New blog correspondent Dan Simon poses an excellent question in response to the “Hit ‘em Hard” entry on sanctions/embargo enforcement against Iran. My intention has been to address the substance of his question in the post after I deal with the Reverse and Prevent options against Iran’s nuclear programs. However, with technical difficulties slowing me down on that post, I will take this opportunity to discuss Mr. Simon’s specific point, outlined in his comments below:
I’m new to this blog, so forgive me if this has already been covered here–but could you perhaps give a short explanation as to why Iran’s nuclear weapons program is such an earth-shattering concern in the first place? It seems to me that one of the lessons of the Cold War–currently being recapitulated in the Indian subcontinent–is that nuclear deterrence works just fine. In fact, it arguably works too well: global conflicts seem to blossom effortlessly into hot wars, proxy wars, terrorism campaigns, civilian massacres and the rest in the presence of a nuclear standoff, almost as if the latter didn’t exist. (I elaborate here.)
The Iranian regime is currently going full-tilt at expanding its global influence, cultivating anti-Western allies of all kinds, and developing offensive capabilities of every conceivable variety. It also deploys these capabilities against its nuclear-armed adversaries, quite confident that just about the only thing that would provoke a nuclear response would be a (direct or proxy) nuclear attack. Apart, then, from deterring a full-blown invasion aimed at regime change–an extremely unlikely prospect in any event–how, exactly, would possession of nuclear weapons significantly alter for the worse either Iran’s aggressive posture or its plausibly deployable offensive capabilities?
Mr. Simon has expressed a common assessment here – and I believe it is, basically, 180 out from reality. It is understandable that, from the American perspective, nuclear deterrence seems to have “worked” during the Cold War. The Soviet Union never attacked us, nor did local conflicts escalate to global war. But the lesson of the Cold War for nations like Iran and North Korea is that nuclear deterrence worked against the United States.
This is not because of a perspective that America was an aggressor during the Cold War years. It is because when the Soviet Union sponsored local and proxy insurgencies in various parts of the globe, America chose in every case to accept either compromise, or outright loss of the nations in question to the Soviet orbit. This was not always a matter of American leaders and planners consciously drawing a direct line from confrontation to nuclear war; in fact, most of the time it was not. Rather, it was a matter of a priori self-constraint in the selection of our own objectives, on the general premise that any confrontation with the Soviets over the superpowers’ “periphery” had to remain “limited.” There existed a cottage industry in the United States that never arose in the Soviet Union: one devoted to defining “limited war” and “limited objectives,” on the theory that many of our national interests were not worth, in the common formulation of the time, the “incineration of Chicago.”
The concrete outcomes of this posture were visible in Korea, where we retreated from military success in the field to affirm the limited nature of our objectives, and where we are now – and have been for more than 55 years – the guarantors of an armistice that keeps Korea divided, with one half of it abjectly subjugated to a vicious Marxist regime; a situation, notably, that is more to China’s advantage than to ours, South Korea’s, or Japan’s.
Vietnam presented an even clearer outcome for “limited objectives,” since we lost there absolutely. I will discuss that further in a moment. After South Vietnam fell to the North, Laos and Cambodia (where a horrific genocide ensued) fell very quickly to Communist takeovers. Soviet support for local Marxists – arms, “advisors” – and affiliation by their thuggish regimes with Moscow, were features of Soviet activism in Africa, Latin America, and parts of the Middle East – from Somalia and Ethiopia to Angola and former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, Yemen (once divided into “North” and “South,” with South Yemen the Soviet client), Libya, Syria, and Iraq. The Soviets themselves had intermittent – not uninterrupted — success with their Third World policies, but in none of these cases did the US choose to seriously confront the Soviets, until, in a few places, the very last years of the Cold War.
In Europe, the Soviets maintained their hold on Eastern Europe, and kept Germany divided, and West Berlin isolated, for decades. It escaped the notice only of Americans, out of all the world’s onlookers, that before the USSR had a nuclear weapon, in the late 1940s, America mounted the Berlin Airlift to keep West Berlin supplied, and insisted on the city’s free access across Soviet-occupied East Germany. By August 1961, after the USSR had acquired nuclear weapons and beaten the United States to key milestones in space rocketry, America would do nothing as the Berlin Wall was built, to cut West Berlin off from a surface route to the outside world.
Berlin, of course, figured large in White House calculations during the Cuban Missile Crisis 14 months later, with the concern being that if the US invaded Cuba, the Soviets might – directly or through an East German proxy force – invade West Berlin. There were a number of factors in our decisionmaking, but I don’t think Americans realize, today, how different the outcome of that crisis looks from the perspective of others than ourselves. We remember the crisis as one that ended with America unmolested, and the Soviets agreeing to remove their missiles from Cuba. Marxists and other radicals remember this event as one in which the USSR was able to get us to agree not to deploy our new-generation Jupiter ballistic missiles in Turkey. Since this planned deployment was in support of NATO collective security objectives, and was abandoned unilaterally by the US under the threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba, our choice here was a key factor in France’s decision, in 1965, to withdraw from the NATO combined military command structure, and to cease coordinating the posture of her national nuclear force with the US and Great Britain.
We focus too often, however, on the Cuban Missile Crisis, as an example of direct nuclear brinkmanship during the Cold War. Direct brinkmanship was almost never the governing dynamic. Historians have also considered some elliptically threatening comments by Khrushchev during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and concluded that his comments almost certainly were not a serious factor in Eisenhower’s decision not to support the UK in military action at the time.
It is probable that, other than the Cuban Missile Crisis, only one other incident qualifies as a case of directly-implied strategic threat between the superpowers — one that could, by imputation (although not outright assertion) have included a nuclear component. That incident was Nixon’s alertment of US military forces during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when Soviet airborne intervention on behalf of the Arab nations appeared imminent. In this unique case, we might say a US threat, which may have included a nuclear component (implied, not explicit), deterred an intended action of the USSR. We must also note about this situation, however, that the US had considerable conventional force on high alert, including our large Air Force footprint in Europe and our Navy in the Mediterranean. Our conventional forces were a very credible deterrent given the geography of the problem, and the exposure of the implied Soviet lines of approach and logistics to our conventional interdiction. In this case, therefore, I am not persuaded that it was nuclear deterrence that was effective.
I mention these incidents because when people think of nuclear deterrence, such pitched-confrontation events are what they often have in mind. And again, at a more general level, Americans tend to think of nuclear weapons as having acted as a shield and stabilizer throughout most of the Cold War, primarily because we were never attacked, and because the Soviet Union never used them elsewhere.
What these analyses miss, however, is the effect of the nuclear threat on our posture for what was then called “extended deterrence.” The history of extended deterrence is what matters to nuclearizing states like North Korea and Iran, because what it is about is US interest in third parties, and guarantees to them regarding their security. And the lesson they take from the Cold War is that, if you can get nuclear weapons, you can hobble America before she even emerges from the chute to face off with you, over a third party.
Extended deterrence was the concept of deterring the Soviet Union from predation against third parties – our NATO allies, Japan, regions where the US had important national interests – with the implicit threat of direct superpower confrontation. I note that, almost from the outset of the nuclear era, our presidents all deemed any thought of “rollback” – pushing the Soviets back from gains they had already made against their periphery – to be too likely to provoke a nuclear confrontation. At the very basic level of whether we would choose an offensive or defensive posture, the awful potential of nuclear weapons dictated a defensive one, in the minds of American leaders.
This choice had material consequences for the nations of Eastern Europe, of course. And for those who identified the origin of the Cold War in the 1917 revolution, the non-Russian Soviet Socialist Republics might consider themselves affected as well. Almost all the nations in these two categories had been dragooned into the Soviet “sphere” before America used the nuclear weapons on Japan in September 1945. Nuclear deterrence was not a factor in their being subjugated by the Soviet Union. But after the Soviets acquired nuclear weapons, the potential for nuclear confrontation was very much a factor in the US strategic decision to favor the defensive posture of “containment” – to be achieved by deterrence – over the alternative, offensive posture of “rollback.”
An interesting contrast is observed in the posture of the Truman administration – author of the Truman Doctrine – before the USSR detonated an atomic bomb, in 1949, and after. In the years immediately after WWII, Truman reacted forcefully to Soviet attempts – through local proxies and actual Soviet troop deployments – on Iran, Greece, and Turkey. Indeed, the Truman Doctrine was delineated by his policies during these incidents. Stalin pulled back when thus confronted, as the Soviets did in Germany when the Western allies mounted the Berlin Airlift.
After Soviet possession of a nuclear weapon capability became clear, however, with the first Soviet detonation in August of 1949, the US began to temporize more. We should not simplistically attribute our cessation of support to the Nationalist Chinese – also in August 1949 (but before the first Soviet atomic detonation was announced) – to Soviet progress in the nuclear field. But our determination to prosecute the war in Korea as a UN action, and to limit our objectives there to restoring the status quo ante, was very much related to Soviet acquisition of “the bomb.” Our essential passivity at other major crisis points in the 1950s – the Berlin Uprising, Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Suez, Poland, and Hungary in 1956 – was the result of a fundamental decision, made in the wake of Soviet acquisition of a nuclear capability, to avoid being pulled into tactical-level confrontations that could escalate into something uncontrollable – or at least could distract or derail us from what we envisioned as a very long-term, two-party engagement with the Soviet Union, which could not be allowed to “go nuclear.”
That this posture looked different to foreigners, as opposed to how it looked to Americans, is extremely likely. That it was real, and deliberately adopted, is absolutely certain. Its underlying philosophy was outlined in the celebrated “NSC-68” document, from April 1950, in which the national security apparatus of the United States, newly reorganized the previous year, set the course of our Cold War policy for the next three decades. From the perspective of later years, this 1950 document looks surprisingly clear-eyed about the nature and intentions of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the document’s declassification in 1975 (it was originally Top Secret) was a factor in the contemporary, positive revision of Harry Truman’s reputation as a Cold War president. Its thrust, however, is unmistakable: in the face of the USSR’s emergence as a nuclear power, the task of the United States was to build up the political, economic, and military strength of herself and her allies, and be ready to deter – “if possible” – the aggressive actions of the Soviet Union abroad, as well as defend the territory of the United States, and our way of life.
The concrete result of pursuing a policy of building up and deterring worked itself out, under both Truman and Eisenhower, as favoring cheaper strategic nuclear weapons over more expensive and inconvenient conventional forces. Eisenhower put his stamp on this process with his “New Look” for the national security policy, which entailed building up nuclear forces and relying on “massive retaliation” to deter Soviet adventurism. (A consummate military staff officer, he made the decision on this after having a series of elaborate courses of action gamed, and selecting the most moderate, lowest-risk among them: the one that envisioned a decades-long tension between the nuclear superpowers, and a defensive stance for the United States. Eisenhower specifically considered an offensive “rollback” policy, versus defensive “containment,” and chose the latter. He considered the risks of “rollback,” for provoking the Soviets into escalation, too great.)
“Massive retaliation” was officially repudiated after a relatively short period; but the underlying defensiveness of the American posture remained. In neither our military resource planning nor our strategic security thinking did we envision doing something very particular – and very significant: prevailing over Soviet-supplied forces in third-party conflicts. On the one hand, attempting to do so might cause “escalation” to a superpower confrontation. On the other, our policy held in disfavor the idea of manning, training, and equipping for such conflicts. If the Soviets were not “deterred” by our basic posture, and acted by means of such conflicts anyway, we were not organized to switch quickly or effectively to a Plan B.
Exerting a strong influence over our posture, in this context, was the cottage industry cited earlier in theorizing about limited war and limited objectives. The key names in this “industry” are well-known: Thomas Schelling (a game-theorist), Bernard Brodie, and of course, Henry Kissinger, among others. Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (published in 1958 and, revised, in 1969) synthesized well the sense of the “limitations” advocates that the US in the nuclear age could not seek “decision,” through military operations, in the terms traditional to pre-nuclear policies. A frequent comparison to illuminate this point was of the “unlimited aims” of the WWII Allies – unconditional surrender by the Axis powers – with the limited aims of the UN-chartered forces in Korea, which were consciously confined to restoring the status quo ante. The former type of aim was cited as an example of what is not feasible in the nuclear age; the latter, of what is.
Significantly, Kissinger referred to the United States (and, by extension, her allies) as a “satisfied power,” one that, in the sense popularized by Morgenthauian analysis, seeks to preserve the international status quo, and is thus essentially on defense as a basic posture. These perceptions by the US combined, under Johnson and McNamara, to produce the Vietnam policy of the mid-1960s, in which America carefully confined herself to reacting to the initiatives of North Vietnam, and sought the limited – and wonderfully ill-defined — objective of “convincing the adversary to alter his behavior.” It is important for today’s Americans to understand that there was no time, during our entire involvement in Indochina, at which it was our objective to achieve the decisive defeat of North Vietnam. And we certainly never had the objective of reunifying Vietnam under a democratic, Western-oriented government. From first to last, we operated on the assumption that North Vietnam would remain a viable, integrated state, and client of the Soviet Union; and our objective was only to alter her behavior.
Thus, unless we were prepared to guarantee a perpetual standoff between North and South, as we do in Korea, we were destined to lose the Vietnam conflict from the very beginning. We were self-constrained to not pursue the only objective — the defeat of North Vietnam as a viable state — that could have created a situation different from the one in which Saigon fell, in 1975. H.R. McMaster’s painful Dereliction of Duty recounts how this self-constraint played out in the strategic and operational deliberations of Johnson, McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs, as they implemented the policy of “gradualism” to which McNamara’s name will be affixed by history.
“Gradualism,” as summarized by Robert Osgood of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, was “rationalized by the theory of limited war, which called for the restricted, flexible, controlled, proportionate use of force in order to persuade the adversary to terminate the war.”* Our dedication to keeping the war limited is explained by Osgood as follows: “… probably the greatest constraint – and the basic reason for gradualism – was simply the tacit assumption that U.S. interests in the war did not warrant even a small risk of widening the war politically or, indeed, of enlarging it in any way beyond the minimum measures that seemed to be necessary to avoid defeat.”*
These are, indeed, the features of a “satisfied,” or status quo, power. The lessons of Vietnam are very pointed. In a mutual nuclear deterrence situation, the “satisfied” power will operate on the basis of the existing status quo, when it comes to the disposition of third parties, and not seek to dismantle or upend it. He may, for a time, resist the efforts of the dissatisfied power to achieve new objectives. But he will not disrupt the status quo, even if that is the only way to achieve a decisive outcome. Even if he is well capable of summary, disruptive action – e.g. (in Vietnam), destroying the NVA in the field, destroying Hanoi’s material ability to wage war, even forcing Hanoi to surrender by means of comprehensive conventional attack, and quarantine from outside supply – the satisfied power will consider that course too big a risk. He will not, as Clausewitz prescribed for achieving decisive objectives, eventually shift from defense to offense. He is not really looking for a decision that upsets the status quo; and hence the price of any such decision is too high for him.
A signal lesson from the Soviets’ Cold War career is this one: if they could turn at least some “revolutionary,” power-grabbing achievements in a third-party state into the “status quo,” before the United States began planning intervention, the US would accept at least some part of that as the status quo. This happened in all the major divided nations: Germany, Korea, Vietnam. It was the basis on which all of Eastern Europe was ceded to Moscow’s effective control for forty years. Fidel Castro had reason to see his tenure in Havana in that light, as did Marxist dictators in Africa. The lessons of Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Germany – particularly the disposition of Berlin – are the most concentrated, however. If you are Iran – or China or North Korea, or indeed, modern Russia – you can draw from those conflicts this lesson: arm yourself with nuclear weapons; present the US with a fait accompli as the status quo; and you will retain at least what you started with – and in the end, you may prevail.
I do not believe Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons so that she can promptly attack Israel with them. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may imagine himself, or someone on his speed-dial, to be a magic-numbered imam, but the ruling clerical council is more pragmatic in its views. Certainly the clerics are radical Shi’a Muslims, but they are also Persians, with a long, historical view of the role of Persia in Asia and the Middle East. What they seek is hegemony of Iran’s region: to be the gateway of the Asian powers to the resources of the Middle East, and the go-to regional contact for European commercial interests. I don’t doubt that this is for eschatological religious reasons as well as old-fashioned international politics. Iran’s religious leaders do see her as the seat of Shi’a Islam and eventually of a world caliphate. But they are not confused about the respective roles of the miraculous and the practical: they know that to be regional hegemons, even the scions of the true line of the Prophet must be nuclear-armed.
I don’t by any means discount Iranian threats against Israel, overt or implied. But it is a grave mistake to see “deterrence” in this case as operating to prevent Iran from launching nuclear warheads at Israel. The real deterrence will be what Iran is hoping to do, drawing on the lessons of Korea, Vietnam, Germany, and Cuba: deter the United States from intervening as Iran ramps up activism in the Middle East. Iran’s goal is to squeeze America out of the Middle East – and not solely so that she can have a free hand against Israel, although I believe that is one of her goals. The main obstacle to Iran achieving hegemony of the region is that there is already a hegemon of the Middle East, and it is us.
The things the whole world takes for granted today – free access to the chokepoint-infested waterways of the Middle East, local nationals’ control of their natural resources, and global access to those resources through a relatively free market – are all a product of American hegemony of the region. No other likely hegemon would produce this result. If the former Soviets had ever gained enough of a foothold there to become the hegemon, none of these conditions would prevail in the Middle East. We can deduce quite accurately that if today’s Russia, or China, or Iran achieved hegemony of the region, the same would be true. (The former colonial powers of Europe are no longer a serious factor. India has tremendous potential, but little taste, so far, for the kind of power projection and regional jockeying that would put her in contention. That said, she cannot be complacent about a change of hegemon in the Middle East, and would be likely to increase her involvement in the region at all levels, if such a change appeared to be in view. We must say the same of Japan.)
Iran is not just opposed to the American presence, and our power as the hegemon. She also has to consider what she knows very well: that both Russia and China have designs on her region. She does not have the choice to ignore their activities. She can function as a pawn – or she can seek to assume the persona of another, more autonomous and powerful chess piece. Iran is happy to use Russia and China, but has no interest in being beholden to them. She would prefer to chart her own course to regional hegemony. With a nuclear arsenal, it is likely to proceed on something like the following outline.
Iran’s first problem is that the US Navy and Air Force keep her hemmed in to the south (and now US ground forces occupy the territory to her west – and east). The objective she needs to achieve is to make the Persian Gulf so inhospitable that America finds the price of keeping forces stationed there too high. Iran need not make any direct threats with nuclear weapons to do this. Her approach is likely to be fomenting radical unrest in the Persian Gulf nations. The US has major bases in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, and uses facilities in the UAE and Oman that are important for our military operations. Our force posture in the Persian Gulf would be dramatically transformed – for the worse — if we lost access to those bases, and faced hostile shores where now we have cooperative partners.
Iran could, with a nuclear arsenal, induce us to self-constrain against intervening in the Persian Gulf nations where Iran might sponsor insurgencies. Americans would almost certainly clamor for abandonment of bases, in small nations many of them have never heard of, rather than intervening on behalf of what are admittedly a collection of often politically-incorrect emirs – unpresentable, to say the least, from the standpoint of democracy and liberalization. The small peninsular nation of Bahrain, where a Shi’a minority is increasingly disgruntled over its treatment by the Sunni ruling family, might present fertile ground for an initial Iranian effort at promoting insurgency. Bahraini Shi’as are Arabs, not Persians – but so are the members of Hizballah, Iran’s major insurgent client in Lebanon. Iran has long experience with supporting insurgency and terrorism; it would be little, if any, stretch to apply it in the Persian Gulf.
Iran does not have to defeat the US in a direct confrontation to squeeze us out of the region. She has to make us calculate that the price of staying is too high, in the face of unrest (and probably regime-changes) in our partner nations, and the possibility that intervention could draw us into conflict with…a nuclear-armed Iran.
A similar pattern could be repeated farther afield, once the Persian Gulf was secured against US resurgence. I have not mentioned Iraq yet, mainly because Iran’s wisest course is to close in on the Strait of Hormuz first, and wrest de facto control of it from the US Navy. But Iran will have reason to consider it useful to sponsor persistent, low-level terrorism inside Iraq, until the day comes when a more concerted effort looks profitable. If America’s relationship with Iraq remains strong, Iran’s partnership with Syria will yield particular benefit, in enabling her to approach Iraq from two directions. Beyond her immediate neighbors, and her partnership with Syria and Hizballah, Iran has also already cultivated ties with Yemen, Sudan, and Eritrea, on the Red Sea, including arms sales and the facilitation of terrorist activity. Her political initiatives outside the region have continued to spread in the last fifteen years, and include North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba.
Tehran is not likely to try to achieve everything by her own efforts. She is likely to seek, determinedly, to be in the driver’s seat, when collaborating with Russia or China. The opportunities for collaboration in some projects are obvious: e.g., gaining control of the Strait of Hormuz, a natural fit for Russia, or acquiring basing options on the Red Sea, where China would be a useful partner. In all such potential moves, however, the lesson of Cold War deterrence, for a nation like Iran, is that being a nuclear power induces America to self-constrain, which produces benefits for the plans of rivals.
The one category of Cold War actors we have not discussed is the millions who constituted the “collateral damage,” when deterrence did not work on the dissatisfied power, but did work on the satisfied power. East Europeans, Koreans, Cubans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Angolans, Somalis, Ethiopians – in a long list of nations, America’s essentially deterrable posture was a key factor in the decision of the Soviet Union to seek power abroad, support proxies in doing so, and consolidate it – brutally – against local resistance. I have been careful not to attribute the defeat of Chiang Kai Shek’s forces in China to “deterrability” on the part of the United States, and I will specifically disavow that analysis here. However, in calculating the human cost of the spread of predatory Marxism around the globe, it would also be breathtakingly incomplete to fail to mention the minimum 50 million Chinese who are thought to have perished in the civil war and Mao’s consolidation of power. Nor, of course, can we forget the millions who died in the forging of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin. The character of political Marxism was well-established when the Soviets and their clients sought, after WWII, to divide and conquer additional nations with it; and the people who were ultimately its victims were justified in seeking to avert that fate.
The relevance of this reminder is exemplified by Israel, which, in a nuclear Iran scenario, is analogous not to the superpowers in the Cold War, but to the victims of Marxist politics as civil war. Israel does have nuclear weapons. But they don’t give her any good options for dealing proactively with a scenario in which Iran is slowly squeezing Israel’s great-power patron out of the Middle East. If Russia is also challenging US power in Europe and the Mediterranean, Israel’s situation could become very grim.
Of course, Israelis are not the only people we care about in the Middle East. It would be as bad for Bahrainis, Kuwaitis, Iraqis, and Emiratis to fall under Tehran-oriented radical theocracies – or to spend years in a torturous, bullet-ridden limbo, like the much-tried Lebanese – as for the Israelis’ position to deteriorate. Israel is unique, however, in operating from a Western perspective. Out of all the nations in the Middle East, it is Israel we can expect to see the outlines of regional politics, and current predicaments, in much the same light we do. We can, in fact, be quite sure Israel has already recognized the utility of nuclear weapons to Iran for deterring the United States, and gradually rendering us impotent in the region. Israelis will, of course, as Americans did throughout the Cold War, focus in public debate on the existential threat to their own existence represented by an Iranian nuclear arsenal. But Israelis are among the most clear-sighted analysts of the actual dynamics of the Cold War; and it is no trick for them to recognize that an incremental approach by Iran, one that relies on America’s well-demonstrated deterrability, is more insidious, more likely, and ultimately more alarming than the prospect of precipitate nuclear attack.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Iranian plans, executed along these lines, would succeed, in whole or in part. What is certain is that, with nuclear armament, Iran would have a much better opportunity than she has now to try. We cannot say what other events will intervene to shift influences and probabilities. We do know that neither Russia nor China will leave Iran, or the Middle East, alone to develop, uninfluenced by themselves. We can be fairly certain that, in the absence of a transformative regime change in Iran, its current leaders will seek to achieve a hegemonic power in the region, and to exclude the US from it. Israel has reasons to regard this as an existentially threatening prospect. America, for our own reasons, should see it as a threat to our national, as well as economic, security.
* Robert E. Osgood, Limited War Revisited (Westview Press, Boulder, CO. 1979). Quotations from pp. 43-44