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Can Iran be Deterred?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons leads some experts to suggest that such a development may be containable. They argue that a stable balance of deterrence can be achieved with Iran, akin to the nuclear equilibrium between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I will argue that this is an erroneous proposition, as the levels of instability and risk involved in nuclear armament in the Middle East are incalculably higher. My view is based, among other considerations, on the working assumption that a nuclear Iran will lead to the development of a nuclear capability by other regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey.

Certain models from game theory are important here. These models were part of the basis on which U.S. strategy during the Cold War was conceived and formulated, and for the concepts developed by Robert McNamara, the Rand Corporation, and others1 These models have a unique status in the realm of strategy because, in the nuclear field, there is hardly any empirical experience capable of providing a better source of knowledge than such models.2

The analysis of nuclear strategy on which I will focus refers to the “core era” of the Cold War, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. The formative idea of this core era was mutual nuclear deterrence based on second-strike retaliation capability. Both sides benefited from enormous nuclear redundancy, so that even if one side was to initiate a nuclear attack, the other side would still possess sufficient residual nuclear capability to completely destroy the initiating side with a retaliatory strike. Accordingly, the nuclear destruction of both sides was assured (Mutually Assured Destruction, or mad), and nuclear weapons became the resource not to be used.

The period preceding this core era was characterized by learning and adapting to the new weapons’ strategic rationale, which gave rise to the massive retaliation strategy of the 1950s, eventually abandoned as impractical, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which led to the development of agreed rules for the nuclear game.

After the core era the Reagan administration attempted to replace the nuclear deterrence paradigm with the concept of prevailing in a nuclear war, e.g., making use of the sdi project. Even during the core era there were some notions deviating from mad, such as the use of tactical nuclear weapons, nuclear strikes against military assets only (“counterforce”), gradual nuclear escalation, or nuclear demonstration attack, but these did not become the central principle of nuclear strategy.

A poor man’s mad?

The mad concept depends on the survivability of nuclear capability, which enables a second-strike retaliation even after sustaining the initiator’s nuclear strike. Such survivability is achieved in two ways. The first is numerical superfluity. Indeed, during the core era the superpowers maintained thousands of nuclear warheads. The second way is highly survivable launch platforms, such as deep-water nuclear submarines able to loiter under the polar icecap, a fleet of bombers continuously airborne around the globe, and silo-based or mobile ground-launched ballistic missiles. These means ensured two basic conditions: Intelligence would not be able to locate all platforms at any given moment, and even if a platform was located it could prove difficult to destroy.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union learned that there were additional conditions to be met in order to support a second strike, first among them that the two sides must be geographically removed from each other. The Cuban crisis was partially due to the fact that positioning of missiles in such proximity to the U.S. could shorten early warning time and limit U.S. retaliation (at least in respect of command and control and retaliation from the continental U.S.). The second condition was identification of attack. In the case of superpowers, only massive launching of thousands of weapons could potentially destroy nuclear capability. Such massive launching would have a noticeable signature and hence give rise to timely warning by sophisticated and costly space-based and other sensors.

But what happens when the sides are regional players lacking the aforesaid size and resources? Is mad a possibility for states of meager nuclear resources?

In the case of superpowers, only massive launching of thousands of weapons could potentially destroy nuclear capability.

Consider a hypothetical situation in which two regional players have crossed the nuclear threshold and each of them possesses a single nuclear bomb. This bomb is not being carried by an expensive nuclear submarine lurking under the arctic icecap, but kept in a bunker in the middle of the country. Thus, obtaining intelligence regarding the location of the opponent’s single bomb becomes an achievable task, and its destruction in a first strike (thereby disabling the opponent’s second strike) becomes feasible.

Each side must then consider the possibility that the enemy has identified the location of its bomb and might strike first, so that it must “beat the enemy to the draw.”3 This game is known as “use it or lose it.” In this game there is an incentive to strike first and a path of escalation emerges.4 Ironically, the game tends to stabilize when each side has 50 nuclear submarines and a first strike is not a realistic option, but it is unstable when each side has a bunker with just a few bombs and first strike is feasible.5

In the Middle Eastern circumstances the geographic spacing needed to sustain retaliation may not always exist, e.g., between Iran and Saudi Arabia (at least from the aspect of the attacker’s proximity to the attacked state’s command and control centers and launching a retaliatory strike from the territory of the attacked country). First Strike need not necessarily be carried out from the territory of the attacking country but can be carried out from a failed state bordering the country to be attacked, e.g., an Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia launched from post-withdrawal Iraq, from the Sudan against Egypt, or an Iranian attack from Lebanon against Israel.

The command and control centers and the nuclear weapons of a country having only an embryonic nuclear capability may be destroyed by attacking a very small number of targets. Therefore, in contrast to a superpower that can only be attacked by launching thousands of missiles and bombers “in an industrial fashion,” in the case of a country of limited nuclear capability, a first strike might also be possible by unorthodox means, which will not enable early identification of the attack and thus reduce the ability to retaliate. Thus, hypothetically, even a state actor could launch a first strike from a civilian ship close to the coast of the attacked country (the Russian missile “Club k” was designed for such use) or by a suitcase bomb, or a container bomb.

The multilateral challenge

The so-called “chicken game” is a model based on the idea of two drivers driving their cars on a collision course, with the first to swerve aside losing, and the one who continues after his opponent has given way winning. Hence the game encourages collaboration, enabling both of them to turn aside at the same time (as in the Cuban Missile Crisis). But what about a situation where five drivers are speeding from different directions and converging on the same intersection? And what if we do not know whether some of them are acting in concert? In this situation it is more difficult to analyze each driver’s strategy and reach equilibrium.

Now let us combine meager nuclear resources with multilateralism: Take five players, where each player possesses four nuclear bombs kept in a bunker in the middle of his modestly-sized country. To reach equilibrium, each player must conclude that none of the other four players assesses (rightly or wrongly) that he is capable of, or interested in, launching a first strike on some or all of the other players. This means that each of the five players must make a subjective assessment of the quality of intelligence, of the capabilities, and of the strategies of the other four (based on incomplete information), and accordingly determine his own strategy. This gives rise to at least 25 different strategy assessments, each single one of which must lead to the conclusion that nuclear weapons should not be used.

This situation is termed a “Bayesian game.” Game theory teaches that it is difficult to achieve equilibrium in a Bayesian game based on subjective assessments of other players’ strategies, particularly when the game is dynamic and multilateral.

From the moment a player decides to launch a strike against another player, there is a concern that additional players will become involved in the nuclear exchange — even if they intended not to enter the fray. Let me explain: Suppose Iran assesses (rightly or wrongly) that it has identified the location of Saudi Arabia’s handful of nuclear weapons or its command and control centers, and that it can attack from geographic proximity or by unorthodox means, so that the Saudis cannot retaliate; i.e., Iran considers that it is able to launch a first strike. If the stricken and dazed Saudis nonetheless still retain some residual nuclear capability, it is difficult to conclude how they will use it. It cannot be ruled out that in this situation Saudi Arabia would react against all other participating players, either due to a genuine difficulty in detecting who attacked it in the first place (e.g., due to the use of unorthodox means of attack or the lack of sophisticated space-based sensors able to track the attacker), or due to more complex strategies whereby a player already hit by a nuclear weapon will seek to equally weaken the other players in the game. Moreover, if we take a nuclear player who is supposedly neutral towards an Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia, such as, say, Turkey, then this player’s decision-making will not be easy to anticipate. What will Turkey’s situation awareness be? Who attacked the Saudis and under what strategy? Will Turkish intelligence assume that this is an isolated act or part of a broader regional offensive? How will the Turks evaluate the intelligence, capabilities, and intentions of the other players? The assessment and decisions will be taken under pressure, without sufficient information and possibly within minutes, leaving much room for miscalculation.

In the case of a country of limited nuclear capability, a first strike might also be possible by unorthodox means.

The multilateral game becomes more complex as we also take account of non-nuclear players. The U.S. could try to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons by offering a nuclear umbrella to countries that do not go nuclear, it is possible that regional players who do go nuclear, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would offer such cover to players such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and Yemen. A nuclear umbrella is an arrangement of questionable reliability, however, and the experience gained during the Cold War with such countries as West Germany teaches that objective assurances are needed to confirm that the provider of the nuclear umbrella and the country sheltering under it are indeed in the same boat, i.e., that the nuclear-umbrella provider will keep its word. The assurance perceived as most reliable was the deployment of nuclear weapons in the territory of the country sheltering under the umbrella, e.g., of U.S. nuclear weapons in Germany. A Soviet threat to West Germany thus became a threat to a U.S. nuclear stockpile, providing objective support to the reliability of the American nuclear commitment to Germany.

Thus, the non-nuclear players might cause dangerous consequences: From a military aspect, for instance, the pre-deployment of nuclear weapons on their soil. And politically, they could create a system of defense alliances resembling those of pre-World War I Europe, which may give rise to a  nuclear exchange escalating uncontrollably out of a local incident of lesser global importance.

The behavior of the non-nuclear players might also change. For instance, Syria sees today the chemical weaponry in its possession as the highest level of escalation — a sort of doomsday weapon. Therefore, and for fear of Israeli retaliation, Syria has refrained from using chemical weapons even in grave situations, but should Syria shelter under an Iranian nuclear umbrella, it might conclude (rightly or wrongly) that there are higher levels of escalation than that of chemical weapons, and these higher levels will restrain Israel’s reaction should Syria make some use of chemical weapons. This could increase the likelihood of the use of chemical or radiological weapons. This calculation also holds true for nuclear countries, which might conclude that they have more levels of freedom for the use of chemical and radiological weapons, due to the existence of higher escalation levels which curb the opponent’s reaction.

The French experience

France was not at ease with the nuclear umbrella the U.S. offered to Europe, as it could not believe that the U.S. would make good its promise and voluntarily move itself closer to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. According to France, it would not make sense for a country to deliberately engage in nuclear war just because of its promise to another country.

France therefore wanted to deter the Soviet Union on its own, but owing to the lack of symmetry between the two countries, France could not achieve a mad parity. The alternative approach it developed was that of “Sufficient Destruction.”6 The idea was that since the Soviet interest in France was limited, it would be sufficient for France to be able to inflict damage offsetting the potential interest of the ussr in France. The assumption was that the ability to strike at several major cities in the ussr would deter it from threatening the very existence of France or its supreme interests (“deterrence of the strong by the weak”). Could Iran develop such a capability against the U.S.? Would the ability to hit a handful of cities guarantee that the U.S. would not take action against Iran in a manner similar to what it did in Kosovo and in Iraq? Would Iran possess sufficient nuclear capability to make American clinical analysis indicate it would not be worthwhile for the U.S. to risk direct military intervention in conflicts of which Iran was part?

It should be emphasized that in order to deter the U.S., Iran does not need advanced intercontinental ballistic capability. A threat to a small number of U.S. targets can be provided by weapons launched from commercial vessels or carried in a suitcase or in a container. One should also remember the growing presence of Hezbollah in South America and Mexico.

The black swan vs. Nash

Anash equilibrium is a solution concept in which each player is familiar with the strategy of the other players, and his conclusion is that, in view of the  strategies of the others, he should stick to his present strategy. All players reach this conclusion and stick to their present strategies, thus creating continual stability. Nash equilibrium was actually the strategic conceptual basis of the nuclear Cold War.

Indeed, while the Soviets made little use of the term mad, they shared a common paradigm with the Americans as to the meaning of nuclear weapons.7 In fact, the Cold War equilibrium was based on a paradigm partnership between the antagonists: Both had to believe in a kind of mad for mad to exist. Both parties saw nuclear weapons as the doomsday weapon, which should not be used in any other, non-doomsday circumstances, and thus were of very limited usefulness.

Not only did both superpowers hold that there was nothing to be gained from a nuclear war, but after the Cuban Missile Crisis neither of them attempted to seriously develop a strategy for indirectly leveraging nuclear weapons (without actual utilization) as a tool to gain the upper hand in a conventional crisis. After Cuba, the nuclear superpowers mostly refrained from directly challenging each other, and the violent friction of the Cold War was routed to the Third World. The two opponents also recognized that strategic transparency was essential between them and, hence, that they must have direct communication with one another. The Moscow-Washington hotline was accordingly set up. Indeed, in the period from Cuba to the development of sdi one can count very few incidents which threatened the Nash equilibrium. When they occurred, they resulted from one player misunderstanding the strategy of the other, or escalation due to new developments (these incidents included the Able Archer 83 exercise, which the Soviets suspected to be American preparations for a nuclear attack, as well as the Yom Kippur War).

But, there always remains the black swan possibility. A black swan — when a dynamic and adaptable foe develops a conflict concept not foreseen by the opponent — is essentially the opposite of Nash equilibrium, as it involves undermining the opponent’s paradigm instead of paradigm-sharing between the two opponents.

Iran has excelled in producing black swans. Thus, for example, the Western security concept speaks on the one hand of contending with opposing state actors armed with stockpiles of top hardware, and on the other hand of nonstate opponents able to operate small groups armed with light weapons. Hezbollah is a black swan: a nonstate organization without state-like vulnerabilities, but armed with prime ballistic hardware in quantities exceeding the corresponding stockpiles of most nato members. Iran challenged our war paradigm by introducing a proxy that enjoys the advantages of not being a state (such as the possibility of disappearance) but is capable of strategic fire with an intensity that most industrialized nations cannot match.

A black swan occurs when a dynamic and adaptable foe develops a conflict concept not foreseen by the opponent.

Indeed, Iran does not tend to be a paradigm-sharing partner of its opponents, but exercises strategies that counteract opponents’ paradigms. This is done by series of crises and brinkmanship, defiant behavior that passes the escalation buck to the opponent (the “rational” and “responsible” opponent sometimes acquiesces to the defiant act to prevent escalation), deliberate creation of vague “in-between” situations, operation outside the spectrum of the opponent’s plans and concepts, deliberate ambiguity concerning Iranian positions, frequent changes of stance, undermining the opponent’s determination and strategic credibility, use of proxies, etc. Iran specializes in creating lines of operation not necessarily identifiable by its opponents. An example is Iran’s near victory in its eight-year struggle with the U.S. on the hegemony of Iraq, essentially a war of an indirect and multi-dimensional nature which made many officials in the U.S. fail to admit that it was taking place. According to the American paradigm, war is an exercise in weaponry, defined in time and space, relying on organization, resources, and logistics. For the Iranians the war on Iraq is an open-ended marathon undertaken in order to wear down the political and public will of the U.S., and to break apart, intimidate, and bring closer the Iraqi system by a gamut of unconventional and indirect means.

How a nuclear Iran would behave is not easy to know, since everything seems to be possible and no contention can be proven. But from observing the way Iran manages its affairs, it is not certain that it is a natural candidate for paradigm-sharing in a Cold War style. One must at least take into account the possibility that Iran will become a serial producer of nuclear black swans.

Iran resembles a sumo wrestler, constantly shoving his adversary, exerting pressure at various points, always looking for an opportunity to take another small step forward, to give another push and to throw the adversary off-balance, even momentarily. The incessant friction with the adversary, as an end in itself, gives Iran an advantage, in that it can identify and take advantage of occasional opportunities that emerge to wear down the adversary — wear down its strength and erode its will. In this, Iran is thinking out of the box and making use of all national means of power. For a Politburo bureaucrat, Cuba may have been a disappointment, but an Iranian could have found a cumulative strategic-political advantage in a series of Cuba-like crises — irrespective of the particular outcome of each individual crisis. In view of this Iranian behavior pattern, it is possible that Iran will find original ways of utilizing nuclear weapons as a strategic tool for promoting its interests, even if it would not be the first to launch a nuclear attack.

Iran is not a natural candidate for viewing nuclear weapons as a tool of all-or-nothing application. Its natural inclination is to create gray areas and to practice brinkmanship, to be defiant here and give way there. The Iranians are very creative and they will certainly find original ways to leverage nuclear weapons. For example, Iran could utilize nuclear weapons by making declarations or preparations to strike at critical times. It could unhinge its opponents through a series of crises involving nuclear brinkmanship. It could influence crises by conducting a nuclear test on its own territory during a crisis, or setting off a nuclear device outside the atmosphere over a crisis space. If its forces become involved in conventional warfare, Iran might deploy nuclear weapons to the battlefield and thus raise the stakes for a foreign power that was contemplating intervention, for fear that the foreign power itself might inadvertently hit a nuclear device. Indeed, one should consider whether the U.S. could have repeated an operation similar to the one it carried out to liberate Kuwait if a nuclear bomb had been kept in Kuwait’s urban area. Nuclear weapons could thus serve as a passive shield for conventional action, while, if Iran turns nuclear, it might become more daring and direct in less-than-nuclear engagements. A nuclear umbrella might create conditions permitting some use of chemical and radiological weapons, and even permitting the far-reaching yet still-restrained step of launching a nuclear weapon against an uninhabited area of an opponent country.

Nuclear brinkmanship might have two opposite results: one, that a crisis might escalate out of control and deteriorate into a nuclear exchange. The other, its reverse, that the higher risks involved in a crisis would make Israel and the U.S., as “reasonable and responsible” countries, back off from challenges. The prevailing view at the relevant time might be that the specific interest at the center of a particular crisis is not worth the risk of a nuclear showdown.

Iran, again, has a long procession of satellite states and nonstate actors under varying degrees of control; they are sufficiently distant for Iran not to be held accountable for their actions, but close enough to be of service to Iranian interests. Transfer of nuclear weapons to a foreign entity is quite a bold measure, but Iran knows how to conceal its own command of a proxy. In a nuclear game, the transfer of chemical or radiological weapons to a proxy could be subjected to lesser restraints. Indeed, it is possible that Iran (rightly or wrongly) would assess that the use of a nonstate proxy might lead to an unconventional event for which there is no “return address.”

The nuclear black swan

Not only were the U.S. and the Soviet Union nuclear antagonists, they were nuclear partners. They were paradigmatic partners, thinking “inside the box,” usually within similar, well-defined boxes. Both saw mainly two sides to the game. Both acknowledged a dichotomy: It was all or nothing, either nuclear peace or full-scale nuclear war. Therefore, they both agreed that nuclear weapons were in effect unusable. And after the Cuban crisis, they both realized the importance of transparency and mutual understanding.

India turned nuclear as a mature democracy. When Pakistan went nuclear, it was given (willingly or not) a tough, occasionally arm-twisting American tutoring. North Korea went nuclear under harsh Chinese restraint, and with modest regional aspirations. But if Iran goes nuclear it will do it alone, and in its own way.

If Iran goes nuclear, and especially if other regional players follow suit and also become nuclear, a new kind of game will ensue, the like of which we have not yet seen. There is no sense in comparing the two superpowers during the Cold War with a multilateral system combining several regional players possessing rudimentary nuclear capability. There is also no sense in comparing the American-Soviet paradigmatic partnership with an Iranian black swan.

All this on top of the other tensions characteristic of the Middle East, such as unstable regimes and the danger of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of revolutionary groups, state actors characterized by internal tensions resulting in incoherent behavior, and issues of civilian control of the military. Just imagine Qaddafi’s Libya but with a few nuclear bombs.

Another critical aspect stems from the fact that in the Middle East an existential threat may not be to a country, but rather to a regime. Much like the Pakistani nuclear strategy, a threat to the regime of a nuclear country or large-scale subversion might be declared a nuclear casus belli.8  With nuclear umbrella agreements and questions of regime stability might come a scenario in which Iranian subversion directed at the regime of a non-nuclear country would give rise to complex problems for its nuclear protector. This, when the threatened regime has an interest in aggravating the crisis to black or white alternatives, since a situation of gray might cause the umbrella to evaporate.

Therefore, if Iran becomes nuclear, the combination of increased instability and lack of certainty could produce one of the most dangerous chapters in human history.

1 For a general background on game theory and nuclear strategy see, e.g., Thomas S. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Harvard University Press, 1980); Lawrence Freedman, Deterrence (Polity Press, 2005); Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon Press, 1962).

2 Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (Simon & Schuster, 1994).

3 Scott Douglas Sagan, Moving Targets: Nuclear Strategy and National Security (Princeton Press, 1989), 32.

4 Austin Long, Deterrence — From Cold War to Long War (Rand, 2008), 26.

5 Robert Ayson, Thomas Schelling and the Nuclear Age (Routledge, 2004), 67–68.

6 See e.g., Alain Peyrefitte, C’etait de Gaulle (Fayard, 1994).

7 See e.g., Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 154, 156, 159–160, 163–165.

8The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 300.