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February 1, 2013

The Danger of a Poly-Nuclear Mideast

Iran is only the beginning of the nuclear problem

The likelihood that the current efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability may fail has raised debate in academic and strategic communities regarding the implications of a “poly-nuclear” Middle East, which may include after Iran states such as Saudi Arabia (under the current or a future more-jihadi-oriented regime), Turkey, Egypt (under the Muslim Brotherhood regime), Syria (or a successor state/states thereof), Iraq (or successor states) and Libya. Some respected strategic theorists regard the Cold War experience as highly relevant to such a scenario and point at the fears that permeated the western military establishments of a nuclear China and the fact that a nuclear Indian subcontinent did not result in nuclear war, despite mutual hostility and frequent outbreaks of crisis. Kenneth Waltz even suggests that the very possession of nuclear weapons tempers military adventurism and inculcates a degree of strategic responsibility commensurate with the grave consequences that would result from nuclear conflict.1

However, two decades after the Cold War, it is clear that it was not only deterrence based on mutually assured destruction (mad) that prevented outbreak of nuclear war between the two superpowers, but also the stringent procedures of command and control over the nuclear arsenals that reduced the risks of their use in escalation scenarios or unauthorized use. Furthermore, it is clearer today than during the Cold War that the “culture” of command and control differed considerably in the different nuclear countries and was influenced by military structure, political culture, and levels of confidence of the political leadership in the military.2 Therefore, even if we assume that the leaderships of the region will normally wish to avoid nuclear confrontation, it behooves us to explore the command, control, communication (c3) and Intelligence (c3i) capabilities that may be applied in these countries.

There are no indications that any Middle Eastern Muslim country — with the possible exception of Iran — has begun to develop a doctrine for use and command and control of such weapons. In the veteran nuclear powers, such doctrines and command and control systems developed over the years through constant processes of design, planning and exercises, and involvement of the academic community. In the types of regimes that exist in the Middle East, on the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that such methodical planning will not take place and doctrine will evolve through discussions between the leadership and a small circle of trusted advisors. The chosen paradigms of command and control will, however, be influenced by the cultural, political, and organizational features of these regimes, such as:

  • Personalized or religiously motivated leaderships.
  • Islamic views regarding the nature and role of nuclear weapons and the moral permissibility of using nuclear weapons.
  • Existing c3 of existing “strategic weapons” (chemical, biological, ssm) and existing c3 in conventional situations — levels of centralization, culture of delegation of authority, levels of trust in the regular military as opposed to special regime guards forces.
  • Willingness to incur civilian casualties by deployment of weapons in highly populated areas.

Nuclear aspirations in the Middle East have been motivated by a variety of considerations: deterrence, a need for a weapon of compellence, honor, regional and international stature, and others. The motivation to acquire nuclear weapons and the circumstances through which the state achieves nuclear weapons will influence the development of c3 and the considerations that will guide the operational concept. Some (such as Iran) may see nuclear weapons as a means to undermine the balance of power in the region. Others may see them as necessary in order to counterbalance the former. In any case, the strategic environment of a poly-nuclear Middle East will be exceedingly dynamic and even volatile. It will differ from the stability of the latter part of the Cold War3  — and will probably be more like the instability of its early years, but with many nuclear players. In such a volatile environment, the paradigms of command and control may mean the difference between controlled tensions and nuclear confrontation.

Attitudes toward nuclear weapons

The basic building block for command and control of nuclear weapons will be the country’s perception of their purpose; are they perceived as a sui generis weapon — so destructive and terrible that they must be controlled far past any other weapon? Or are they just more powerful manifestations of existing weapons?4 Will these countries assimilate the view of use of nuclear weapons as a “taboo” to be avoided at all cost?

From the public discourse in the Middle East, there are few traces of the collective traumas of World War II and the fear of worldwide nuclear conflagration during the Cold War that brought most of the international community — and particularly the Western world — to subscribe to such a taboo. The perceived legitimacy for acquisition and use of nuclear weapons in Islamic discourse is not drawn from “international law” (these are frequently even seen as “discriminatory infidel conventions” imposed on the Muslims in order to weaken or exploit them), but from Islamic jurisprudence. In this context, nuclear weapons are perceived as latter-day manifestations of categories of weapons that existed in the early days of Islam; if the Prophet permitted use of the latter, use of the former must be permissible as well. The most common analogy in Sunni Islamic discourse on wmd is between nuclear weapons and the ancient use of catapults.5

The potential nuclear states in the region will not universally adopt the same attitude towards the role of nuclear weapons in their strategic posture. Schematically, we can portray two possible roles that nuclear weapons may be seen to play:

  • As weapons of deterrence and last resort. This attitude resembles that of the West during most of the Cold War. The underlying assumption would be that the weapons will probably not be used, and that the country may not have to deal with a second strike scenario or a need to respond after the political leadership has been incapacitated or “decapitated.” They will serve as a “last resort” weapon only when attacked by nuclear weapons. This attitude may bring its proponents to place more emphasis on safeguards to prevent the weapons from being used by mistake. A regime which views nuclear weapons as purely a deterrent may have a greater tendency towards a centralized structure: deployment in few high security areas; direct lines of control to the political leadership cutting out intermediary echelons; simplification of the storage and operation of the arsenal and total separation of weapons and delivery systems, reliance on authentication systems and “fail-safe” mechanisms.
  • As weapons of compellence as a means to achieve regional hegemony, or to realize religiously or ideologically deterministic victory. To adopt such an attitude, it would not be necessary for the regime leadership to be devoid of a sense of the enormity of use of nuclear weapons, or to be irrational; rather it would suffice for it to suffer from the hubris of the belief that it can “handle” nuclear brinksmanship situations. This scenario opens up a vast expanse of potential nuclear exchanges, war by catastrophic miscalculation. Countries that subscribe to this view may put the emphasis on facilitation of their operation in certain contingencies, including frequent or permanent high alert (defcon) levels.

The above notwithstanding, the nuclear postures of such new nuclear powers will have a reciprocal influence over each other. Thus, while a country such as Saudi Arabia may view nuclear weapons as essentially a weapon of deterrence, and attempt to maintain a low profile accordingly, it may be forced to develop a higher profile that calls for more sophisticated levels of command and control in the face of provocations and nuclear “one-upmanship” of other powers in the region (e.g., Iran).

Cultural, religious, and external and internal political factors will certainly have an influence on the crafting of these countries’ nuclear postures. Such factors may include:

  • The Sunni or Shiite orientation of the regime. The clerical establishment in countries likes Saudi Arabia and Iran — or the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and potentially in other countries — may have a pivotal role in determining how the utility of nuclear weapons will be perceived.
  • The relationship with the U.S. and the West. Pro-Western regimes will be more prone to respond to Western pressures to maintain strong controls over their weapons, and to accept Western guidance in this regard.
  • Risk proclivity. Countries with a history of conventional brinkmanship are more likely to view nuclear weapons as additional tools in such a policy toolbox.
  • Regional aspirations that are seen as being achievable through political use of nuclear weapons.
  • Confidence that the regimes have it in their capability to operate the weapons on short notice, or to posture a plausible second-strike capability if attacked.

An important issue in this regard will be the option for nuclear ambiguity, along the lines of the Israeli model. Although an ambiguous stance by Iran cannot be ruled out, due to its international obligations and considerations, it now seems that the chances of Iran acquiring a military nuclear capability and maintaining ambiguity are slim — both for reasons relating to the Iranian regime itself, and since Iran’s adversaries in the region will expose Iran’s capabilities. Therefore, it seems that the option for nuclear ambiguity for the rest of the countries in the region will not be on the table for long.

Custody of weapons, security of assets

A key issue will be the custody of nuclear assets. This includes: decisions regarding means of delivery, deployment of the weapons and delivery systems, separation of assets (weapons and delivery systems) to safeguard against unauthorized use; and the designation of the organization within the state that has physical possession of the assets.

The choice of delivery means will influence a wide range of considerations for command and control: deployment, custody, and authority for delivery/launch. For most of these countries, the preferred means of delivery will most likely be surface-to-surface missiles, of which they already have significant capabilities. However, ssms are vulnerable to pre-emptive attacks, both in storage and in launching sites, and deployment considerations will have to take this into account.

The Iranian regime has dispersed its strategic assets and installations, including nuclear production facilities and ssm assets.

The logic for deployment in distant sparsely populated areas would (as in the Cold War) be to minimize the threat to the civilian population and to impose on the enemy counterforce strikes to deal with a large and widely dispersed number of targets. Such a deployment would render the enemy’s intelligence collection, building of target banks, and battle damage assessment more difficult. On the other hand, in many of the states in question, such areas (frequently populated by minorities) are, in many cases, perceived as a priori disloyal to the regime. This raises the dilemma (for example, the current dilemma of the current Syrian regime in Northern Syria in regards to its chemical weapons stockpiles) of the security of the installations in those areas. The Iranian regime, however, has dispersed its strategic assets and installations, including nuclear production facilities and ssm assets, over a wide geographical expanse, and shows relatively little concern regarding this consideration. This may not hold true for other, less confident, regimes in the region.

Fear of infiltration and betrayal may encourage separation of weapons from delivery systems. However, keeping the two separate would extract a price in terms of operational flexibility, and would constrain flexibility of alert levels, undermining the credibility of deterrent threats and reducing escalation dominance. In some regimes, security considerations may be subordinated to the necessity for flexible response, and hair-trigger readiness. Keeping warheads unassembled or a step away from operational status would render the theft of fully operational weapons difficult, but would not solve the problem and the danger of the theft of near-operational weapons, materials and expertise and would contradict a credible deterrence or compellence posture.

In most of the regimes in the region, custody of the weapons and the delivery systems will have to be put in the hands of organizations or family members whose loyalty to the leaders is beyond doubt. This may lead to weapons and delivery systems being under unified command. This will simplify command and control, but at the same time increase the risk of unauthorized or hasty use.

Having acquired nuclear weapons in contravention to their npt obligations, Middle Eastern regimes will probably be extremely sensitive regarding the possibility of further unauthorized transfer — from ideological or material motives — of nuclear materials, expertise, hardware, components, or weapons from themselves to adversaries. This is a critical issue already today in the Pakistani context. The r&d organizations in the Middle East — unlike their Cold War predecessors — may be more likely to emulate A.Q. Khan in Pakistan, not only maintaining a role in the decision-making processes after completing development of the weapons, but also becoming “back doors” to the weapons they devised, particularly in scenarios of breakdown of the states. Unlike the scientific institutions of the Soviet Union, which had little or no prior interaction with potential customers for their know-how, and whose efforts to capitalize on their access could be relatively easily monitored and disrupted by the successor state (Russia) and the West, these elements have wide access to potential clients.

One of the ramifications of a common interest of a number of Sunni Arab states (Saudi Arabia, uae, Egypt) facing the need for a fast track to a nuclear r&d joint custody and command and control of the nuclear weapons, possibly along the lines of the nato example as between allies. Theoretically, this could create a unique relationship of joint command, and unique problems of command and control.

Authority over use

In the veteran nuclear states civilian control of the nuclear arsenal was decided at the inception of the nuclear age and was, for the most part, not an issue for large-scale struggles within the respective regimes. The tendency throughout the Cold War was to lower the political profile of nuclear tests, exercises, and planning out of concern that publicity would result in possible escalation. Western (American, British, and French) systems of delegation of authority were based on the ex officio assumption of loyalty of the officers who received the orders, while the ethnic, regional, or family affiliation of the individual officers was deemed irrelevant. While the Soviet system did, apparently, take into account ethnic background of senior officers, this was not, so it seems, a constant concern of the political leadership. It was relegated to the security services to perform appropriate weeding and vetting.

The Middle East in this regard will be fundamentally different. The nuclear capability, once achieved, will be an important lever for influence within the regimes. The very identification of the nuclear capability with the political leader is, in the Middle East, a source of legitimacy and public support. Therefore, we can expect that even technical issues relating to building, deploying, or training the nuclear force will receive a high profile and publicized reference in these regimes, to enhance the legitimacy of the leadership in the eyes of its constituents.

All the regimes and military establishments in question are loath to delegate authority in matters relating to strategic weapons and strategic interests. The hyper-centralized structures of some of these regimes and the deep involvement in military affairs of the political leadership would probably extend to the latter’s direct involvement in vetting each link in the chain of command over nuclear weapons. We should expect a more personalized chain of command consisting of fewer — but highly trusted — individuals, with less compartmentalization between them. Collective identification — tribal, ethnic, and even social networks, such as affiliation with certain religious institutions — will probably influence who would have access to nuclear weapons, and to whom, and when, authority would be delegated. Similarly, the field units entrusted with nuclear assets are likely to be fiercely loyal, disciplined, and ideologically unshakable (e.g., the irgc in the case of Iran).

Communication safeguards with nuclear units are far less advanced than in any of the existing nuclear states.

The safeguards for communication with nuclear units are far less advanced in the military structures in the Middle East than in any of the existing nuclear states. Communicating a command authorizing the launch of nuclear weapons at an adversary would probably mandate redundancy, including both modern as well as primitive means, given that communications in a crisis or war might be vulnerable to disruption. The solution for a breakdown of communications — due to nuclear warfare, electronic warfare (ew) attacks or even intensive conventional strikes — can range from low-level physical communication (ptp telephone), through covert trusted civilian chains of communication (Iranian or Saudi clergy channels for those states), dependable runners, and others. Such measures would also reduce flexibility and escalation dominance.

The key issue with respect to delegation of authority, though, is not the default authorization (Saddam Hussein’s example of delegating authorization of wmd and ssm use in 1991 and 2003 to field commanders) through the chain of command when the leader is alive and in the loop, but how to authorize use in case the authorized leadership is incapacitated and primary c3 assets are disrupted. The tendency of Middle Eastern regimes to personalize the state may lead to broad authorization to launch nuclear weapons in case the leader is presumed dead — even if no nuclear attack has taken place.

A Soviet style “dead-man’s hand” system, would, theoretically, be attractive to many of the regimes in the region, and particularly to autocratic authoritarian regimes. However, the logic behind this system in the Cold War was a reflection of the assumptions that if the leadership were destroyed, it would mean that a large part of the country had been decimated and that only the other superpower could have executed such a blow. These assumptions will not be true in the Middle East. As opposed to the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War, nuclear war in the Middle East may be perceived as survivable, especially in the larger and more populous states, like Iran or Egypt. Therefore, the regime may fear that surviving elements to which authority was delegated (even family members or high level members of the ruling party) may opt not to automatically escalate to a full-fledged nuclear war in the case of the incapacitation of the top leadership. The solution might be a standing order for automatic launch if communication with the leadership is lost and it may be presumed to have been destroyed.

Verification and authentication

Prevention of deliberate unauthorized use will be a paramount concern for all the regimes in the region. Over the years, the means that have evolved for prevention of deliberate unauthorized use (and to prevent accidental use) have moved from the human to the electronic spectrum. Systems based on split codes held by separate senior officers may be problematic for reasons of regime structure noted above, and regimes may rightly fear that an entire nuclear unit may mutiny and take control over the weapons.

Cold War technical means took decades to fully develop, including the evolution of Permissible Access Links (pals) to reduce the risk of deliberate or erroneous unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. Early Cold War technical intelligence capabilities were limited, and an early poly-nuclear Middle East may resemble this environment in some ways. c3 systems in the veteran nuclear powers have gradually moved towards the technological, leaving behind slow, cumbersome, and potentially compromising human methods. Authentication redundancies of the authority to launch nuclear weapons developed over the years in the existing nuclear powers (the American “football,” or the Russian Cheget).

However, integration of such technologies into the c3 structures of regimes in the Middle East is doubtful, at least in the early stages. Each fledgling nuclear country will initially have small arsenals and a much larger set of enemy targets. This will encumber pre-designation of weapons for targets and exclude the use of pals, which preclude the accidental use of a weapon against targets that are not pre-defined. Furthermore, the inherent (and in the light of the cyberattacks on Iran not unjustified) suspicion that the enemy may be capable of planting Trojan horses in technological systems in order to manipulate them may inhibit use of highly technological means. This would have an adverse effect on the regime’s ability to maintain flexible time-sensitive response mechanisms and hence would influence other elements of the nuclear doctrine.

The fact that the same types of delivery systems may be used for both conventional and nonconventional warheads will further complicate c3, as different standard operating procedures (sop) will probably be applied to those delivery systems which are dedicated for nuclear weapons. The defender will not know for sure whether the ssm launched against him is carrying a conventional or wmd warhead until it explodes, and the attacker may assume that the defender understands that he is only employing conventional warheads, or may deliberately allow the ambiguity involved to intimidate the defender and enhance the credibility of his deterrence. Furthermore, the possibility that nuclear weapons may be delivered in unorthodox ways (from civilian ships, neighboring countries’ territory) in order to obfuscate responsibility will also reduce the use of technological means of command and control.

Human verification may be implemented at operational levels (for example, the need to combine codes held by more than one senior officer in order to override safeguards and arm weapons). However, it is very unlikely that any of the regimes in the region would be able to adopt human verification of the orders of the head of state. In the authoritarian regime model, the leader would probably not want restrictions on his authority to launch weapons — even authentication by a “trusted” deputy. In regimes such as the Iranian or future Jihadi-Salafi regimes in which the leader is perceived as the Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Believers) or (as in Iran) the Vali-Faqih, the leader is thought to have inspiration from Allah, and restriction of his discretion by a lesser individual would be tantamount to imposing restrictions on the will of Allah. Even the argument that the verification is not meant for regular situations but for contingencies during which the leader may be incapacitated, for any reason, may be difficult to support in these regimes.

Intelligence

The confidence of a nuclear-enabled regime in its intelligence capabilities will play a pivotal role in determining the spectrum of alert levels, and the routine in regards to those levels. Such an operational nuclear deployment will require strategic early warning and intelligence capabilities covering all relevant threats: day and night airborne visual intelligence (visint) and signals intelligence (sigint) assets, ground sigint and radar deployment in effective ranges, an advanced satellite deployment, and more. The indigenous early warning capabilities of all these countries to ssm threats in general — conventional, cbw, and then nuclear, are either weak or nonexistent, and the potential for error is very high.

Consequently, these new nuclear countries may opt to rely on intelligence allies: the U.S., Russia, and China. However, such reliance may bring about situations not dissimilar to the role the Soviet Union played in 1967, but with far more dire consequences, in which an external player feeds alarming information that provokes nuclear alert. Without the ability to assess such information, countries receiving it will have no choice but to go on nuclear alert.

Much of the discussion relating to the potential dangers of a poly-nuclear Middle East focuses on the feasibility of deterrence to prevent premeditated intentional use of nuclear weapons. However, not enough attention is paid to the potential for nuclear confrontation during a multilateral spiral of escalation and absence of escalation dominance. In this context, the flexibility and robustness of the command and control structures of fledgling nuclear powers in the region will be critical.

The factors that will influence the c3 paradigms of nuclear weapons in the region include a wide range of political, military, bureaucratic, religious and technological issues. In the early stages, such paradigms will probably be closer to the early structures of the veteran nuclear powers, with adaptations for regional cultural, political, and religious idiosyncrasies, and will not necessarily integrate the lessons learned by those veteran powers over time and in thoroughly different strategic and cultural contexts. Furthermore, it stands to reason that the new nuclear powers will not welcome imported solutions based on “off the shelf” Western technology, and will prefer local solutions, which will be, initially at least, less sophisticated.

Among the considerations in crafting nuclear command and control paradigms, considerable weight will be given to the perception of the role of nuclear weapons and the acceptance of a cultural “taboo” on their use that developed in the international community. The integration of such a taboo would be a key factor in the motivation of the leaderships of the new nuclear states to prevent their use.

Even ideologically, or religiously, highly charged leaderships may be aware of the dangers inherent in nuclear war and behave rationally. However, such awareness and rational decision-making processes are a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Nuclear confrontation may not be the result of some irrational but premeditated decision by leaders to initiate a nuclear strike, but of faulty intelligence, command, and control in escalatory situations. In such situations, it appears that the command and control structures that may develop in new nuclear states in the Middle East are likely to exacerbate the dangers inherent in escalation and brinkmanship, and to result ultimately in perennial nuclear instability or even nuclear war.


Shmuel Bar is director of studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, Israel. He served for 30 years in the Israeli government.

1. Kenneth Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” Foreign Affairs (July & August 2012).

2. See Bruce Blair, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Brookings Institution Press, 1993); Keith B. Payne, The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction (University Press of Kentucky, 2001); Keith B. Payne, Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age (University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

3. The early years of the Cold War were far less stable, though we tend to forget that. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara noted regarding the Cuban missile crisis: “It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.” See The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, transcript available at http://www.errolmorris.com/film/fow_transcript.html (this link accessed June 14).

4. For example, Truman was quoted as having said that he saw the atomic bomb as no more than a “bigger artillery shell.”

5. The Sheikh of al-Azhar Muhammad Tantawi drew an analogy from the ruling of the Caliph Abu Bakr “to fight the enemy with a sword if he fights with a sword and . . . with a spear if he fights with a spear.” Therefore, if the enemy uses a nuclear bomb, it is the duty of the Muslims to use on, too. Al-Qaeda justified the September 11, 2001, attacks as an attack with heavy weaponry with no possibility of distinguishing between enemy civilians and combatants that was similar to the use of catapults (manjaniqat) by Muslim armies against fortified enemy cities in early Islamic warfare. The concept of manjaniq can be found in numerous Islamic traditions; for example, in Malik bin Anas, when at the siege of Taif in 630 ad Muhammad used catapults against the city and “it was said to him, ‘Messenger of God, there are women and youth inside,’ and the messenger of God said, peace be upon him, ‘they belong to their fathers.’” Since then, the catapult case has been applied to numerous battle situations in Muslim history, now including use of nuclear weapons.