A View from Israel: Deterrence is irrelevant

The basic tenet of deterrence is built on a foundation of rational decision-making – a capacity which Iran lacks.

Iran flags ahmadinejad 300 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran flags ahmadinejad 300
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Tuesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its much awaited report on the progress of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Unsurprisingly, it affirmed what Israel has long been clamoring about: Iran is definitely on the road to producing nuclear weapons.Unfortunately, we live in a world that slumbers and has little understanding of the realities we face today.
European diplomats speak of sanctions and possible future negotiations. The IAEA conducts site visits in Iran and calls on the regime there to “comply” with UN demands. But the world fails to understand that conventional diplomacy and rational deterrence simply do not apply in the present-day scenario in which we find ourselves.
Nuclear deterrence will not help prevent Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons since the Iranian regime has religious motives to bring about the return of the Mahdi and is prepared to die for it.
Iran is led by a group of irrational men who believe they can hurry the arrival of the Mahdi – the 12th Imam who, according to Shi’ite Islamic tradition, went missing in 874 CE and will return under conditions of global chaos. The Iranian leadership appears willing to sacrifice the population of its own country to achieve this goal.In his book The Rise of Nuclear Iran, former Israeli ambassador to the UN Dore Gold writes, “Mahdi Khaliji, an Iranian Shi’ite scholar... has noted that there are apocalyptic hadiths [received Shi’ite traditions] that the Mahdi will not return unless one-third of the world population is killed and another third die. But Ahmadinejad and his followers believe man can actively create the conditions for the Mahdi’s arrival in the here and now...”
In 2006, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting website said in a program called “The World Towards Illumination,” that the Mahdi will reappear in Mecca and form an army to defeat Islam’s enemies in a series of apocalyptic battles, in which the Mahdi will overcome his archenemy in Jerusalem.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a member of the Hojatieh society, a group which believes it can and should hasten the arrival of the Mahdi. According to Islamic tradition, the Mahdi’s arrival will be accompanied or followed by near destruction of nations. The group appears to maintain a deep desire to create the necessary global chaos. And Ahmadinejad has publicly called for the Mahdi’s speedy return. In his first speech to the UN in 2005, he ended his remarks with:“O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace.”
In the same venue in 2006, he began his speech by saying: “... hasten the reappearance of the Imam of the times and grant to us victory and prosperity. Include us among his followers and martyrs.” The same occurred in 2007 when he said: “Oh God, hasten the arrival of Imam Al-Mahdi and grant him good health and victory and make us his followers and those who attest to his rightfulness.”Clearly Ahmadinejad has one objective on his mind – to bring back the 12th Imam.
The IAEA report states, “Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information.... The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.”
It is not difficult to arrive at the conclusion that the Iranian regime has a dangerous plan cooking in its enrichment facilities around the country. The IAEA report is too little, too late. What may be news for some is old news for others. Israel already knows what the IAEA report has now confirmed. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview with Israel Radio Tuesday, “We’ve known these things for years. We know more [about Iran] than The Washington Post knows and we know more than the IAEA does.”
Barak also said, “The government has been working for years at showing the world that the problem of a nuclear-armed Iran is one that affects the whole world, not just Israel. But Israel is responsible for its own safety and protecting itself.”One of the main points the world has failed to understand is that Israel is simply the first in line in Iran’s crosshairs. The chaos Iran wants to create has less to do with Israel than it does with the West. Already today, Iranian Shahab-3 and Korean-made BM-25 rockets are capable of reaching major European cities.
So ultimately how does a world confront a country like Iran hell-bent on a religious mission to bring about the return of Islam’s lost Mahdi?
At this point, Israel believes the US will take the lead in pushing the UN and other Western countries to impose tougher, new sanctions on Iran following the publication of the incriminating IAEA report. Israel also seeks sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, which has yet to be directly affected by earlier rounds of sanctions. Sanctions imposed on the CBI would, for example, make it difficult for Iran to bankroll its nuclear program and buy components it requires to build new, advanced centrifuges.
But in truth, Iran will never come under full sanctions anyway, as Russia and China adamantly refuse to support such a motion. On Wednesday, Russia clarified it would not support further sanctions against Iran and, together with China, argued in favor of finding a better solution through diplomatic means.
As they benefit greatly on an economic level in their relationship with Iran, both Russia and China are operating on self-interest, as all countries generally do, but they appear to fail to recognize that they too are in Iran’s sights.The military option often discussed in national security circles, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, has never been removed from the table as both the US and Israel have repeatedly emphasized.
In Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger argued in favor of predictable nuclear deterrence, calling for “presenting the enemy with an unfavorable calculus of risks” by means of “military operations in phases which permit an assessment of the risks and possibilities for settlement at each stage before recourse is had to the next phase of operations.”
But his assessment then has little relevance today. The Cold War players were considered to be rational and fearful of the horrifying consequences nuclear warfare would bring. Iran simply is not. In June Ahmadinejad calrified, “If we do want to make a bomb, we are not afraid of anybody.”
In his paper The Great Cold War: A Journey Through the Hall of Mirrors, Gordon S. Barrass, a member of the Board of the Cold War Studies Centre at the London School of Economics, describes a war game that took place in the presence of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
“After the Moscow Summit Marshal Grechko invited Brezhnev and some of his colleagues to take part in a ‘war game,’ seemingly hoping to stiffen Brezhnev’s resolve in dealing with the harsh realities of a nuclear war. The exercise began with generals describing the impact of a surprise attack by over a thousand American missiles. They grimly explained that 80 million people would be killed, the armed forces obliterated, 85 percent of industry destroyed and European Russia so irradiated as to be uninhabitable.”
General Danilevich recalled that “Brezhnev and Kosygin were visibly terrified by what they heard. Marshal Grechko then asked Brezhnev to push a button that would launch a ‘retaliatory strike,’ which in reality involved the launch of just three missiles with dummy warheads along a test range. Brezhnev turned pale, began perspiring and trembled visibly. He repeatedly asked Grechko, ‘Is this definitely an exercise?’ The leadership were traumatized by this experience. None of them ever again participated in such an exercise. Brezhnev immediately ordered yet tighter controls to ensure that there could never be unauthorized use of Soviet nuclear weapons.”
TODAY’S PLAYERS in the clear and present war game of nuclear capability are not all rational. Iran has clearly stated its intention to attack Israel and the West. Israel and the rest of the world must not take Iranian statements lightly and must base their planning assessments not on rational behavior but on actual behavior.The basic tenet of deterrence is built on a foundation of rational decisionmaking by both sides – a capacity which Iran lacks.
Nuclear strategy is based mainly on the non-use of the weapons. That is, having the weapon and the ability to deliver it is meant to be a sufficient threat to deter any enemy country from attacking.
In his Nobel lecture in 2005, famed economist Thomas Schelling said, “The most spectacular event of the past half-century is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed sixty years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger.” In his book The Strategy of Conflict, Schelling explained that countries need not concern themselves with the application of force, but rather with the exploitation of potential force.
After the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by nuclear weapons, Bernard Brodie, a military strategist well-known for establishing the basics of nuclear strategy, together with some of his colleagues, authored The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, which predicted that the atomic bomb would revolutionize international politics.
And even today, this rings true as a nuclear Iran would completely transform the balance of power in the Middle East – to Iran’s sole advantage.And while sanctions are an important tool of foreign policy, they are less aggressive than the use, or threat of use, of armed violence and in the case of Iran have proved insufficient in getting them to stop their pursuit of a dangerous nuclear weapons program.
The concept of deterrence was born at the beginning of the nuclear age when it became clear that military objectives had changed from how to win a war to how to avert war at all costs. Keith B. Payne writes in Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age that “the fundamental problem with the deterrence theory is that it posits a rational – hence predictable – opponent.”
In an essay titled Future of Deterrence: The Art of Defining How Much Is Enough, Payne wrote “deterrence is the art of persuading others to practice self-control by creating conditions that make their self-control their own preferred option.”But as mentioned earlier, Iran is not looking to practice self-control but rather to create world chaos.Some analysts have proposed that war would simply be senseless destruction were it not for the purpose of reaching a specific political objective. But again, in Iran’s case the objective is not political but rather religious, and therefore rational deterrence, sanctions and negotiations have little if any value.
In his book Fighting Terrorism, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote, “One does not have to be an expert in international terrorism to sense that this rising tide of Islamic terrorism is qualitatively different from the terrorism which the West has had to face up until now. For it derives from a highly irrational cultural source, militant Islam.... The trouble with militant Islam is that it appears to be an irrational goal being pursued irrationally... Once Iran has nuclear weapons there is nothing to say that it will not move to greater adventurism and irrationality rather than greater responsibility.”
Forget what you know about containment, sanctions and negotiations. As long as the present Iranian leadership with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at its helm remains in power, the threat of nuclear warfare is very real. Dennis Ross, President Barack Obama’s point man on Iran, wrote in The Washington Post in 2006, “As for those who think that the nuclear deterrent rules that governed relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War will also apply in a nuclear Middle East: Don’t be so confident.”
The great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote: “So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”The world has failed to understand who Iran’s leaders are and that they truly intend to implement their oft-repeated threats to destroy Western nations.  Today’s containment strategy of using diplomatic and economic means to prevent Iran’s success in reaching nuclear capability will ultimately fail. Deterrence, as we know it, is a faulty approach when dealing with Iran. Their leadership is not afraid of retaliatory strikes.
Ideally, Israel and the West can and should, as a more viable solution, seek a way to strengthen Iran’s opposition and bring about the political downfall of the current regime. This scenario at least offers the opportunity to usher in an era of sane Iranian leadership that would operate on the basis of rational thinking. The protestors of 2009 would at least receive the freedom they deserve and the leadership would likely be willing to negotiate with the West over the Iranian nuclear program and use it for peaceful purposes only. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once stated: “There is a memorial to the failure of conventional deterrence in every town and village in Europe.”
At the end of the day, if all else fails, Israel and the West need to ensure that one of the reminders existing for other nations who believe they can threaten the free world with nuclear weapons, are the obliterated remains of Iran’s nuclear facilities.