasaki immediately. The radiation is enough that you wouldn't want to live there, but it doesn't exclude people entirely.

answer to tom b...

there is an example in the early 1980s of near disaster too.

USSR watched a NATO exercise and thought it was preparation for preemptive strike.

gordievki, then one of MI6's top agents but not revealed to USA cos of penetration (ames et al), told scarlett @ MI6... soviets started to ramp up preparations which provoked US etc... MI6 told thatcher, thatcher called reagan and said - a) you r scaring sovs who think youre going to strike, b) the sovs are not preparing a first strike...

this is another more recent example of the information-signals going seriously awry between experienced nuclear powers with leaderships much more "rational" than iranian regime.

von neumann recommended pre-emptive strike in 40s and if cuba crisis had gone wrong, the west's survivors wd presumably have cncluded that that wd have been preferable to actual course of events...

isnt big question - is it conceivable that the species cd go 1000 years without WMD use, given exponential increase of technology as warned of by bill joy et al?

barnett is good on lots of things but his emotions are now leading his argument - he wants to think we will all become Last Men a la hegel but evidence is not optimistic...

UK fan
ps. i think gorievski has written about this episode somewhere
Hi Cheryl,

Better late than never I always say.

Oh, I don't discount that Iran's president is shrewd and effective. However he is " anti status quo" inside Iran ( restore the purity of Khomenism tha has been corrupted by the clerical hierarchy's material greed) and out in the sense of making Iran the power of the Gulf that it currently is not.

I also suggest that we sometimes err by attributing more realist cynicism to fanatics than they actually have - particularly when we touch on matters that are in their ideological core. Cynicism can also be fanaticism's bodyguard. We might entertain the possibility that he means what he says.

Hi UK fan,

You are correct on the Gordievskii reference - the KGB/GRU officers were under bureaucratic pressure to "stovepipe" evidence that fit Andropov's and the Politburo's preconceptions of a surprise American first strike. So..they did.

"isnt big question - is it conceivable that the species cd go 1000 years without WMD use, given exponential increase of technology as warned of by bill joy et al?"

Barring a draconian clampdown on proliferation activities, I expect nuclear weapons to be used within my lifetime - if you include radiological weapons as "nuclear", within just a few years time.
No Mark, don't include radiological weapons as nuclear. Big difference.

Post a Comment

<< Home
Zenpundit - a NEWSMAGAZINE and JOURNAL of scholarly opinion.

My Photo
Location: Chicago, United States

" The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances as though they were realities" -- Machiavelli

Determined Designs Web Solutions Lijit Search
02/01/2003 - 03/01/2003 / 03/01/2003 - 04/01/2003 / 04/01/2003 - 05/01/2003 / 05/01/2003 - 06/01/2003 / 06/01/2003 - 07/01/2003 / 07/01/2003 - 08/01/2003 / 08/01/2003 - 09/01/2003 / 09/01/2003 - 10/01/2003 / 10/01/2003 - 11/01/2003 / 11/01/2003 - 12/01/2003 / 12/01/2003 - 01/01/2004 / 01/01/2004 - 02/01/2004 / 02/01/2004 - 03/01/2004 / 03/01/2004 - 04/01/2004 / 04/01/2004 - 05/01/2004 / 05/01/2004 - 06/01/2004 / 06/01/2004 - 07/01/2004 / 07/01/2004 - 08/01/2004 / 08/01/2004 - 09/01/2004 / 09/01/2004 - 10/01/2004 / 10/01/2004 - 11/01/2004 / 11/01/2004 - 12/01/2004 / 12/01/2004 - 01/01/2005 / 01/01/2005 - 02/01/2005 / 02/01/2005 - 03/01/2005 / 03/01/2005 - 04/01/2005 / 04/01/2005 - 05/01/2005 / 05/01/2005 - 06/01/2005 / 06/01/2005 - 07/01/2005 / 07/01/2005 - 08/01/2005 / 08/01/2005 - 09/01/2005 / 09/01/2005 - 10/01/2005 / 10/01/2005 - 11/01/2005 / 11/01/2005 - 12/01/2005 / 12/01/2005 - 01/01/2006 / 01/01/2006 - 02/01/2006 / 02/01/2006 - 03/01/2006 / 03/01/2006 - 04/01/2006 / 04/01/2006 - 05/01/2006 / 05/01/2006 - 06/01/2006 / 06/01/2006 - 07/01/2006 / 07/01/2006 - 08/01/2006 / 08/01/2006 - 09/01/2006 / 09/01/2006 - 10/01/2006 / 10/01/2006 - 11/01/2006 / 11/01/2006 - 12/01/2006 / 12/01/2006 - 01/01/2007 / 01/01/2007 - 02/01/2007 / 02/01/2007 - 03/01/2007 / 03/01/2007 - 04/01/2007 / 04/01/2007 - 05/01/2007 / 05/01/2007 - 06/01/2007 / 06/01/2007 - 07/01/2007 / 07/01/2007 - 08/01/2007 / 08/01/2007 - 09/01/2007 / 09/01/2007 - 10/01/2007 / 10/01/2007 - 11/01/2007 / 11/01/2007 - 12/01/2007 /

follow zenpundit at http://twitter.com
This plugin requires Adobe Flash 9.
Get this widget!
Sphere Featured Blogs Powered by Blogger StatisfyZenpundit

Site Feed Who Links Here
Buzztracker daily image Blogroll Me!