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President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embraces Ayatollah Khamanei (PA)

Hidden among platitudes on the peace-loving nature of all three monotheistic religions (particularly Islam), President Barack Obama referred in his 4 June Cairo speech, almost en passant, to what is probably the most critical strategic issue on the international agenda. Declaring his understanding of "those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not", he said that "no single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons". At the same time, he qualified this "declaration of nuclear right" with the warning that a nuclear Iran would lead to "a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path". To Middle Eastern ears, the message was that American concerns do not derive from the threat that a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran per se might pose, but from the consequent nuclearisation of Iran's Arab neighbours that might ensue. 

The prospect of nuclear (Iran-Israel) or a "polynuclear" Middle East has been debated for some time in academic and policy circles, giving rise to a number of theories regarding the relevance of the lessons of the Cold War to such a situation. Some invoke the experience of the Cold War to argue that a "polynuclear" Middle East can still be averted. Others argue that a nuclear Middle East may even provide a more stable regional order based on the Cold War doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD). 

Indeed, today we know that the Cold War was much less stable than it appeared to be and that cultural differences played a critical role in the behaviour of the parties to that conflict. This may prove to be even more so in the context of the Middle East. There are substantial cultural, religious, political and organisational differences between the Cold War protagonists and candidates for nuclear powers in the Middle East. This should raise questions regarding the probability of a Cold War-type strategic balance in the region and of the consequent risk of nuclear confrontation. These differences can be summarised in four key areas: 

(1) The dynamics of regional proliferation that seem to make a nuclear arms race inevitable and increase the likelihood of transfer of nuclear weapons to non-state (terrorist) entities. 

(2) The distinction between the Cold War paradigm of bipolar deterrence based on second strike and the multipolar situation in which no nation would have such a capability which will be the case in the Middle East.

(3) The role of religion or the level of rationality in political decisionmaking. 

(4) Strong executive hierarchal command and control structures as opposed to diffuse multipolar "polycratic" regimes.

The first issue to address is whether a polynuclear Middle East can be averted. During the Cold War, countries such as Germany and Japan agreed to forego a military nuclear capability though they had sufficient technology to cross the threshold. In the case of Germany and Japan, this was achieved through extended assurances, guaranteeing American allies protection against attack by any other nuclear states as a substitute (which made political, economic and strategic sense) for maintaining their own nuclear arsenal. The Indian-Pakistani case also seems to offer a model of a nuclearisation of a sub-region that did not extend outside the region. One could argue for the application of these models to the Middle East, either by reaching a similar arrangement with the Islamic Republic on its capping its nuclear programme at a German/Japanese "threshold" status, or by offering broad (US) assurances to other Middle Eastern states in lieu of their acquiring their own nuclear weapons. The "German/Japanese model" seems to be increasingly gaining popularity in the US and Europe as it becomes clear that negotiations will not bring about a cessation of Iran's enrichment activities.

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Gilad Lidor
September 2nd, 2009
5:09 PM
An interesting article for which thanks go to the author. However, a number of points need perhaps clarification because this reader is not entirely convinced: 1. Shmuel Bar (SB) posits that: 'The distinction between the Cold War paradigm of bipolar deterrence based on second strike and the multipolar situation in which no nation would have such a capability which will be the case in the Middle East.' Why should the non-existence of a second strike capability, shared equally, be inherently more unstable than the presence of such a capability? Perhaps the perception that you only have 'one shot' would concentrate minds and prevent the execution of a first strike? 2. SB: 'Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Saudi Arabia would acquire a nuclear weapon from Pakistan (whose nuclear programme it funded) and it is hard to believe that countries like Egypt, Syria and even Iraq could allow themselves to be far behind. Is it so reasonable to assume this? On the basis of conjecture perhaps. And according to reports, Syria has already tried to do so with the assistance of North Korea and was thwarted by Israel. 3. SB: 'A "polynuclear" Middle East will be fundamentally different and less stable. Between Israel and the two key candidates for nuclearisation — Iran and Saudi Arabia — diplomatic relations do not exist. This will make hotlines and the sending of calming signals much more difficult.' The lack of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia can be resolved using traditional diplomacy. The Saudi peace plan includes within it an element of diplomatic relations, not only with Saudi Arabia but with all those countries that don't have such relations with Israel yet -including SA. Regarding Iran: This is more intractable. However, where is the evidence that bilateral 'diplomatic relations' negate the possibility of signal sending and other techniques of conflict management? 4.SB: ' As the Soviet Union disintegrated, the leadership provided assurances to the United States that the nuclear arsenal remained under control. No nuclear coups d'état have taken place, not to mention use of nuclear weapons in internal conflicts. We cannot be sure that this will be the case in the Middle East, where civil war could result in nuclear weapons falling into the hands of different factions. Coups d'état in the Middle East have rarely resulted in the leaders of the former regime being put out to pasture peacefully. The struggle is one for life and death and it is conceivable that one side may use nuclear weapons as a last-ditch option against its rival' This is pure conjecutre not based on any evidence or analogy - simply because this is a completely unknown situation for which we have no point of reference i.e. the unprecedented nuclear scenario. The point I'm trying to make is that we can't wait for the region to democratise before trying to negotiate Arms Control agreements. However, the danger from Iran is indeed real and perhaps the planners in the west are caluculating that a strike on that country's nuclear facilities will be a replay of what happened in 1945 when Japan was defeated: To smash the warlike hubris of a fanatic leadership leading in turn to concessions. 5. SB: 'Due to the experience in the region of military coups, most regimes will not be willing to relinquish central control and to delegate authority to the military units. In times of calm, this is no problem; in times of tension, it severely restricts the ability of the regime to develop doctrines of graduated response or to maintain escalation dominance' This argument is vague and the paragraph ambiguous and needs teasing out. On the face of it the author is suggesting that lack of military control is less stable than with civilian control. This appears to be contradictory to what has been said before.

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