What do the P5+Iran negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the war in eastern Ukraine have in common? Several things, perhaps; but the most obvious (to me) is the extremely marginal utility of arms control in the broader strategic context that defines both issues.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has come, spoken, and gone. His speech consisted of 3,820 words, most of them about why the prospective deal with Iran is a bad deal and should be rejected in favor of a better one. Netanyahu did not detail what this better deal would look like. He did not repeat his earlier demand that there be no enrichment activity on Iranian soil. He rather argued that the ten-year sunset clause confirmed to be part of the would-be arrangement, and the inability of even the most rigorous inspection regime to itself address violations, rendered the prospective deal a path to an Iranian bomb instead of a barrier to it.
Orders of magnitude more words were spoken about this speech before it occurred, and another avalanche of words has already been written in its wake. Not all of those words have been about the negotiations proper, of course. Many, including some of my own, were about the politics involved on both sides. Since Netanyahu said nothing that has not been said before, or that could not have been said in Jerusalem, or that could not have been said after the March 17 Israeli election, I stand by my view that Netanyahu came to Washington for unvarnished political reasons. Hence his claim yesterday, that “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political; that was never my intention”, comes about as close to a bold-faced lie as any remark ever made by a foreign national before Congress. I stand by my assessment, too, that his invitation was motivated by similarly narrow partisan considerations in the United States. And I stand by my conclusion that these motives twined together have undermined the formerly bipartisan character of U.S. support for Israel and that, while not unique in the history of the bilateral relationship, are bound to do deep harm to that relationship well beyond the tenures of both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama.
That’s not my subject today, however. Netanyahu did not directly threaten war to solve what he reasonably described as an existential threat to Israel from Iran—although he did say that if necessary Israel would stand alone against that threat, which could be taken as a surrogate remark for a willingness to use force unilaterally. But the burden of his argument was that a better deal could be had, a deal Israel might have qualms about but could live with—and he even claimed that Iran needs a deal more than the United States and so could be bent to such an improved arrangement:
We’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That’s just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal. . . . A better deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live, literally. And no country has a greater stake than Israel in a good deal that peacefully removes this threat.
He is wrong; and President Obama is wrong, too, if he thinks that a deal over the Iranian nuclear weapons program can either put an end to the threat posed by that program or usher in a “Nixon-goes-to-China”-scale revolution in U.S.-Iranian relations. A deal under current circumstances, where the Administration has for so many years clearly de-linked Iranian regional behavior from the nuclear portfolio, would not bring Iran “in from the cold”, but would rather drag the United States from the frying pan into the fire insofar as its influence in the region is concerned. By manifestly alienating the United States further from its regional allies, especially its Arab ones, it would embolden Iranian ambitions, not constrain them.
More to the point, the best that any agreement, no matter its terms, can do is to modulate a conflictual relationship, marginally affecting its contours and timing. It cannot reshape the basic interests of the contending sides, or even the perceptions of those interests by regime elites. And an arms control agreement can only do that modest and marginal work in cases where the prospect of no modulation poses more risks or harm than would be the case without it. No arms control agreement can achieve within the four corners of a document what the parties are unwilling to achieve outside of them. An arms control agreement can ratify, and perhaps stabilize, strategic reality; it cannot create it.
The stark reality here is that Iran is already close to being a nuclear threshold state by dint of know-how, programs, and infrastructure already extant. No agreement can change that. A negotiating track started years earlier, under the Bush Administration, say, when Iranian achievements were more modest, might have yielded an agreement more constraining on Iran than the one now in prospect; but that is an unknowable counterfactual, and even its capacity to actually solve the problem would have been highly limited. Netanyahu is right to claim that even ten years of negotiated and well-verified constraint could constitute a path to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. But that path is clear also in the absence of those constraints.
Let us understand what this means—and a warning: It is not pretty. Many people, myself included, have at times concluded that what we have really been dealing with is a race between how long it takes the Iranian regime to develop a deliverable nuclear weapons capability and how long the regime can endure. The implication is that it is not the weapons capability alone that matters so much as the rogue character of the regime. After all, Israel’s Arab neighbors have never lost any sleep worrying about an irresponsible Israeli use of a nuclear weapon. They did lose sleep over a prospective Iraqi capacity before the October 1981 attack on the Osirak reactor, and they barely get a wink nowadays contemplating a bunch of quasi-messianic, medieval-minded mullahs with their itchy fingers on a nuclear trigger. (Just in case anyone was really in any doubt about this, note Ayatollah Khamenei’s Monday evening tweet: “Increasing global hatred of #Israel is a sign of divine help.” That should clear up any ambiguity.)
But this is only a partial truth. The Iranian nuclear program is not an innovation of the Islamic Republic. It goes back to the Shah. And it is not about prestige or national dignity alone. If you are a strategic planner or analyst sitting in Tehran, looking 360 degrees around you, what do you see? You see Israel with a nuclear capability, though that is the least of your concerns. You saw in years past an Iraqi program, and that was reason alone for Iran to make an effort. But you also saw U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the region and anyway capable of landing on Iran from CONUS. And you saw both Pakistan—a Sunni country with a much larger population than Iran—and India with nuclear weapons. The disturbing truth is that Iran as a catalyst for an even more multinuclear Middle East and Southwest Asia—a prospect emphasized lately both by the Obama Administration and by Netanyahu yesterday as the mother of all bad outcomes—is a likely reality regardless of the nature of the regime in Tehran. So the “race” thesis, while not entirely beside the point, does not exhaust the point. And again, no arms control agreement can change this; it can only marginally affect timing and some issues of political contour, by which is meant which third parties will make deals with the clutch of new nuclearizing devils and which will rely on self-help to protect against them.
Some may riposte that this only proves the utility of the by now countless regional nuclear-free zone proposals, since it is obvious that any workable arms control arrangement for the Middle East would have to be multilateral. It does not. However much in earnest the proposers have been, their proposals have never been serious possibilities. The only multilateral regime with any logical bite is one of complete abstention by all parties, meaning that already-nuclear parties in and near the region—Israel, Pakistan, and India—would have to junk their existing programs. That’s not going to happen. Israel, for its part, could not abandon its ultimate deterrent until it had achieved stable and enduring peace agreements with all its neighbors—and, even then, “stable and enduring” are but relative terms in real life.
People who take seriously regional nuclear-free zones that already host nuclear-armed states are the sorts of people who can look you in the eye and with a totally straight face claim that it is certainly the Non-Proliferation Treaty that explains the relative small number of nuclear-weapons powers compared to expectations widely shared in the early 1960s. They can make this claim that way because they really believe it. They are, however, delusional. The most important reason for the relatively modest pace of proliferation all these years since 1967-68 is the provision of credible extended deterrence by the United States via its alliance systems, that being, in turn, a vital part of the security competition-suppression aspect of U.S. post-World War II grand strategy. The erosion of the credibility of that U.S. extended deterrence policy, thanks in part to the President’s non-nuclear-world hallucinations, is what, as much as anything, is contributing to the toxic proliferation energies we see beginning to emerge now, and not just in the Middle East.
As I have said before several times in this space (most recently here), the absence of a deal would put “the Obama Administration back to where it was before all the talking began, except with the Iranian program much further advanced: Either acquiesce to an Iranian nuclear-weapons or near-breakout capability and trust to deterrence, or use coercion to stop them.” That was the choice faced earlier by the Bush Administration as well, but it was a choice that President refused to make since, he thought, the matter was both very hard and not yet urgent. It now turns out that even with a deal the choices would remain pretty much the same, just with a bit of modulation.
It should not be necessary at this point to repeat the case against relying on deterrence in this situation, but I thought that ten years ago and turned out to be mistaken. It can be very hard to kill a bad idea. So, briefly, please take note: (1) deterrence in the U.S.-Soviet Cold War case was bilateral and hence calculable in terms of strategic sufficiency, while in the Middle East it is, and is increasingly likely to be multilateral, and hence not readily calculable or therefore stable—no deployment plateaus based on force sufficiency calculations are possible; (2) Cold War deterrence depended on survivable second-strike capabilities, first in a countervalue and then in a counterpoint technological environment; but in the Middle East most nuclear forces would be vulnerable to preemption, thus making them prone to launch-on-warning doctrines and other crisis-unstable conditions; (3) Cold War deterrence relied tacitly on national leaderships actually caring about the safety of their populations; one cannot assume that about para-messianic leaders who believe they are prophets of the end of the world as we know it; (4) Cold War deterrence depended on coherent command, control, and communications capabilities, but such capabilities are technically beyond most prospective regional proliferators and are likely to remain so for some time; (5) Cold War deterrence came to be strengthened by “hot line” crisis communication facilities; no such facilities exist or are likely ever to exist in a Middle Eastern context; and (6) U.S. extended deterrence worked as well as it did because its credibility was based on a community of values among democratic allies; no one in his or her right mind would rely on or believe in the credibility of U.S. promises of extended deterrence offered to countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or, these days, even Turkey, should Iranian missiles become capable of targeting U.S. territory.
Let me then also repeat the conclusion from all this: The blithe superimposition of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War experience in nuclear deterrence onto the Middle East is irresponsible in the extreme. This same sort of thoughtless habit, just by the way, leads many people to think that nuclear exchanges in the region, if God forbid they ever occur, would involve ballistic missiles as delivery vehicles, as was the universal assumption in the U.S.-Soviet case. Maybe; but given the distances we are talking about, aircraft would be far more effective and economical delivery vehicles.
What has any of this got to do with Russia and Ukraine? Well, as some readers may know, the Russians have been violating the INF Treaty of 1987 for some time now. As I wrote in February of last year, well before the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Ukraine:
This is a big, big, deal. . . . [T]he INF Treaty of 1987, the only U.S.-Soviet Cold War-era arms control agreement that ever actually eliminated any nuclear weapons—indeed, an entire class of them—was the geopolitical equivalent at the time of the Berlin Airlift. It totally changed the sense of psychological momentum in Europe from one favoring the USSR to one favoring the United States. It was a key event in the peaceful end to the Cold War itself. . . . The Russians are doing this [violating], it seems to me, for three interlocking reasons: because they can (since they think, correctly, that the Obama Administration will not do anything about it); because it deepens the wedge separating the United States from the “New Europe” members of NATO, and indeed is aimed at the de facto reversal of the expansion of NATO; and because the substitute missile shield we are building in East/Central Europe would (if we ever really build and deploy it) degrades Russian military capabilities, whereas the original since-abandoned deployment scheme would not have.
Note carefully that second reason—the de facto reversal of NATO expansion. What I meant, if it is not clear already, is that Russian deployment of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in violation of the INF Treaty counterbalances to some extent the strategic liability to Russia posed by the potential deployment of serious NATO forces in former Warsaw Pact countries and in the Baltic States. I did not anticipate the Ukrainian crisis at the time, but it is now clear that those violations represent a Russian investment in local escalation dominance, to put not too fine a point on it. They constitute, therefore, a deterrent to NATO aiding the Ukrainian government militarily, or at least to believing seriously that the provision of “defensive” weapons could really level the battlefield, because they lower the threshold to any future Russian-NATO engagement becoming a nuclear war. They are the currency, one might say, of a very high-stakes game of strategic chicken.
As of two years ago there were no such serious NATO deployments in former Warsaw Pact countries or in the Baltic States, and much to my regret there still are none. We do have actual planning templates now, to the Obama Administration’s credit and to the Clinton and Bush Administrations’ shame—they made solemn promises to new allies and then did nothing to redeem those promises through credible action, the most irresponsible form of statecraft under the sun. What we still lack is the credible manning of those planning templates; a group of headquarters with thirty soldiers each just doesn’t cut it, sorry.
And my point? Arms control did not prevent the violation of the INF Treaty when the Russians found it in their national interest to violate it. This is because arms control treaties do not and cannot enforce themselves. They are a continuation of conflictual relationships by the advent of other means (to paraphrase some dead German guy), and when they are violated the aggrieved party must step outside the arms-control frame and exact a price for the violation in the real world of strategic consequences. It follows that if and when the conflictual relationship ends, arms control agreements become simultaneously easy and strategically meaningless. The end of the Cold War is of course a case in point. It follows too that, most of the time, arms control agreements within conflictual relationships don’t really work as decompression chambers for the conflict itself, as so many have claimed, but merely redirect the competition from constrained areas to unconstrained ones. That’s what SALT I did, for example; by sterilizing defensive technologies, it redirected budgets and energies into massive offensive proliferation and the development of MIRVed counterforce targeting capabilities. You can still find people out there who think SALT I made the world a safer place; it would take ten strong men with crowbars to pry the scales off their eyes, and even that might not suffice.
Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday cited the North Korean case, where violations of earlier commitments remained unredressed and led to a very bad outcome. But he might as readily have cited the ongoing case, in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, of the INF Treaty violations, to which the Obama Administration has reacted with the same fecklessness that has characterized most of its security policy behavior. But why should Israel poke a stick in the Russian hive? North Korea was a much safer example to haul out.
Arms control is, for liberals, and especially for wonkified liberal bureaucrats, a way-station on the road to utopia. It is an irresistible slice of secular messianic pie. Arms control agreements take on a sacred aura in Western liberal societies and tend to become ends in and of themselves. Getting the deal done is more than an obsession for some; it’s a career. When the U.S. government is in mid-negotiating posture, the Devil himself cannot seem to get anyone’s attention. And so it is today, which is why the Administration’s plaint that it would rather have no agreement with Iran than a bad one is hard to take at face value, especially in light of its rather supine negotiating record already to date.
If the U.S. government would not stand up to North Korea, and if it will not stand up to Russia for violating its pledges, why would anyone think it would stand up to Iran if it violated the agreement under consideration—or, for that matter, a better agreement à la Bibi Netanyahu? So the Prime Minister is justified in his drawing attention to verification and compliance as particularly tender vulnerabilities of any potential deal; he’s just misguided about the utility of a better deal. Even were one available, and at this point it isn’t–the Administration can not revoke concessions it has already put on the table–it would not solve the problem.
So where does that leave us? Well, since arms control in any form imaginable cannot solve this problem, and since deterrence cannot either, I’m afraid we’re reduced to coercion, with all the misanthropic realities and compounded uncertainties it implies. It’s a terrible choice, redeemed only by the fact that it’s still better than all the others.
But as I have indicated before, coercion need not mean war the way it is usually imagined. Between a sanction regime and a fully kinetic effort (even one that abjures all but a modest number of special forces boots on the ground) there are a range of options falling under the generic category of economic warfare and cyber-dirty tricks which, while hardly kind or gentle, might establish the preconditions not for a negotiated arrangement as such, but for a kind of diktat to a kneeling Iran. Such methods should at least be tried before unleashing the Air Force, the Navy, and the SF guys.
I wish it were otherwise, and I am sure the Obama Administration does, too. But their general fecklessness aside, my sense is that they’ve been reluctantly reduced to realists on the Iran business. The President has realized since this issue was hashed out thoroughly back in 2009-10 that Iran must not have a nuke. What remains of the U.S.-backed non-proliferation regime globally would turn to dust, and the danger of nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists as a result of region-wide proliferation would shoot high off everyone’s redline scales. Note what UN Ambassador Samantha Power told the AIPAC convention on Monday:
The United States of America will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Period. . . . We believe diplomacy is the preferred route to secure our shared aim, but if diplomacy should fail, we know the stakes of a nuclear-armed Iran as well as everyone here. We will not let it happen.
Now, Ambassador Power and I have our differences. When we met for the first time some years ago, I still recall, I didn’t like her and she definitely didn’t like me. But in this case I believe she is speaking not only for the President, but for a deep consensus inside the Administration.
One’s thoughts then should turn to the broader strategic, diplomatic, and domestic-security preparations that ought to go forward in expectation that, sooner or later, coercion will be the name of the game. In that regard, it matters some, at least, how this current negotiating sequence ends. There are only three ways it can end: an agreement is reached; an agreement is not reached and the United States is seen to be the cause of failure; or an agreement is not reached and Iran is seen to be the cause.
This third possibility is by far the best outcome if one credits my general analysis and leans, however reluctantly, toward my expectations. Of the three it is by far the most conducive to effective preparation. As I have written on a previous occasion, this is a decent bet; the Supreme Leader is unlikely to take “yes” for an answer for a host of reasons I’ll not repeat now, letting the Administration off the hook for its excessive willingness to offer concessions. That means the United States needs to sit at the table for as long as it takes for Iran to say “no”, and it would be best if no ancillary distractions—like Congressional efforts to impose new sanctions before the March 31 deadline—clouded the outcome by blurring the perception of blame.
It is therefore very ironic that Netanyahu’s visit has made such distractions less likely by peeling away critical Democratic support for them. He has inadvertently pushed events in the right direction. The Prime Minister made an unnecessary hash of Jewish-Persian history yesterday by citing Haman and Mordecai but ignoring Cyrus and Ezra. Nevertheless, he certainly named the right source text—the Book of Esther—if you’re looking for a grand description of the irony inherent in political affairs. Happy Purim, everyone.