Wrong-way Nobel strikes again

Does the IAEA really deserve the peace prize?

elbaradei, iaea 298 88ap (photo credit: AP [file])
elbaradei, iaea 298 88ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The aura and pomp that surround the Noble prize ceremonies notwithstanding, sometimes the selection committees get it wrong. This year, they gave the peace prize to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its head, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei - just as Iran's nuclear program is leading to the collapse of the non-proliferation regime. If the US and Europe fail to halt the Iranian effort before it reaches the finish line, this award will join the one given to Yasser Arafat on the top of the list of Nobel gaffes. In contrast, Thomas Schelling and Robert (Israel) Aumann received prizes in economics for their work in rational decision-making and game theory. The major contribution of this theory is in managing conflict, particularly in the shadows of nuclear weapons. Game theory was essential in guiding the US and Soviet Union to a stable deterrence relationship. Schelling and Aumann should have received peace prizes, while the IAEA deserves recognition for economics. It is the greed of leaders in Russia, Pakistan and elsewhere that has propelled proliferation of deadly weapons, including Iran's potentially lethal arsenal. It is this greed, and the long period in which European leaders denied the need to confront Iran that has led to this situation, rather than the failure of the IAEA. Indeed, ElBaradei is an unusually competent and professional civil servant, who does not indulge in the anti-Israel diatribes characteristic of many Egyptian officials. But he is in a very difficult situation, and fears that if he blows the whistle on Iran's illegal nuclear activities, the IAEA will collapse. He may now realize that by acting too slowly and meekly on Iran, he and the IAEA are likely to be rendered irrelevant anyway. IF THE window for diplomacy and sanctions closes, the focus will shift to the realm of game theory - confrontation, threats and deterrence. Despite many dangers, the leaders of the US and Soviet Union managed to prevent the worst of all possible scenarios - a nuclear catastrophe. By carefully choosing policies based on rational interest, and attempting to anticipate the responses of the other side, the leaders of both nations kept the conflict under control. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis demonstrated that the relationship could be controlled and stabilized, paving the way for d tente, and arms control negotiations. Whether these lessons can applied successfully to confrontations involving a nuclear armed Iran is highly problematic. During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union maintained diplomatic relations and embassies in each other's capitals. When the going got rough, and crises erupted, they were able to exchange reliable messages that allowed the leaders to maintain control over decision-making, and prevented blind escalation. Both sides understood that if the conflict escalated out of control, the result would be mutual destruction. Therefore, each move in the game could be calculated to avoid triggering an angry response from the other side. And while the contest between the communist and capitalist ideologies was intense, theirs was not a hate filled religious or historical conflict. However, Iran is entirely isolated, without any communications links with Israel, and no knowledge of Israeli red-lines, threat perceptions or fears. Instead of an embassy and diplomatic relations, Iranian leaders boast about "wiping Israel off the map," engage in Holocaust denial, and talk about moving the Jewish people to Europe. Thus, the foundation for the stable deterrence relationship that managed to prevent nuclear war between the US and the USSR, and later, between India and Pakistan, does not exist in the case of Iran. Similarly, there is no basis for a transformation from deadly confrontation to the cooperative conflict management necessary for survival, as took place during the 1962 missile crisis. THE TENETS of game theory also highlight the paths by which Teheran's sponsorship of terror through groups such as Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad could trigger a catastrophic confrontation between Israel and Iran. If Hizbullah had been successful in kidnapping or killing Israeli soldiers during its recent incursion, escalation would have followed, lighting a fuse that could reach Teheran. In the future, the terrorist leaders might be emboldened by the illusion of an Iranian nuclear umbrella, which, they could erroneously believe, would provide them with immunity to a full-scale Israeli counter-strike. (A few years ago, Pakistan-backed terrorists attacked Indian positions, expecting to be spared a robust response, due to mutual deterrence. They miscalculated, and the crisis came very close to a nuclear war. But in this case, as well, a network of communications channels and personal links averted catastrophe.) By demonstrating the dangers of a nuclear Iran, and the complexities of a stable deterrence under these conditions, game theory may spur the IAEA, through the US and Europe, into taking action at the last minute. If sanctions, diplomacy or, if necessary, joint military action, prevent Iran from becoming the most unstable of nuclear powers, catastrophe can be avoided. And then the IAEA, led by Mohamed ElBaradei, will have earned the peace prize. The writer is the director of the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University and the editor of NGO Monitor.