The rationalist and centralist nature of decision-making in the US and USSR and the effective neutralisation of nuclear policy from public pressures during the Cold War allowed policymakers to develop rational strategies and ever-stronger constraints against confrontation. It may be argued that the Middle Eastern regimes are no less rational, and therefore will not embark on a course that will lead to their utter destruction. This is the gist of Anthony Cordesman's thesis, delivered at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in November 2007, that given the nuclear balance between Israel and Iran for the short and medium term, a first strike against Israel by Iran would have marginal value and while Israeli recovery would be possible, Iranian recovery after a massive Israeli strike would not be. He argued that it would be suicidal for Iran to embark on the road to nuclear confrontation with Israel.
This argument suffers from two key flaws. First, rationality of the players is no guarantee of a rational outcome. As the late US Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, pointed out regarding the Cuban missile crisis: "Kennedy was rational, Khrushchev was rational, Castro was rational, rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies." Second, the ability of the US and Soviet leaderships to make decisions on strategic issues with minimal "irrational" input was much greater than that of the regimes in the Middle East. Strategic decision-making was effectively separated from domestic pressures. Leaders in Washington and Moscow did not have to take into account crowds in their respective capitals demonstrating — as they have in Pakistan — with models of nuclear bombs and calling to use them against historic enemies or with apocalyptic or suicidal traditions. The leaders of both countries identified with their constituent populations enough so that they could be deterred by "counter-population" and "counter-value" threats.
In both these aspects, the Middle East differs. The predominance of religion and honour in Middle Eastern culture sets it apart. The history of the region is replete with chronicles of catastrophes foretold. Leaders have brought their nations to — and beyond — the brink of catastrophe with decisions fuelled by domestic pressures, honour, existential hostility (Arab-Iranian/Sunni-Shia/Arab-Jewish) and religion. Religious and nationalistic fervour have led Arab countries to countless military debacles and regimes in the Middle East have shown a predilection for brinkmanship and for perseverance in conflicts despite rational considerations against such behaviour. A case in point is the continuation of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s at enormous costs in human lives and material, due to Khomeini's insistence that the elimination of Saddam Hussein was a religious duty and that the war could not end without achieving that goal. Another case in point is the Arab decisions which precipitated the 1967 Israeli-Arab war with the consequences of the loss of Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan. Saddam Hussein continued to brandish weapons he did not have in order not to lose face within the region, even at the price of providing the US and its allies with a casus belli.
There are no grounds to believe that the possession of nuclear weapons will fundamentally change these patterns of behaviour. The level of identification of the regimes and the leaderships with the populations that would bear the brunt of a nuclear exchange also plays a pivotal role in their risk calculus. For many of these leaders, victory or defeat is measured only by their own survival. A sectarian regime is more likely to adopt an après moi le deluge attitude and to engage in nuclear brinkmanship.
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