If media reports are accurate, the nuclear option is now being put on the table by Saudi Arabia, in light of that country’s increasingly troubled relationship with Iran and the struggle for regional hegemony between the two nations and Iran’s apparent efforts to develop a nuclear capability. J. BROOKS SPECTOR goes deep for the history for such issues.
Back when the world was young in 1946, there was only one nuclear power, the US. The Manhattan Project had led to the creation of both enriched uranium and plutonium nuclear devices and the initial idea by the government was that the effects of these weapons were so terrible that they should be handed off to the United Nations for an international control mechanism under what was dubbed The Baruch Plan, named after its principal drafter, Bernard Baruch. The plan was blocked by the Soviet Union, largely it turned out, because that nation was well on its way to its own nuclear capability (in part because of espionage within the nuclear programme itself). The Soviet achievement came as an enormous shock to the American population and its politicians (and those of many other western nations as well) – helping considerably to harden the growing rift between the two that was becoming the Cold War.
While many in the US were initially deeply frightened by the reality of a Soviet bomb, seeing such a development as the immediate precursor to a new round of global war, it gradually became clearer to Americans that because the two nations had nuclear weapons, it was possible to achieve an increasingly stable “balance of terror” between them, thereby actually averting “hot war”. As the theology of this balance became better codified, nuclear strategists refined their ideas into the so-called system of mutually assured deterrence (and destruction) or MAD or MADD – surely one of the most eerily appropriate acronyms ever created.
In the US, the new breed of international relations strategists, men like Herman Kahn, Thomas Schelling, and Henry Kissinger, among others, gradually articulated two vital concepts for understanding the evolving nuclear balance. The first of these was the idea of the ladder of escalation. This meant that a state holding nuclear weapons would not immediately leap to launching nuclear weapons at its opponent in an international conflict, given the enormity of the damage that would trigger full-scale nuclear war. Instead, if the problems could not be resolved, the antagonists would slowly work their way up the ladder of diplomatic and military actions, with each step upward forcing ever more contemplation over the real down sides of the conflict, before moving on to higher and higher steps – and thus eventually on to the use of nuclear weapons.
The second key idea was that in order to achieve a stable nuclear balance that would preclude the use of such weapons, rather than encourage their deployment in combat, there needed to be both effective first-strike and counter-strike capabilities. What that meant was that even if side A chose, for whatever reason, to send nuclear weapons flying at cities and military facilities, there would still be a protected second- or counter-strike capability on the part of the other nation, sufficient to wreak revenge and thereby forestall an attack in the first place, save one launched by a lunatic or from some dire technological mistake. This understanding of MADD also presupposed some careful and very well protected command, control and communications between the national leadership and the actual military officers entrusted with sending the nuclear weapons on their way (and we’ll come back to that eventually).
These interlocking realisations helped stabilise the international nuclear relationship, even as they also gave birth to a whole new genre of apocalyptic military fiction and movies such as Failsafe, Seven Days in May, Dr Strangelove, On the Beach, among many others. Soon enough, military and defence strategists on both sides of the Iron Curtain had reached similar insights. A stable balance required a triad of delivery methods. Land-based missiles would be able to deliver heavy nuclear payloads against cities and military sites as first strike capabilities, along with more flexibly based strategic bomber aircraft that could be recalled before an attack, if things calmed down. Meanwhile, nuclear missile carrying submarines were a secure second-strike capability. They were virtually impossible to detect, let alone predict their future locations, and so they could always be held in reserve to provide the crucial deterrence of the other’s first-strike options – or deliver the second strike, thereby freezing use of such weapons in the first place.
As a result, the secret Soviet placement of its missiles in Cuba in 1962 had threatened to destroy the US-USSR nuclear balance, since such missiles could reach major US targets in less than 15 minutes, before most US land-based missiles could even be readied for launch. Accordingly, until they were removed under the duress of the Cuban Missile Crisis’ naval quarantine around Cuba (and a secret agreement to decommission a collection of older US missiles in Turkey and southern Italy half a year later), the destabilisation of the strategic balance had been threatened – bringing the world closer to nuclear conflict and frightening the pants off almost everybody.
As additional nations became declared nuclear powers in the post-war era such as Britain, France and China, they all took on board the prevailing wisdom of those ladders of escalation and MADD doctrine. At first, things became a bit wobbly with the accession to membership of the nuclear club by India and Pakistan, given their unresolved territorial issues, their multiple wars and the occasional terror strikes inside India by irregular groups based in Pakistan, but there too, the ideology of the nuclear balance began to take hold. Along the way, because neither of these two nations ever joined the international Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), designed to restrict new entrants to the nuclear ‘club’ that served to give some strategists pause over the stability of the nuclear balance in South Asia.
Although they never publicly declared possession of such weapons, it is well known that both Israel and South Africa developed nuclear capabilities, similarly without acceding to the NPT, and for somewhat similar reasons – a sense these weapons would be their local equivalent of the so-called doomsday weapon – something to be used in the event of a fundamental, existential threat. The problem for both these cases (before South Africa eventually dismantled its weapons at the end of the Apartheid era) was the inability of either nation’s strategists to effectively define a credible set of targets to be attacked. As a result, over the years, the strategic importance of the nuclear option for the Israelis increasingly became one of strategic ambiguity, rather than a classic case of MADD.
Who, precisely, was their equivalently armed antagonist, was the question. In recent years, however, since the fall of the Shah’s government in Iran, Israeli strategic thinking would have shifted away from thinking about its Arab neighbours in this regard to the more distant nation of Iran, now under the control of the Ayatollahs, and increasingly anti-Israel in its public rhetoric and in its support for groups like Hezbollah. In all of this, while the Israelis, too, presumably have bought into the orthodoxy of nuclear strategy, their leaders have been reluctant to talk about this question, given their unwillingness to publicly confirm possession of such weapons in the first place.
Of course, the North Korean tests of nuclear weapons and the growing capability of Iran to produce weapons grade fissile materials, together with their respective development of missiles to deliver such payloads, has begun to test the international nuclear balance system yet again, given the rhetorical excesses of both nations vis-à-vis their neighbours and any ostensible enemies. The North Koreans and their nuclear and missile tests have further strained Japanese relationships with that state, let alone the tensions with South Korea and the US – and even, to some degree with China. (To the extent that North Korean command, control and communications for its military seems to be the subject of some capriciousness on the part of its leader, Kim Jong Un, the doctrines of deterrence and the escalatory ladder may have come under further strain with North Korea.) As far as Iran is concerned, all of this serves as background for those on-going negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1 nations (the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU) over restricting the capabilities for Iran’s development of nuclear weapons – and strong public disagreement with the likely outline of this agreement on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
In the past several days, growing Saudi Arabian some of the smaller Gulf states’ discontent with this apparent Iranian march towards nuclear status (and against the presumed P5 + 1 agreement with Iran) has burst into the open. Some of this may be attributed to a millennia-long split between the two nations on theological grounds, between Sunni and Shia versions of Islam. But much more of it is to be found in the increasingly open struggle between these two nations for military and diplomatic hegemony in the region, due to the Iranian backing of Hezbollah and related bodies, and with the two nations now on different sides in a growing number of civil conflicts plaguing the region, such as those in Yemen and Syria. (Curiously, both nations find themselves tacitly allied in opposition to Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.)
As a result, the Saudi government has let it be known publicly that if necessary, it is quite prepared to develop its own nuclear deterrent to counter the presumed Iranian march towards nuclear capabilities. Coming as it has in the midst of a summit in the US at the presidential mountain hideaway, Camp David, with the Gulf Arab state leaders, this has put the cat among the pigeons. As the New York Times reported it, “When President Obama began making the case for a deal with Iran that would delay its ability to assemble an atomic weapon, his first argument was that a nuclear-armed Iran would set off a ‘free-for-all’ of proliferation in the Arab world. ‘It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons,’ he said in 2012.
“Now, as he gathered Arab leaders over dinner at the White House on Wednesday and prepared to meet with them at Camp David on Thursday, he faced a perverse consequence: Saudi Arabia and many of the smaller Arab states are now vowing to match whatever nuclear enrichment capability Iran is permitted to retain.
“ ‘We can’t sit back and be nowhere as Iran is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research,’ one of the Arab leaders preparing to meet Mr Obama said on Monday, declining to be named until he made his case directly to the president. Prince Turki bin Faisal, the 70-year-old former Saudi intelligence chief, has been touring the world with the same message. ‘Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too,’ he said at a recent conference in Seoul, South Korea.”
Moreover, apparently to signal a bit of dissatisfaction with the Obama position on the Iranian negotiations, along with several other Gulf leaders, new Saudi King Salman elected not to attend the summit, sending his crown prince over instead. Talk about public rebukes.
But the spectre of the Saudis beginning the process of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability opens up some interesting questions. Where, precisely, would they obtain the material, the technology and the know-how to do so? It would seem beyond the realm of reasonable thought for them to obtain such things from the US, UK, France, Russia or China, for example, or from other nations like South Korea and Turkey whose nuclear plants are under firm international inspection regimens. That leaves, theoretically, India, Pakistan and Israel. While India similarly seems very unlikely, given its hostility to Pakistan, it is also well understood the Saudis bankrolled a sizeable chunk of Pakistani nuclear weapons acquisition program. As such, it is possible payback time might be at hand, especially since Pakistan and Iran have so little love between them either – and the fact the Pakistanis are not signatories to the NPT.
But would the Israelis somehow contrive to be part of that as well, as a yet another way to box in the Iranians? There is that old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” thing, always around in that region. Nevertheless, it seems extremely hard to imagine the Israelis would do such a thing, given all the history of the Middle East. Yet at the same time, the two states have been co-operating in an informal, tacit way in their respective dealings with Iran, and in their opposition to radical non-state Islamic actors in the region as well. Still, this pathway seems like a very long leap of faith, given how furious it would make the United States in the process.
Of course, another path might just be the grey market, open market. If the Saudis really want to make good on their newly intimated intention, there may still be some Russian former military nuclear scientists around as well, with eyes open for well-remunerated work in their field of specialisation. (Now here is the nucleus for a really good film or genre novel.) After all, the Saudis have gobs of money stashed away from the lush times of high priced petroleum sales, from the mid-1970s until last year. Then too, of course, there is the possibility that just the mere threat to go down such a path would help rein in Iranian ambitions, in combination with the P5 + 1 negotiated agreement, the economic sanctions (and their lifting upon successful adherence to the nuclear agreement), and the implicit threat of Israeli retaliation (or even a first strike) against nuclear installations if their fears were sufficiently aroused. But regardless of anything else, this statement of Saudi views has served to create a rather more unsettled view about the world’s nuclear balances than before, and one in which all the old uncertainties and fears may be back on the table. DM
Photo: Saudi King, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (L), attends the opening session of the Arab Leaders summit, Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, 28 March 2015. EPA/STR
Saudi Arabia Promises to Match Iran in Nuclear Capability in the New York Times
Obama convenes Camp David summit with Gulf state leaders at the AP
A nuclear Iran will not lead to a nuclear Middle East, no matter what the Gulf states say, a column by Albert Wolf in the Washington Post
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