A Proliferated Middle East?
While there is continued debate over Iran’s intentions, Tehran is, at a minimum, almost certainly engaged in a large-scale effort to acquire the capability to build nuclear weapons. Persistent (albeit fitful) efforts by the international community to dissuade Iran from its apparent objective have yet to succeed. Tehran has successfully moved a considerable way along the path toward acquiring nuclear weapons. Given the potential cascade of nuclear proliferation that may follow any overt declaration of a nuclear capability, Iran may judge that its interests are best served by establishing a “latent” or “virtual” nuclear capability along the lines of what Israel has done. Should this come to pass, or if Iran overtly develops a nuclear arsenal, it might encourage Tehran to pursue more aggressively its various forms of ambiguous aggression throughout the Middle East and beyond. If Iran tests a nuclear weapon, the situation for Israel could change dramatically in a manner somewhat similar to that of the United States when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in August 1949. In a strictly military sense Israel would likely be better positioned to derail the Iranian nuclear program before it reached the weaponization phase. Yet an argument can also be made that the political case for preventive action may be stronger once Iran had openly demonstrated its duplicity in the face of genuine efforts by the international community to assist Tehran in its “peaceful” development of nuclear energy. Should Israel forego military action against Iran, a bipolar regional nuclear competition could ensue, at least in the near term while other regional powers decide whether or not to enter the nuclear arena.
How might crisis stability be preserved under these conditions? Let us assume that crisis stability means preserving a secure second-strike capability so as to reduce the incentive of any state to initiate nuclear weapons use. Given this assumption, a Middle East characterized by a multipolar nuclear competition comprising asymmetric and immature capabilities may be a place of great crisis instability. Given relatively limited resources, the newly minted nuclear powers will have some tough choices to make about how they size and shape their forces, and how they control and protect them. It may be simpler for a newly armed nuclear power to build more nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and to hide a portion of them in locations that would be difficult to detect, in the hope that this would ensure the survival of a sufficient number of weapons to retaliate in the event of an attack. Should this condition obtain, a single compromise of positional data could produce a major shift in the nuclear balance and perhaps even invite an attack.
Unlike during the Cold War era, when the United States and Soviet Union dominated the nuclear competition, might external powers be able to exert a significant influence on a regional nuclear competition? Generally discarded halfway through the Cold War — especially by the United States — defenses may play an important role in preserving deterrence and terminating a conflict. In a crisis, the United States could, in theory, threaten to intercept the ballistic missiles of any state attempting a first strike. It may also be possible to intercept nuclear-capable aircraft and cruise missiles. In attempting to terminate a conflict, the United States could declare that its forces will intercept any ballistic missiles or nuclear-capable aircraft or cruise missiles launched by any power after a declared cease-fire goes into effect.