The Heats Turned Up

In large part, this book about U.S.-Iranian-Israeli international relations sets out to make a case for the progressive secularization of the post-revolutionary Iranian state. In Treacherous Alliance Trita Parsi, adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, argues cogently that the fires of Islamic zealotry as the main determinant in Iranian foreign policy were largely burned out in the holocaust of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. His command of the details of state relations in the period is impressive, but he does not quite convince me of the complete disappearance of Shiite zealotry in Iranian external relations. Iran has continued to be the largest state sponsor of religiously inspired terrorist activity. That fact is hard to ignore.

Nevertheless, Parsi convinces that Iran has largely become a rational actor, to use the terminology of international relations. That is, Iran can be expected to make logical decisions based on considerations of national survival, power and prosperity in the Middle East. If these considerations are congruent with the goals of Shiite eschatological dreams, then so much the better from the point of view of the government in Teheran. In the same way, Iranian clandestine meddling in Iraq can be seen as serving state aspirations for regional dominance as well as help for Shiite brethren.

The existence of an Iranian nuclear program (possibly a weapons program) makes the issue of whether or not Iran can be expected to act rationally in situations threatening national survival very important. To be blunt, the main question that must be asked is whether or not Iran can be deterred from first use of nuclear weapons out of fear of annihilation by the United States or Israel. If state interests prevail in Irans calculus, the answer would be yes. If a search for martyrdom prevails, the answer would be no. Parsi believes that Iran will not commit national suicide and that therefore a Middle East stabilized through fear of mutual assured destruction is possible, indeed desirable if the Iranian program eventually produces deliverable weapons. The recently released key judgments of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran elevates doubt as to whether or not the Iranian program is about weapons, but neither Olmert nor Bush seem inclined to be governed by such doubt.

Neither the United States nor Israel accepts the idea as yet that Iran is a country like all other countries, subject to deterrent pressures. Israel has made it clear that with regard to nuclear weapons, it does not accept deterrence as a principle in making decisions. The Israeli logic in this is quite simple. Strategic bombing targets (nuclear) come in two varieties: counter-force (bases, missiles, aircraft, etc.) and counter-value (population centers). Israels own counter-force targets could conceivably be hardened and defended enough to ensure sufficient survival for a retaliatory strike. This second strike capability is the basis of any MAD deterrent solution.

On the other hand, Israel is largely an urban country and has a highly concentrated population. There are only a few major towns, and these contain most of the Jewish people of Israel. Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ashkelon, Beershebathe list is short. A successful nuclear strike on these towns with just a few weapons would destroy Israel as a country. It might be possible that a retaliatory strike could be made, but what would be the point, revenge?

On the basis of this thinking Israel simply does not accept MAD as a basis for making decisions concerning whether or not to wait and see whether countries like Iran prove to be rational actors. From the Israeli strategic point of view the risks involved in this gamble are simply too great. As a result Israel is inclined toward pre-emptive attack against evolving nuclear threats. The Bush administration speaks of the need to prevent the acquisition of the knowledge necessary for Iranians to make nuclear weapons. From that, it seems likely that Israeli strategic thinking in this matter has become American thinking as well.

Finally, Israels reach with regard to Irans nuclear program and bomb delivery systems is not sufficient. There are a great many Iranian targets. They are scattered and hardened. Distances to Irans facilities are long. Israel has a limited number of tanker aircraft for refueling. Israels strategic strike force is not large enough to deal decisively with these targets using conventional weapons. Civilians want to believe that the provision of bunker-buster bombs by the United States would give Israel the needed capability. In fact, this would not be enough firepower to do the job. Would Israel decide that nuclear weapons must be used? Who knows?

Then there is the issue of routes to the targets. Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would have to be overflown, but none of these countries would give permission. What would the United States do? Surely America would not shoot down Israeli aircraft in such a situation. In fact, the United States would be politically powerless to stop a first wave of attacks.

The United States would be blamed for the attacks across the world, prompting an asymmetrical Iranian response in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and across the world. The truly frightening thing about this scenario is that the United States might have very little warning beforehand. There might be even less control over events as they developed.

Parsis book provides a useful source of facts and background for contemplating this conundrum.

Robert Murray
8 years 7 months ago
Superb, as usual Col. Lang.

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