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RealClearPolitics - Articles - Stephen Peter Rosen

Last Build Date: Mon, 18 Sep 2006 00:41:15 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

What to Do If More States Go Nuclear

Mon, 18 Sep 2006 00:41:15 -0600

WILL DETERRENCE WORK? Assume, for the sake of argument, that within the next decade Iran manages to acquire a few crude nuclear weapons and that these can be delivered by ballistic missiles within the Middle East and by clandestine means to the United States and Europe. Assume also that Saudi Arabia and Turkey, out of fear or competitive emulation, also develop their own nuclear arsenals. How would strategic interactions in this new world play out? During the Cold War, the small number of nuclear states meant that the identity of any nuclear attacker would be obvious. Preparations could thus be made for retaliation, and this helped deter first strikes. In a multipolar nuclear Middle East, however, such logic might not hold. For deterrence to work in such an environment, there would have to be detection systems that could unambiguously determine whether a nuclear-armed ballistic missile was launched from, say, Iran, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia. In earlier decades, the United States spent an enormous amount of resources on over-the-horizon radars and satellites that could detect the origin of missile launches in the Soviet Union. But those systems were optimized to monitor the Soviet Union and may not be as effective at identifying launches conducted from other countries. It may be technically simple for the United States (or Israel or Saudi Arabia) to deploy such systems, but until they exist and their effectiveness is demonstrated, deterrence might well be weak; it would be difficult to retaliate against a bomb that has no clear return address. It gets worse. During the Cold War, most analysts considered it unlikely that nuclear weapons would be used during peacetime; they worried more about the possibility of a nuclear conflict somehow emerging out of a conventional war. That scenario would still be the most likely in a postproliferation future as well, but the frequency of conventional wars in the Middle East would make it a less comforting prospect. If a nuclear-armed ballistic missile were launched while conventional fighting involving non-nuclear-armed ballistic missiles was going on in the region, how confident would any government be that it could identify the party responsible? The difficulty would be greater still if an airplane or a cruise missile were used to deliver the nuclear weapon. One of the greatest fears about Iran's possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, moreover, is that Tehran might give them to a terrorist group, which would dramatically increase the likelihood of their being used. Some argue that the Iranian government would never condone such a transfer; others that it would. There is no way of knowing for sure. What can be said, however, is that the likelihood of a clandestine transfer to radical Islamist terrorists will increase if the number of Islamic nuclear powers grows, if only because it would get more difficult to identify the state responsible for the transfer so as to punish it. If an Islamist terrorist group acquired fissile material or a nuclear bomb today, it would be hard to determine with certainty which country had provided it. Attention would focus on Pakistan, the only Islamic state currently in possession of nuclear weapons. But uncertainty would grow if more Islamic states went nuclear, and retaliation would become all but impossible unless one were willing to strike back indiscriminately at all suspect states. RACE MATTERS During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an intense arms race and built up vast nuclear arsenals. Other binary nuclear competitions, however, such as that between India and Pakistan, have been free of such behavior. Those states' arsenals have remained fairly small and relatively unsophisticated. Nuclear-armed countries in the Middle East would be unlikely to display such restraint. Iran and Iraq would be much too suspicious of each other, as would Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey and Iraq, and so forth. And then there is Israel. Wariness would create the classic conditions for a multipolar arms race, with Israel arming aga[...]