Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Different Kind of Paradox

Retired General and former CENTCOM CINC John Abizaid believes that we could abide a nuclear-armed Iran.
"Iran is not a suicide nation," he said. "I mean, they may have some people in charge that don't appear to be rational, but I doubt that the Iranians intend to attack us with a nuclear weapon."

The Iranians are aware, he said, that the United States has a far superior military capability.

"I believe that we have the power to deter Iran, should it become nuclear," he said, referring to the theory that Iran would not risk a catastrophic retaliatory strike by using a nuclear weapon against the United States.

"There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran," Abizaid said in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. "Let's face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with (other) nuclear powers as well."

Nevermind that he insists Iran is not suicidal and then admits that he's not entirely sure that its leaders are rational. Even if the Iranian leadership is rational, and precisely because the United States has superior conventional military capabilities, a nuclear Iran would pose a great threat to the United States.

The problem with Gen. Abizaid's thinking is that he falls right into the realist trap. Sure, there's no difference between a nuclear Iran and a nuclear Soviet Union - so long as you believe that states are black boxes. This isn't even just in regards to regime type, or whether the regime is rational or not. This also means you ignore capabilities of states relative to one another as well as their interest in the status quo. Mearsheimer and Walt made this same argument in their original Israel Lobby article.
One might argue that Israel and the Lobby have not had much influence on policy towards Iran, because the US has its own reasons for keeping Iran from going nuclear. There is some truth in this, but Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not pose a direct threat to the US. If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China or even a nuclear North Korea, it can live with a nuclear Iran.
Iran has displayed a knack for using terrorism as a form of blackmail, as well as the ability to back off just enough when necessary to ease international pressure. Whether it was claiming to end support for terrorism after the US ratcheted up the pressure after Khobar Towers, or when it withdrew its Quds Force from Iraq shortly after it leaked that the US was considering labeling it a terrorist group, the Iranian regime is quite adept at public relations. A nuclear armed Iran would not have any need to be seen as backing off - because the US would be far more wary of upping the pressure.

Paul Kapur, a professor at the Naval War College and Stanford, has done a lot of work on the current and Cold War-era relationships between emerging nuclear powers, balance of conventional forces and revisionist states using the case study of present-day India and Pakistan. In the early Cold War, the Soviets had conventional superiority as well as a desire to change the status quo and gain territory.

The Cold War therefore followed pretty closely the Stability-Instability Paradox, whereby the low likelihood that a conventional war will escalate to nuclear reduced the danger and costs of starting a conventional war and made such conventional war more likely. The revisionist power was more confident in its superior conventional abilities and confident that any such wars would not turn nuclear if it played its cards right. The result was a great deal of low level conventional violence, with neither side willing to escalate to the nuclear level and the Soviet Union enjoying conventional superiority.

The situation in Pakistan and India is different, and so would a nuclear Iran-US dyad. India is conventionally superior to Pakistan, but its Pakistan that wants to change the status quo, particularly in Kashmir. Pakistan therefore has to find a way to make sure it avoids a full-blown war with India, a war Pakistan would certainly lose. Pakistan therefore attempts to change the status quo in Kashmir by bleeding India dry with support for terrorist attacks, and attracts international attention to the issue at the same time. To ensure India won't respond with its overwhelming conventional superiority, Islamabad allows for instability at the nuclear level, prehaps by hinting that it has few qualms about taking the conflict to the nuclear level, or that it might not even have full control over its own nuclear arsenal.

With situations like this, you end up with "skirmishes" like Kargil in 1999, where Pakistani forces actually cross the Line of Control into Indian-controlled territory. The whole world at the time was convinced we were about to have our first nuclear war. India shared in this worry as well, so it severely limited its response to foreign incursion into Indian territory. Depending on who's figures you believe, anywhere between 1,000 and several thousand people were killed in the conflict.

The key here is that India has overwhelming conventional superiority, while Pakistan only has nuclear weapons as its trump card in carrying out its revisionist policies. Does this sound familiar? Kapur concludes an article on the subject with the following:
If the leaders of newly nuclear states are dissatisfied with the territorial status quo, they may engage in limited aggression, believing that the danger of nuclear escalation will reduce the risk of full-scale conventional retaliation by stronger adversaries and will attract international attention.
In other words, "If Iran is unhappy with the status quo (in the Middle East or on a wider geopolitical scale), it may engage in acts of terrorism, while simultaneously giving the impression (or perhaps protraying the reality) that parts of its government (the ones that control the nuclear weapons) are not entirely sane and/or rational, believing that the danger of nuclear escalation will reduce the risk of full-scale conventional retaliation by the United States, simultaneously attracting international attention to its causes." Not exactly a positive scenario for the United States.