Prospects for Accidental Nuclear War in the Middle East

Many are obviously alarmed over the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.  Some of these fears are cartoonish and should be ignored, but there are others that should be given due consideration.  One example of the latter is the question of whether or not an Iranian nuclear weapon would raise the likelihood of an accidental nuclear war between the Islamic Republic and Israel.  Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg outlined a potential scenario last month in one of his regular columns for Bloomberg View.  But the type of “warp speed escalation” to nuclear war that Goldberg invokes is not nearly as likely as it might seem at first blush, nor is the historical precedent most often associated with such a scenario as concrete as many believe.

The hypothetical crisis Goldberg envisions in his column is precipitated by Hezbollah, newly emboldened by the Iranian nuclear program launching a new wave of conventional rocket attacks on northern Israel, followed by an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, and an Iranian demand for Israeli withdrawal thrown in for good measure.  Such a scenario is obviously not outside the realm of possibility, but would it necessarily lead to nuclear war?  According to Dennis Ross, who until recently held the Iran portfolio for the National Security Council, and who is quoted by Goldberg, these events “could set in motion a chain of events that would be like a ‘Guns of August’ on steroids.”

The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s famous history of World War I, is frequently cited when making arguments about accidental war. It had such an immediate impact upon its release in 1962 that John F. Kennedy is said to have been heavily influenced by the book during the Cuban Missile Crisis and saw it as a reminder of what happens when statesman allow events to slip out of their grasp.  But the Guns of August thesis of accidental war is not necessarily as sacrosanct as some might believe, and the implications of that misinterpretation of the days leading up to the Great War have had a lasting effect.  As historian and political scientist Marc Trachtenberg points out, much of what scholars, policymakers, and apparently pundits as well, think about accidental war—including fears of accidental nuclear war—is derived from “a specific interpretation of a single historical episode:  the coming of the First World War during the July Crisis in 1914.”

In his 1991 study of the July Crisis, “The Meaning of Mobilization in 1914,” (PDF) Trachtenberg pushes back against just the type of thinking employed by Ross and cited by Goldberg.  Trachtenberg acknowledges that the historical facts offered by Tuchman, and other adherents to her line of thinking, of what took place in July 1914 are certainly correct—just as the scenario initially laid out by Goldberg is certainly plausible—but that the widely accepted interpretation of those facts is mistaken.  It is his contention that the European leaders understood the implications of their decisions to mobilize their military forces and that it was the conscious decisions of those statesmen—not the “pull of military schedules” described by Tuchman—that led to the outbreak of a wider European conflict.  Trachtenberg analogizes the logic behind his argument thusly:

Suppose it takes me thirty minutes to get home when the traffic is light, but a full hour during the rush hour. I promise to be home by 6:00, but I choose to leave at 5:30 and arrive a half-hour late, blaming the bad traffic for the delay. The rush hour traffic, however, could hardly be held responsible for my lateness, since I had chosen to leave at 5:30, knowing full well what the situation was: knowledge of the situation had been factored into the original decision. On the other hand, if the heavy traffic had been caused by an accident, or indeed by anything that had not been anticipated, then it would make more sense to blame it for the delay.

Trachtenberg then proceeds to lay out the evidence that European leaders did not stumble blindly into war in the summer of 1914 as is so often believed, but that they understood the consequences of their actions and—while not necessarily seeking war—proceeded anyways.  While it is impossible to rehash the entire July Crisis here, one incident cited by Trachtenberg is particularly telling.  When discussing Russia’s decision to mobilize its military at the end of July, Trachtenberg finds it “quite clear…that the Russian government understood very well mobilization meant” and that Russian documents show that the decision was made based on a belief that war was inevitable.  He describes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov’s July 30th meeting with the Tsar where he attempted to drive home the inevitability of war and the need to begin preparations.  In fact, it would have been impossible for Sazonov not to know what mobilization meant considering the warning he received from German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg on July 25th:  “Preparatory military measures on the part of Russia aimed in any way at us would compel us to take measures for our own protection which would have to consist in the mobilization of the army.”  And, were that not explicit enough, Bethmann concluded, “Mobilization, however, would mean war.”  Subsequent communications between Sazonov and the German ambassador, Count Pourtales did leave some room for ambiguity, but in a final meeting on July 29th—a day before Russia’s fateful decision for general mobilization—Pourtales explained to Sazonov that “the danger of all military measures lies in the counter-measures of the other side.  It is to be expected that the General Staffs of the eventual enemies of Russia would not want to sacrifice the trump card of their great lead over Russian mobilization and would press for counter-measures.”  Essentially, Germany would not leave itself vulnerable to a Russian army fully prepared for war, and therefore a Russian mobilization against Austria would lead to a German mobilization and—given Germany’s “blank check” to Austria”—war between Germany and Russia.  Knowing this, Sazonov still advised the Tsar to order a full mobilization, therefore making it impossible to characterize the war to follow as “accidental.”

Going back to Goldberg’s scenario, imagine Iran in Russia’s position and Israel as a stand-in for Wilhemine Germany.  Iran, in possession of about four or five nuclear weapons, as allotted by Goldberg’s scenario, knows it is vulnerable to an Israeli disarming strike should it deploy its nuclear weapons in a threatening manner.  Therefore, it can neither deter Israel from attempting to wipeout its arsenal on the ground by threatening of retaliation for an Israeli fist strike, nor compel Israel to leave southern Lebanon by threatening a first strike for fear of its own.  The only credible use of Iran’s nuclear weapons under such circumstances would be a punitive strike against Israel that would ensure Iran’s own destruction because of Israel’s secured second strike.  Iran would have to know that threatening such a strike would lead to an immediate Israeli preemptive strike against its nuclear forces and, likely, its leadership as well.  Thus, Iran would only be likely to mobilize its nuclear arsenal in such a fashion based on a belief that war with Israel was inevitable—just as Russia mobilized it based on its belief that war with Germany was inevitable.  And, just as Russia ordered general mobilization with full knowledge that a German mobilization was soon to follow, and that German mobilization meant war, Iran could not mobilize its nuclear forces without knowing that Israel would respond by ordering a preemptive strike—and justifiably so given Iranian rhetoric toward the Jewish State—with its far superior conventional and nuclear forces.  To claim that the war that ensued was accidental would be as faulty as blaming the traffic for one’s own tardiness with full knowledge of the actions needed to avoid it.

So, given the likelihood of Israeli preemption, why would Iran choose to undertake the actions Goldberg describes?  For that answer, Goldberg turns to Dr. Bruce Blair—co-founder of the “Global Zero” movement and author of The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War—who believes simple miscalculation would be the easiest way for a crisis to metastasize into nuclear war.  According to Blair, “A confrontation that brings the two nuclear-armed states to a boiling point would lead them to raise the launch- readiness of their forces… Missiles put on hair-trigger alert obviously increase the danger of their launch and release on false warning of attack.”  Blair says that the lack of communication between Israel and Iran exacerbates the situation and even completely rational actors can misinterpret the other side’s intentions.  It is certainly true that rational actors can miscalculate, and the lack of communication between the two potential adversaries is troubling, though access to modern telecommunications technology allows fairly easy establishment of a channel for discussion if both sides so desire—“if” being the key word.  But before getting to that point, it seems a few steps have been skipped as Goldberg’s escalation reached “warp speed.”  Blair is right to worry about missiles on “hair-trigger” alert, but fails to explain why either side’s missiles have been put on hair trigger in the first place.  In the scenario in question, Iran warned Israel away from southern Lebanon, and the likely next step would therefore be in its own hands.  Israel would likely already be on alert due to the previously noted rocket attacks by Hezbollah, but an ambiguous warning from Iran backed by no concrete actions is unlikely to be enough to cause Israel to strike first.  With the next move being Iran’s, it will quickly become evident that Tehran has no overt means of compelling Israel to leave Lebanon.  As already noted, Iran’s small nuclear arsenal in this scenario rules out its ability to effectively undertake a disarming strike against Israel’s nuclear arsenal, and the lack of a second strike capability means Tehran can only leave itself vulnerable to a disarming strike were it to make its missiles launch ready, as Blair suggests.  Israel, knowing Iran cannot undertake a first strike absent inviting its own destruction therefore has no incentive to attack Iran absent an overt display like the type Goldberg and Blair describe, and, as already shown, Iran has no incentive to make those types of overt displays.  Certainly Israel could decide the moment was right to attack before Iran even put its nuclear forces on alert, but that too would not reflect an accidental war but a conscious—though not nearly as justifiable—preventive measure on the part of the Israelis.

There is one other possibility for why Iran might brandish its nuclear weapons in the manner Goldberg suggests and that could lead to a conflict that was not truly intended.  In “Posturing for Peace?: Pakistan’s Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability” (PDF), MIT political scientist Vipin Narang describes a “catalytic posture” used by Pakistan to rouse third-party—specifically, American—intervention to settle a dispute with its Indian rival.  Narang states that Pakistan,

[A]dopted a catalytic posture whose primary signal was to the United States, not necessarily India, to attempt to catalyze Washington’s intervention on Pakistan’s behalf in a crisis with its larger neighbor. Although there were no full-scale conflicts between India and Pakistan in this period, the reason India did not engage in conventional operations against Pakistani provocations was not because Delhi was deterred by Pakistan’s putative nuclear capabilities, but rather because the United States intervened to defuse crises before that point was reached.

The examples Narang cites as evidence of Pakistan employing this posture were the “Brasstacks Crisis” of 1986-1987 and the 1990 “Compound Crisis”—both occurring while Pakistan was still a nascent nuclear power since they were well before its 1998 nuclear test.  In both cases, Narang outlines signals Pakistan sent to the United States, not to India, that it was preparing to assemble, and possibly use, nuclear weapons in order to mobilize U.S. intervention to prevent the crises from developing into full-scale war.  Ironically, at the time, then-Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates, who was sent to “de-escalate” the crisis following the Pakistani signaling, characterized the latter crisis as “something out of August 1914.”  To further illustrate the point, and as an example of a fully-developed nuclear state, and one located outside of the South Asian nuclear dyad, employing a catalytic posture, Narang cities Israeli use of “easily detectable” operational checks on its delivery vehicles during the 1973 Yom Kippur War to signal to Washington its inclination toward “unsheathing its opaque nuclear weapons capability.”  In this case, Israel’s intention was not mediation but was instead U.S. arms transfers and pressure on the Soviet Union to reign in its Egyptian and Syrian clients.

It is not completely implausible to think that Iran might possibly attempt to undertake a catalytic posture of its own in the hopes a third-party might intervene to negotiate a resolution to the crisis and avert nuclear war or back its attempt to force an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.  But this is doubtful for several reasons.  First, Tehran is unlikely to risk a preemptive strike by Israel—which would surely occur were its catalytic posture detected—in the hope that a third party with enough influence to broker a deal, or to force Israel to back down, would intervene.  Second, who exactly would this third party mediator be?  In the case of the South Asian nuclear dyad, Pakistan was on its way to becoming a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States and Washington had enough credibility with the Indian government to successfully de-escalate the crisis.  Iran is neither an ally, and is, in fact, a de facto adversary of the United States, nor will Washington, following Iranian threats, likely be able—or want—to effectively restrain Israeli freedom of action.  Other possible third party interlocutors could include Russia, China, or the European Union, but neither Russia nor China would have the credibility with Israel to induce them to either talk or back down in the face of Iranian threats that would, and should, be perceived as dire by the Jewish State.  There is a case to be made that the European Union could act as a credible moderator to forestall a crisis because it might have a modicum of credibility on each side—given its past willingness to sanction Iran as a means to forestall its nuclear weapons program but also its desire to prevent an Israeli preventive attack on the program—but this would be quite a reach on the part of the Islamic Republic under very precarious circumstances.  Given these facts, the likelihood of Iran attempting a catalytic posture similar to those of Israel in 1973 and Pakistan in 1986-1987 and 1990 seems remote at best.  And even if Iran were to attempt such a risky maneuver, its failure would still not result in a war that could be characterized as accidental if Iran understands that undertaking a threatening posture involving nuclear weapons—even if meant to signal an outside actor—are likely to lead to an Israeli preemptive strike.

Still, absent the highly unlikely possibility that Iran would mobilize its nuclear forces to try and force intervention by an outside power, the only plausible scenario that remains would be an Iranian belief that war was either inevitable or desirable and mobilization was under way in preparation for a first strike.  Under such circumstances, an Israeli attack on Iran would be a justified act of preemption and the ensuing conflict would not be accidental.  On the other hand, because Iran would be unlikely to view a conflict with Israel—with its superiority in both nuclear and conventional forces—over southern Lebanon as either inevitable or desirable, it is less likely that Tehran would take the actions laid out in Goldberg’s scenario in the first place.  There are also intervening steps that take place from the onset of a crisis—as the July Crisis demonstrates—where human agency, and the corresponding decisions of statesman, decides whether and how a scenario is either escalated or de-escalated.  Just as the decisions of European leaders, most notably those in Russia and Germany, and not the impersonal forces of military mobilization, led to the outbreak of the First World War; the decisions of Iranian and Israeli leaders would determine whether a nuclear war in the Middle East were to take place.  This does not mean that a conflict that no one intended is completely outside the realm of possibility, but history suggests the prospects of accidental nuclear war are far lower than those who fear such a scenario often believe.


2 comments to Prospects for Accidental Nuclear War in the Middle East