Fine-Tuning the Cold War


Nuclear Abolition News | IPS
Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM (IPS) - Ambiguity - is it the watchword for all involved in the issue over whether Iran goes nuclear, especially in light of the ongoing political uncertainties that engulf the Islamic Republic? JAPANESE


In trying to decipher the Iranian nuclear puzzle it is perhaps worth going back to the attitude that, during the Cold War, became U.S. doctrine under Robert McNamara (who died just last week). During his tenure as secretary of defence, the prevailing conception of nuclear deterrence became known as "mutual assured destruction" wherein the U.S. and then Soviet Republic both knew that they could destroy the other even if the other struck first.

Perhaps Iran is heading precisely this way with regard to Israel, surmises Ehud Ya'ari of Israel's Channel 2 TV, considered a leading Middle East analyst, and known for his "reliable sources" within Israel's security establishment.

Iran will not desist from its civilian nuclear programme, but is projecting a deliberately ambiguous attitude with respect to its nuclear ambitions, said Ya'ari who speculated that Iran would not hold back from completing the very last phase of converting nuclear knowhow for civilian purposes into a military capability. "They're going to keep that ambiguity until 'breaking point', which is defined by nuclear experts as the capability to make a bomb."

Strikingly, this is the kind of policy to which Israel has itself cleaved for decades when declaring, "We will never be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East." Israel has consistently stuck to this formula in a bid to ward off the charge that it is already a nuclear power with dozens of nuclear warheads at its disposal.

Until now while provocatively parading its enhanced missile delivery programme, Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stuck to the line that it has an alienable right to acquire nuclear knowhow, but has steered clear of saying out loud that it intended to move its civilian nuclear programme to the level of military capability.

The U.S. attitude to this Iranian imbroglio remains ambiguous - for all President Barack Obama's declared intention to move the world towards greater and greater nuclear disarmament, not just within the parameters of the Russian-U.S. equation.

This U.S. ambiguity was crystal clear when the President and his Vice- President, Joe Biden, made differently nuanced statements reflecting U.S. concern on how Israel deals with its concerns about Iran. The U.S., Biden said on ABC television, "cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do" if it feels threatened by another country.

Israel might well have understood that Biden's statement should not be understood as a U.S. green light to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. But just a day later, Obama felt obliged to make a corrective categorical statement on CNN; "Absolutely not," he replied, when asked whether the U.S. has quietly given Israel such a green light.

An Israeli government source says Biden's statement was not coordinated with Israel.

After several days of "no comment" in response to the flurry of U.S. declarations, the first statement by an Israeli official came in the form of a startlingly frank weekend interview by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's National Security Advisor, Uzi Arad.

He told Ha'aretz that Iran has already crossed the point of nuclear no-return which could be defined, he said, "as the point at which Iran has the ability to complete the cycle of nuclear fuel production on its own; the point at which it has all the elements to produce fissionable material without depending on outsiders. Iran is now there," Arad told the paper. "I don't know if it has mastered all the technologies, but it is more or less there."

But, Arad added, "Iran is not yet nuclear and not yet operational. Serious obstacles still lie in the way. The international community still has enough time to make it stop of its own volition...Obviously not enough was done. And what was done was too late, too little and too feeble. In practice we will be able to block Iran. But the line that was termed a 'red line' has been crossed."

Arad was asked, "Isn't it time to accept that Iran will be a nuclear power?"

He responded: "The major fear is that a nuclear Iran will burst the dam of nuclear proliferation in the region. It is wrong to say that just as in the Cold War, the world lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and with a nuclear China, we will also be able to live with a nuclear Iran. The subject is not just a nuclear Iran; the subject is a multi-nuclear Middle East.

"Serious experts, who are not Israelis, look at the Middle East and say that if Iran becomes nuclear in 2015, the Middle East will be nuclear in 2020. And a multi-nuclear Middle East is a nightmare. Five or six nuclear states in a jumpy, unstable region where the world's energy resources are located will not create nuclear quiet, but nuclear disquiet. A nuclear Middle East will be exactly like an upside-down pyramid."

Arad added, "I will say that independent strategists believe that anyone who wants a deal with the Iranians must have a military option. The more credible and concrete the option, the less likely that it will be needed; in fact, those who do not put a military option on the table are liable to find themselves having to resort to it."

A stark and somewhat less ambiguous assessment than has become customary whenever the Iran nuclear issue is addressed. A fine-tuning of Cold War days of nuclear deterrence: to deter Iran before it reaches its sought-after breaking point. At least perhaps, to deter Iran from going down the road of Israel's own policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.