| The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Recent Report and Systemic Implications of a Nuclear Iran
|Dr. Barış Çağlar, International Security Expert, firstname.lastname@example.org
| Recent publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) report on Iran has aggravated concerns about a nuclear Iran and also a possible Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The report points to Iranian aspirations to build nuclear weapons. The report also led the US, France, Britain and Canada to announce new sanctions to put pressure on Iran due to its suspected nuclear weapons program. Iranian Minister of Industry Ghazanfari responded to news of sanctions as saying, ““Sanctions are a lose-lose game in which both side make a loss. If they don’t invest in our oil projects, they will lose an appealing market”. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has said that Iran is ready to increase cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency if it readjusts its attitude toward Tehran.
All around the world, newspapers covered the subject with headlines and a variety of op-eds and comments followed. Israeli democracy and media has made it possible even to discuss whether an Israeli military strike against Iran is desirable or not. There has even been polling. Forty-one percent of Israelis were reported to favor an attack versus thirty-nine percent were against. However, apart from the controversy over an Israeli attack, wider implications of a nuclear Iran are rarely discussed at the moment. Accordingly, this piece points out the international significance of a nuclear Iran. Rather than assessing the subject from any country’s vantage point, the assessment herein concentrates on the implications for the international security at large.
What is at stake internationally?
What is the international security concern associated with a nuclear Iran? In other words, what are the systemic implications of a nuclear Iran irrespective of a particular country’s interests? What would the security environment look like regionally and globally? If one looks at the situation without any value-judgments, it can technically be said that a nuclear Iran would make the Middle East a more dangerous place for all countries. This is mainly because a nuclear Iran would ignite nuclear proliferation in the region. Other states in the region are likely to follow suit. Nobody can be sure other states such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt or Turkey would not choose to similarly equip themselves. At least, a nuclear arms race in this volatile region would become a probability and nations would reconsider the nuclear option. The possibility that a nuclear Iran would share its expertise with Syria cannot easily be ruled out given the two countries’ unnamed alliance. Under these circumstances, a nuclear multiplayer scenario is concerned in the future. That means a number of nuclear states strategizing all at once. Nuclear balance and stability would be very hard to sustain with a multiplayer scenario, paving the way for dangerous confrontations. It is on this score that the report of the IAEA is most worrisome over the long term.
The prospect for a stable balance of deterrence among the would-be nuclear states of the Middle East is dim at best. Unlike the stable balance experienced during the Cold War, the region would include more than two players complicating the picture. During the Cold War, the US and the former Soviet Union maintained a nuclear balance among each other. This was possible mainly due to their ‘second-strike capability’.
Simply put, second-strike capability meant that either the US or the USSR was able to retaliate or strike back even after being hit by the adversary. In other words, if one side stroke the other side, it was known by both sides that the victim was still able to hit the initiator of the conflict. This cancelled the meaning of initiating a conflict between the superpowers because both states would be destroyed substantially, thereby making net gains marginal. Thus, second-strike capability was the cornerstone of the Cold War nuclear balance.
However, it is highly unlikely that future Middle Eastern nuclear powers will have a second-strike capability that prevents them from actually using their nuclear weapons. There are reasons why. First, a nation must ensure the survivability of its nuclear weapons to possess a second-strike capability. Survivability was maintained in one of two ways: Either through possessing tens of thousands of nuclear weapons or through securing the weapons by a strategic triad. First way, possessing weapons in abundance, is very hard to maintain due to economic and technical difficulties and other states’ disruptive counter-intelligence and military measures.
The second way of ensuring the survivability of weapons, the Strategic Triad, has meant that nuclear weapons were secured, on land in strengthened silos or underground or in mobile launchers; at sea by deep-water nuclear submarines; in air by constant sorties of bomber aircraft. The rationale behind is to ensure the protection of at least one leg of the Triad, which is to be used in striking back. These measures were also based on the assumption that intelligence to locate the weapons would be difficult, and that when relevant intelligence is acquired, it would be hard to hit the hardened-targets. However, there was also the proximity factor or the geographical distance between adversarial nuclear states. The adversaries had to be far away from each other to sustain nuclear balance and stability.
Given the above-mentioned factors of stability, it seems tenable to argue that nuclear stability is very hard to maintain in the Middle Eastern context where new nuclear powers of the region will have one or several nuclear warheads, not thousands. Thus, the first factor of maintaining nuclear stability, having nuclear weapons in abundance, will be very difficult to meet. Secondly, second-strike capability is very hard to sustain in the region: The states do not have the necessary technological wherewithal to provide for the strategic triad and they are geographically very close to one another.
Proximity hinders the secrecy of the weapons. Therefore, acquiring intelligence on the whereabouts of weapons becomes easier. Besides, increasing number of nuclear states brings forth the danger of miscalculation and inadvertent attack on one another. Another factor is the existence of weak regimes in the region and the question of when and which group is in control of the weapons.
If a country possesses only a single bomb and if its location is discovered by other states in the region, the discoverer state/s will be inclined to strike first; or if the country becomes aware that its weapon is disclosed, then it would be inclined to use it before others preempt. Another contingency foresees two adversaries that learn about each others’ weapons and their locations. That would certainly be a case of escalation. Even in cases where nuclear weapons are not used, conventional confrontations would be more daring and challenging. Furthermore, in the Middle Eastern context, attacks may not come from the soil of the weapons owner. Another nearby state can be used to initiate conflict or proxy terrorist groups can be used. Contingencies are not limited to the above ones; yet, in order not to bother with the technicalities, it is safe to state that a nuclear race in the Middle East initiated by a nuclear Iran will accelerate conventional and unconventional brinkmanship.
CNN Wire Staff, “U.S., Britain and Canada slap new sanctions on Iran”, CNN International
, 21 November 2011; “France proposes new sanctions against Iran on nuclear concerns”, English.xinhuanet.com, 22 November 2011.
“Iran minister says sanctions a lose-lose game”, Arabnews.com
, 21 November 2011.
“Iran ready to increase cooperation if IAEA readjusts attitude”, Tehrantimes.com
, 21 November 2011.
Jackson Diehl, “For Israel, a tough call on attacking Iran”, The Washington Post
, 14 November 2011.
For a detailed analysis of the implications of a nuclear Iran for Turkey, please see, Mustafa Kibaroğlu and Barış Çağlar, “Implications of a Nuclear Iran for Turkey”, Middle East Policy
, Winter 2008, Vol. XV, No. 4, pp. 59-80, and Mustafa Kibaroğlu, “Turkish Perspectives on Iran’s Nuclearization”, Ortadoğu Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezi (ORSAM)-Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies
, 20 July 2009.