Preventing a Nuclear Exchange

 

shutterstock_95638939My view is that arguments about whether this is “a good deal” are missing the point; the point is that everyone within the time zone of sanity understands that, even in the best-case scenario, we’ve done no more than buy time. What do we plan to do with that time?

For the sake of argument, let’s take Fred Cole’s position as “the most optimistic that can be held while remaining in the time-zone of sanity.” Fred Cole asked, “And how long before they’re tired of having an Islamic republic and turn to liberal democracy?” My answer, Fred — and would you agree? — is, “We don’t know.” The assumption that everyone sooner or later wants a liberal democracy has been tested and found wanting. No one can count on this happening, no less make a confident prediction that it will happen within a given time frame.

I agree with Adam Garfinkle that this is the key point:

We have to assume, if we err on the prophylactic side of safety, that there is going to be a nuclear exchange in the region — perhaps spilling over into South Asia and even elsewhere — unless something fairly novel is done to prevent it.

He continues by suggesting that our policy should, in effect, be something we can scarcely even debate among ourselves:

Could we through a combination of conventional precision-strike munitions and cyber-ops — accompanied of course by space- and land-based intelligence assets for purposes of target acquisition — abort the attempt of 3rd and 4th parties, so to speak, from launching nuclear weapons against each other and/or their other neighbors? Might rapidly deployable forms of missile defense augment such a capability?

We cannot reliably do any such thing right now, but there is no scenario for which such a capability is fully relevant right now. Looking to the future, yes we can do this, if we try. We should therefore begin now quietly [my emphasis] developing the means to unilaterally sterilize, or suppress to the extent possible, the prospects for nuclear weapons exchanges within the Middle East, and do some serious thinking about how to integrate such a capability into U.S. military doctrine.

I don’t know whether he is correct to say that we can, if we try. We can’t if we don’t, obviously. And we do have to try. “What really matters looking out ahead is very scary,” he concludes, “but it is not something we are powerless to affect. And we really need to affect it.”

By definition, this is not a policy we can announce, and it is thus not one we can truly debate. We are, democratically speaking, stuck. It’s a genuine dilemma: We can’t advocate the policy we most need. We can’t rationally debate how much funding should be allocated to this “serious thinking,” because all such proposals would necessarily and properly be classified. We can’t meaningfully decide which ideas are worth the research budget and which are pure technological folly.

But the debate is no longer about this deal. It’s about recognizing that a proliferation nightmare without historic precedent is a perfectly plausible outcome, one that we have at best postponed by a few years. Stopping this deal won’t stop that nightmare. Voting against the deal simply to register one’s objection to the past 20 years of American foreign policy is moral preening; it amounts to saying, “Alas, too bad, nuclear war is at hand. Let history note my stance: I was against it.”

History’s not going to note — or thank — anyone for that. The question is, “What now?”

Published in Foreign Policy, General
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  1. user_1065645 Contributor
    user_1065645
    @DaveSussman

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: The question is, “What now?”

    The only optimism I hear derives from Obama’s bankrupt campaign slogan: Hope.

    Then there’s reality: There’s not enough votes in congress that can effect this deal. Therefore, proliferation throughout the region is more than plausible. Iran already has the technology for ICBM’s. Others will follow suit. Through hardliners, it will just be a matter of time before the Islamic State get their weapons.

    What now? Pray.

    • #1
  2. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    I don’t know how you “sterilize” the prospects of a nuclear weapons exchange.  It sounds a bit like “glass.”

    The only thing I can think to do, which the current president won’t, is to make sure the Saudis and the Turks have nuclear weapons of their own, and then hope MAD works on madmen.

    • #2
  3. user_1008534 Member
    user_1008534
    @Ekosj

    I hate to say this Claire, but I think it is probably a moot point. I think everyone would agree that for the next 18 months or so NOTHING will be done.

    Given that, it would be in Iran’s best interest to do whatever they have in mind before then. Because you are correct, it Might be possible, with time, to mitigate the impact of a nuclear armed Iran. No point in Iran going through all this effort only to be one-upped by some technological gizmo at the 11th hour. But for the next 18 months they seem to have a window of opportunity. I’m afraid they’ll use it. I’d guess that whatever clandestine efforts underway in Iran are now working 3 shifts.

    I’m sure they know the story. Is it Herodotus? ” A year is a long time. Many things can happen. And who knows. Maybe the horse will sing!”

    So, if you are Iran, why wait?

    Boy oh boy, do I ever want to be wrong on this. But I think the near future is the most dangerous time.

    • #3
  4. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @Manny

    My opinion is that Israel should now form allegences with the major Sunni countries in the area and form a shared defensive framework, including the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  There has to be a deterence to Iran.

    Let me emphasize that last sentence.  There has to be a physical, mlitary deterence (not nonsense snapback econmic sanctions) to Iran. The deterence will have to be both nuclear and defensive ground forces.   I don’t think Israel alone can deter Iran, especially if the US under Obama is neutral.  Israel can no longer trust the Democratic Party half of the USA.  I feel ashamed as an American to say that, but it’s the truth.

    • #4
  5. liberal jim Inactive
    liberal jim
    @liberaljim

    Reagan faced a more formidable and dangerous nation and dealt with it quite successfully.  He did so not by adopting some sort of the conventionally acceptable political variation of the approach which was known at the time as detente, but instead he chose aggressive confrontation.

    One would think future Presidents might have learned something form this,  but since we have had, kinder gentler, head in the sand, cowboy compassion, and now enlighten dialog approaches.

    Iran is not the problem.  We need a President who is not primarily concerned with appearing to be a real nice, intellectually and/or morally superior guy,  in short a leader.

    After four poor to mediocre presidents I am surprised things aren’t worse.

    • #5
  6. user_656019 Coolidge
    user_656019
    @RayKujawa

    The solution?

    Gort_Firing

    We cannot reliably do any such thing right now, but there is no scenario for which such a capability is fully relevant right now. Looking to the future, yes we can do this, if we try. We should therefore begin now quietly [my emphasis] developing the means to unilaterally sterilize, or suppress to the extent possible, the prospects for nuclear weapons exchanges within the Middle East, and do some serious thinking about how to integrate such a capability into U.S. military doctrine.

    • #6
  7. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: My view is that arguments about whether this is “a good deal” are missing the point; the point is that everyone within the time zone of sanity understands that, even in the best-case scenario, we’ve done no more than buy time.

    Is anything more than that even achievable, over the long term? Can the proliferation of nuclear weapons ever truly be halted, or can proliferation merely ever be delayed?

    Judging the deal as “better” or “worse” than it could have been may simply be a reflection that a perfect deal, one which eliminates the proliferation of nuclear weapons permanently, is impossible (or at least impossible to achieve via diplomacy).

    • #7
  8. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Ray Kujawa:The solution?

    Gort_Firing

    Gort’s directive was to destroy all humanity, not merely a single rogue nation.

    Is the problem “how to prevent bad actors from obtaining nuclear weapons” or “how to eliminate all risk of nuclear weapons ever being used in the future?”

    We should therefore begin now quietly  developing the means to unilaterally sterilize, or suppress to the extent possible, the prospects for nuclear weapons exchanges within the Middle East [in this case, emphasis mine].

    Destroying all of humanity would indeed eliminate any possibility of a nuclear exchange in the middle east.

    • #8
  9. user_891102 Member
    user_891102
    @DannyAlexander

    Claire (and all), please see my comment #10 on Richard Harvester’s post (on the Main Feed, posted just before this OP, and also addressing the what-is-to-be-done-about-Iran question, from Israel’s perspective.)

    In short, absent an astonishing (and miraculous) accomplishment of moral courage on Capitol Hill during the next 60-odd days, Israel will have to launch a preemptive strike against regime targets in Iran, and do so using nuclear weapons if military exigencies require.

    I’m sorry that potentially millions of genuinely innocent Iranians will suffer and die in such a scenario, but *my* people are not morally obligated to dispense with self-preservation. The Khomeinist regime will not change and/or wither away on a timetable that is more accelerated than same regime’s plans to annihilate everyone in the Jewish State.

    Indeed, with this deal, Obama has intentionally further *entrenched* and bolstered the regime.
    (See for example Lee Smith’s newest article on the Weekly Standard site, about — among other things — the POTUS’s lifting of sanctions on Qassem Soleimani.)

    • #9
  10. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Sabrdance: The only thing I can think to do, which the current president won’t, is to make sure the Saudis and the Turks have nuclear weapons of their own, and then hope MAD works on madmen.

    This raises an interesting question. Why haven’t other oil-rich nations, like the Saudis, developed nuclear weapons?

    Tiny Israel managed to pull it off without oil wealth. If Saudi Arabia cannot develop nuclear weapons without the permission of the United States, does that not imply that Israel couldn’t have done it without permission either?

    (I’m taking it for granted that tiny, oil-poor Israel pulled it off without American assistance, and that therefore so could oil-rich Saudi Arabia.)

    • #10
  11. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Manny: My opinion is that Israel should now form allegences with the major Sunni countries in the area and form a shared defensive framework, including the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

    I don’t think that’s up to Israel. I’d wager that, throughout its history, Israel would have loved to form mutual defence alliances with its neighbours. It’s not like this sort of military cooperation between Muslims and Jews is being stymied by Israeli intransigence.

    • #11
  12. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Misthiocracy: Is anything more achievable, over the long term? Can the proliferation of nuclear weapons ever truly be halted, or can proliferation merely ever be delayed?

    I think we’re agreeing, though I’m not sure I understand your comment, so I’ll ask for clarification. My point is that the deal itself is the culmination of decades of failed non-proliferation policy, and that focusing on it is missing the bigger picture, which is that at this point, we’re looking at a good chance of a nuclear exchange in this region within the coming 15 years. I can’t quantify “a good chance,” and no one can, but it is clearly high enough that we must not dismiss it as unlikely. The next step, obviously, has to be something like a Manhattan Project focussed on developing technology that could neutralize these weapons. Is that what you mean?

    • #12
  13. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Misthiocracy: This raises an interesting question. Why haven’t other oil-rich nations, like the Saudis, developed nuclear weapons?

    There have been many rumors that the Saudis funded the Pakistani program in exchange for the right to purchase Nuclear Weapons Capability:

    The main concern shared by US and European officials was that if Saudi Arabia were to acquire an atomic weapon, it could spur other Sunni nations to follow suit.

    An anonymous British military official also told The Sunday Times that Western military leaders “all assume the Saudis have made the decision to go nuclear.”

    The official added, “The fear is that other Middle Eastern powers — Turkey and Egypt — may feel compelled to do the same and we will see a new, even more dangerous, arms race.”

    This position was also mirrored by other, non-Saudi Gulf states ata summit last week between the US and several Arab countries. One unnamed Gulf state leader attending the Camp David summit told The New York Times, “We can’t sit back and be nowhere as Iran is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research.”

    The Saudis have denied this:

    Days after a report surfaced which claimed Saudi Arabia wanted to buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan, a defense official of the Kingdom  dismissed it as mere “speculation”on TuesdayCNN reported.

    The Sunday Times of London had published a report which claimed that Saudi Arabia had “taken the ‘strategic decision’ to acquire ‘off-the-shelf’ atomic weapons from Pakistan,” citing unnamed American officials, in a bid to counter Iran after the recent nuclear deal it reached with the West.

    A Saudi Defense Ministry official however said that such reports were not new. “I don’t understand what the story is. This has been in the news for 18 years and will continue to be for the next 15 years.”

    • #13
  14. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    A nuclear conflict is not the end of the world. It really does matter that there be a winner, and the winner needs to be the forces of good.

    • #14
  15. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    I think we’re agreeing, though I’m not sure I understand your comment, so I’ll ask for clarification. My point is that the deal itself is the culmination of decades of failed non-proliferation policy, and that focusing on it is missing the bigger picture, which is that at this point, we’re looking at a good chance of a nuclear exchange in this region within the coming 15 years. I can’t quantify “a good chance,” and no one can, but it is clearly high enough that we must not dismiss it as unlikely. The next step, obviously, has to be something like a Manhattan Project focussed on developing technology that could neutralize these weapons. Is that what you mean?

    I mean two things.

    a) The claim that “all we’ve done is buy time” seems to imply that this achievement wasn’t worth the effort. My point is that maybe “buying time” was the best outcome possible at this juncture, and therefore may have been worth the effort.

    b) Those who argue that this deal was not as good as it could have been are basically either arguing that “buying time” was not the best possible outcome, or that the price that was paid for this extra time was too high. This does not seem to me like an entirely irrelevant question, as it may help decision-makers plot their next moves going forward.

    • #15
  16. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    iWe:A nuclear conflict is not the end of the world.

    Erratum: A nuclear conflict is not necessarily the end of the world, but it can be.

    • #16
  17. user_129539 Member
    user_129539
    @BrianClendinen

    So we are going to delay them getting Nukes at the expense of billions of more dollars a year going to terrorist organizations and Iran building up its military with outside hardware from Russia and China.

    Listen stopping nuclear proliferation by the West is actually very easy if the west could stomach the collator damage and cost with little no no lost of life from Western nations.  You just draw a line in the sand, any location you have a nuclear test or nuclear facilities for bombs that we know of we will nuke that location. Lets be honest if we can get missile defense to work with an over 90% accuracy rate, only the large nations who have early warning systems and nuclear missile subs would actually be a threat to us if we launched a preemptive strike on their Nukes.

    Then again the only solution for the last 15 year to Iran getting nukes has been War.  Whether that be an Iranian civil war or the west attacking. All other strategies are just delay tactics.

    • #17
  18. Eric Hines Inactive
    Eric Hines
    @EricHines

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I don’t know whether he is correct to say that we can, if we try.  …  By definition, this is not a policy we can announce, and it is thus not one we can truly debate.

    Apologies if I’ve distorted your point with my editing.  Nonetheless, it leads well into my point, which is this: yes, can announce such a policy (of missile and cyber defense against nuclear attack), and it can be debated publicly.  We announced, loudly and often, our policy of developing a space-based missile defense system aimed, explicitly, against Russian missiles.  And then we developed one.  And it had salutary effects.

    We can, and should, do such a thing today.  We have missile defense systems available now, that we’ve put in place in Israel, that were adequate to severely degrade Iraq’s missile attacks against Israel, and Israel has developed a short-range missile defense that works like a champ.

    We should deploy–loudly and publicly–such defenses throughout eastern Europe and Israel.  To an extent, a seaborne system centered on Aegis, exists, and we should loudly and publicly deploy that in the Arabian Gulf.

    We should loudly and publicly say–and fund the effort–that we’re upgrading existing, and developing new, such systems for rapid deployment.

    Of course, that would require this President to renounce his stated policy regarding missile defense or await his departure from the White House.

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Voting against the deal simply to register one’s objection to the past 20 years of American foreign policy is moral preening

    It’s not moral preening except to the preeners.  It’s still a necessary act; it’s just not sufficient.  It needs to be done in conjunction–or preceding, as a practical matter–the foregoing.

    Aside from the economic failure SDI caused the USSR, its mere existence so degraded their offensive nuclear force as to render it largely a waste of money.  Iran has a higher pain- and give-a-…threshold than the USSR, but such a system can render an Iranian nuclear system ineffective.

    The damage done, and the inevitability of a nuclear weapons race in the Middle East, is not from the Iranian nuclear weapons deal just concluded, except as a symptom, but from the demonstrated inconstancy of the United States as a friend and as an enemy.  That damage will be a long time being corrected, and in the interim, it’s critical to mount the defenses–publicly–and cancel this “deal.”

    An effective defense won’t be proof against some warheads getting through, but it will reduce the number to a degree fatal to the purpose of the attack, and it has an excellent chance, from that, of preventing the exchange from spreading beyond the region.

    Eric Hines

    • #18
  19. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Ekosj:I hate to say this Claire, but I think it is probably a moot point.I think everyone would agree that for the next 18 months or so NOTHING will be done.

    Given that, it would be in Iran’s best interest to do whatever they have in mind before then.Because you are correct, it Might be possible, with time, to mitigate the impact of a nuclear armed Iran. No point in Iran going through all this effort only to be one-upped by some technological gizmo at the 11th hour. But for the next 18 months they seem to have a window of opportunity.I’m afraid they’ll use it.I’d guess that whatever clandestine efforts underway in Iran are now working 3 shifts.

    I’m sure they know the story. Is it Herodotus?” A year is a long time. Many things can happen. And who knows.Maybe the horse will sing!”

    So, if you are Iran, why wait?

    Boy oh boy, do I ever want to be wrong on this. But I think the near future is the most dangerous time.

    I agree with your time frame.

    • #19
  20. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    iWe:A nuclear conflict is not the end of the world. It really does matter that there be a winner, and the winner needs to be the forces of good.

    Exactly right on all three points.

    • #20
  21. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Fred will need to join in to confirm this, but I believe you’ll find that he doesn’t share your assumptions about it being unequivocally bad when Iran gains nuclear weapons.

    He doesn’t have a plan for what to do when the Iranian’s back out of the deal, or at the end of the ten years.  He doesn’t see any reason to prevent a sovereign state from gaining nukes.

    His arguments about the difficulties of airstrikes, and the likelihood of a backlash are only convenient points to argue instead of his actual position that it is immoral for the US to bomb a foreign country in anticipation of future aggression.

    • #21
  22. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    While Fred’s interpretation of the demographic chart in his post is incorrect (the evidence that the bulk of the young in Iran are chaffing under the Mullahs is sparse to non-existent, and what does exist is contradictory, and roughly as important as the student resistance that was shot down in Tiananmen Square), there is one aspect of it that is relevant to this discussion: in 2006 there were a massive number of 15-25 year-olds.  They are now 25-35 year-olds.

    In 10 years, they will be 35-45 year-olds, unfit for military service.  A decade after that, they are pensioners strangling the Islamic Republic.

    So stalling for time is not a per se ridiculous strategy.  The problem is that we need to stall for time on the order of one or two decades, not one or two years.

    I will revise my view of this deal if a year from now we manage to stall for another year.  I am not optimistic.

    • #22
  23. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    A lot of this deadly chaos is the result of the other two hundred countries in the world being very uncertain of who we are and what we will do under any given circumstances.

    Our allies and friends are fearful and fending for themselves. They can’t call 9-1-1. They need their own nukes.

    Our enemies are seeing opportunities to strike at the king of the mountain–us.

    There’s a mood out there that is very dangerous to everyone.

    • #23
  24. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman
    @user_646399

    More likely than a nuclear exchange between nation states, I believe, is use of a weapon (made in Iran or Pakistan) smuggled in by “non-state” actors. To increase the likelihood of successful entry to the US would only require encasing it in cocaine.  The states in question would have plausible deniability and the US loathe to retaliate – paralyzed, especially with an Obama/Hillary (or clone) in the White House.

    As to exchanges between states, deterrence seems unlikely, given the inadvertently-recorded statement of “moderate” Rafsanjani, where he said a nuclear exchange would destroy Israel but only damage Islam.

    • #24
  25. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    MarciN:A lot of this deadly chaos is the result of the other 349 countries in the world being very uncertain of who we are and what we will do under any given circumstances.

    There are only 195 countries in the world.

    • #25
  26. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Instugator:

    MarciN:A lot of this deadly chaos is the result of the other 349 countries in the world being very uncertain of who we are and what we will do under any given circumstances.

    There are only 195 countries in the world.

    Thank you. I’ll fix it.

    • #26
  27. user_184884 Coolidge
    user_184884
    @BrianWolf

    We should have been working harder on missile defense for decades now.  But ramping that up at this moment is the best that we can do.  The better we get at shooting down missiles the better off the world is.  Also a blanket guarantee to wipe out completely the first country to allow the use of its nuclear weapons by terrorist or if they just use it themselves might help a kind of MAD keep the Middle East dry.  They would have to believe that promise though and no one would believe Obama.  We are in a very bad situation and we will just have to hope that things break our way.  The thought of nuclear war, even limited nuclear war, is just horrifying.

    • #27
  28. user_8847 Member
    user_8847
    @FordPenney

    Its interesting when the comments keep referring to ‘nation states’ when it is known that it is power is in the control of a few who will determine the fates of the many.

    Iran and the Islamic nations have always been upset that their greatest religious enemy, Israel, has a nuclear weapon and they don’t… and that’s easy to ‘sell’ to your people, no matter what age.

    Iran was negotiating for only one thing, nuclear abilities, and that’s not for electrical power.

    Reagan faced down power with more power, Obama believes, which is his only mode of operation, that he can talk anyone into anything. His words are not only hollow they are fatuous and will ultimately get many people dead, and he’s still young enough to live to see the day. (At which point he will deny any culpability and claim, as always, if everyone had just done what he’ said everything would be fine.)

    If Israel launches any attacks then the anti Semites of the world get what they’ve always most desired, and prayed for, a rallying cry for the ultimate destruction of Israel.

    • #28
  29. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    There is a potential weapon that could be deployed to “sterilize” the prospect of a nuclear exchange.  The technology is deployable right now.

    Kinetic weapons kept in GEO orbit above the middle east have the ability to devastate an area with absolutely zero nuclear implications.

    A kinetic weapon is essentially a steel alloy rod 12″ or more in diameter and 30′ or more in length.  It is boosted into GEO orbit 23,000 miles high. It has a rocket motor attached that can propel the rod toward a spot on the ground at a very high rate of speed.

    Just like a large meteor, it will not burn up as it re-enters the atmosphere.  It is too big coming too fast. Think in terms of meteor craters when considering the effects of a kinetic weapon hitting the ground.  Lots of destruction.  No radiation.

    • #29
  30. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    Misthiocracy: The claim that “all we’ve done is buy time” seems to imply that this achievement wasn’t worth the effort. My point is that maybe “buying time” was the best outcome possible at this juncture, and therefore may have been worth the effort.

    I agree.

    Time is good. Time in which people are not dead, and might start feeling inclined to stick around long enough to see their grandchildren is good. Time for the association between “nuke-free” and “vulnerable to U.S. invasion”  to soften. Time for the logic of MAD to sink in. Time for everyone to recall the time they tried for real democracy and to consider whether it might be time to try again. Time for the little Iranians babies being born today to have at least a bit of life before the world comes to an end.

    • #30
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