Iran And The Bomb: Coercive Diplomacy In, Arms Race Out

Talk delivered at A Nuclear Iran: The Start of a Middle Eastern Arms Race?, Public Conference, King’s College London, February 12, 2013, London, United Kingdom.



In order to address to the talk’s question, I will try to present the Iranian issue from a systemic point of view, framing it in the broader context of the international system and assuming Iran as one of the many actors belonging to it.

According to Matthew Kroenig and other strategic advisers such as Dov Zakheim, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nuclear Iran would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, as a product of the security dilemma put in place.

The security dilemma asserts that both strength and weakness in national security can be provocative to other nations. If a nation is too strong, this can be provocative since most means of self-protection simultaneously menace others.” On the other hand, if a nation is too weak, “great dangers arise if an aggressor believes that the status quo powers are weak in capability or resolve.”

A frequently cited example of the security dilemma is the beginning of the World War I. Supporters of this viewpoint argue that the European powers felt forced to go to war by feelings of insecurity, despite not actually desiring the war. However, the only case in which an arms race could occur is the so called “first world”, a theoretical place formulated by Robert Jervis in his seminal article “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma”, published in 1978. In defining the security dilemma, two variables are pillar: on the one hand, offensive weapons and policies; on the other hand, defensive weapons and policies.

In the aforementioned first world, offensive and defensive behaviour are not distinguishable, but offense, conceived as the situation in which it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than defending its own, has an advantage: in this hypothesis, the security dilemma is “very intense”. The environment is “doubly dangerous” because even status quo states will behave in an aggressive manner and there will arise the possibility of an arms race. Consequently, chances of cooperation between states are low.

Iran, differently, is already seen as the threat by the whole region and from external actors, so its behaviour and weapons are very distinguishable: for that this case does not fall within the first, rather in the third case stipulated by Jervis. In the latter one, no arms race should occur: offensive and defensive behaviour are distinguishable but offense has an advantage. In this third world, the security dilemma is “not intense”, even if security issues do exist and an aggression might take place at some future time. As a result, status quo states are free to follow different policy than aggressor.

Accordingly, the inherent peril of a nuclear arms race in the region seems to be, from a theoretical point of view, quite unlikely. Adding the presence of the US as the hegemonic power in the region, capable to guarantee a good degree of security to Saudi Arabia and its other satellites, such a possibility is completely out of question. In addition, Israel already holds the nuclear bomb since 1979, and despite the perception of threat that its presence caused in the region, an arms race has never occurred as well.

As Hobbs and Moran have recently argued, Saudi Arabia’s political and strategic context does not favour the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, from a security perspective, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States based on the “oil-for-arms” commitment continues to be well-working since the 1940s. On the other hand, the US strategic umbrella over this country has been reinforced after the events of the last years, such as the fall of the pro-Saudi Mubarak regime in Egypt; protests and instability in Bahrain and Yemen; the collapse of the pro-Saudi government in Lebanon; and civil war in Syria, which have made Riyadh one of the pillar allies of the US in the region.

By this token, justifying a preventive attack against Iran as the only way to stop the possibility of an arms race would be a strategic mistake, since it is not necessary and, additionally, it would bring more instability to the area. Given this explanation, two other policy choices remain on the table: allowing Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions, and then deter it; conversely, forcing Iran to dismiss any pretension over the nuclear, through the so-called coercive diplomacy.

Rational Deterrence Theory

First and foremost, it is worth recalling that the debate over the possibility of nuclear proliferation and the related threat to regional stability has already been discussed by Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan in 1981, and renewed by the same scholars in 2002.

Waltz has always sustained the idea that nuclear proliferation should guarantee peace and stability, basing this assumption on the historical record of the Cold War confrontation and the following nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan. As a result, in the last article by Waltz published on Foreign Affairs last year, nuclear asymmetry is conceived as destabilizing given the objective gap in military power and capabilities between Iran and Israel. In addition, such a strategic shortcoming is worsened by the ideological rivalry, that’s an irrational aspect that could be worked out only by the logic of deterrence. In fact, following this argument, once Iran obtains its own nuclear weapons, itself and Israel shall be strategically balanced, and no other country in the region should have the incentive to acquire further nuclear capability, leaving the region more stable than today.

If a first sight the rational logic suggested by Waltz seems to be correct and attractive, it is worth considering that the realm of international politics is quite complex and security concerns are not the only characteristic that states are affected by. As Sagan pointed out as early as 1981, states pursue nuclear weapons building because of three major considerations: security, domestic dynamics and international norms.

Aside from the security concerns already discussed, domestic considerations such as the existence of parochial but powerful political groups or individuals (such as the nuclear energy establishment, the military complex and populist politicians), and the concurrent influence of international norms and shared beliefs on national leaders (such as the Iranian establishment pretension to be a regional power with global aspirations), are not elements of the Waltzian equation and as such they alter the balance with unpredictable consequences.

Indeed, as Sagan himself recalled, the Cold War’s “nuclear peace” should not be deduced as the general rule or as an excuse for inaction with either arms control or non-proliferation; instead it remains an exception to celebrate and wonder about, given that even the World War II ended up with a nuclear bombing. Furthermore, considering the nuclear bomb inherently peaceful weapons since their possessors have never fought against each other, as Waltz and John Mearsheimer assert, represents a historical mistake.

In fact, Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons has facilitated its strategy of engaging in low-intensity conflict against India, making the subcontinent more crisis-prone. As the political scientist Paul Kapur has shown, as Islamabad’s nuclear capabilities have increased, so has the volatility of the Indian-Pakistani rivalry. For example, in 1999 Pakistan sent conventional forces disguised as insurgents across the Line of Control in the Kargil district of Kashmir, triggering a limited war with India.

The historical record suggests that competition between a nuclear-armed Iran and its principal adversaries would likely follow the pattern known as “the stability-instability paradox”, in which the supposed stability created by mutually assured destruction generates greater instability by making provocations, disputes, and conflict below the nuclear threshold seem safe.

Finally, critiques against Waltz’s argument come from Stephen Walt, a neo-realist scholar labelled as “defensive” (as Waltz itself is): he doubts the contemporary validity and workability of deterrence because such a strategy could work well once both sides are endowed with survivable forces – namely, the second strike capabilities – that make each of them unwilling to launch the first attack for strategic calculations.

Coercive diplomacy

If deterrence and containment seem to be infeasible and probably unsuccessful, while allowing Iran to acquire its nuclear arsenal too risky a move, the last resort in the hands of the United States, in order to maintain stability in the Middle East is coercive diplomacy.

Despite the choice of attacking Iran is strategically flawed, ruling out any possibility of deterrence, it remains the last resort that President Obama currently takes in consideration. To date the only peaceful way to deal with Iran’s advancing nuclear program is called coercive diplomacy, also known as the diplomacy of threats. The theory of coercive diplomacy, elaborated by the political scientist Alexander George, aims at getting a target, a state, a group (or groups) within a state, or a non-state actor – to change its behaviour through either the threat to use force or the actual use of limited force.

Coercive diplomacy is a diplomatic strategy, that relies on the threat of force rather than the use of it. Force must be used to make diplomatic efforts at persuasion more effective, in order to demonstrate resolution and willingness to escalate to high levels of military action if necessary. There are five types of coercive diplomacy and the so-called “carrot and stick approach” seems to be the most useful.

In fact, such a strategic choice is based upon a twofold requirement: making both credible promises and credible threats simultaneously. In this case, the difficulty is heightened by several other factors: the long history of intense mutual mistrust between Iran and the United States; the U.S. alliance with Iran’s archenemy, Israel; and the opacity of Iranian decision-making.

In order to make credible threats, the US should voice them publicly and unambiguously, while U.S. policymakers should emphasize that an attack on Iran would benefit greatly the United States. Still, American policymakers could stress that a strike would severely affect Iran’s nuclear effort, serving as a powerful warning to other potential proliferators, strengthening the United States’ global reputation for resolve, and possibly even triggering an Iranian revolution. Finally, if threats are dispatched confidentially by third parties close to Tehran, such as China and Russia, might have more credibility.

Conversely, making credible promises would need a deal proposal, according to which Iran would agree to stop building warheads and to refrain from enriching uranium above the 20 percent level, and allowing  inspections of its nuclear facilities. In return, the United States would accept a limited Iranian enrichment program, promise not to try to overthrow the regime, and suspend sanctions imposed in response to the nuclear program. Ideally, the United States might also restore normal diplomatic relations with Iran.

History and Coercive diplomacy: the case of the Cuban missile crisis

The strategy of coercive diplomacy has been successful applied in history, namely in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Indeed, by considering the current situation like a Cuban missile crisis in “slow motion”, Graham Allison has figured out a showdown in which the current US president will be forced to choose between ordering a military attack or allowing a nuclearized Iran, as happened to Kennedy in the final Saturday. Then, the US President chose for a third way, a secret promise to withdraw US missiles from Turkey within six months after the crisis was resolved.

According to Alexander George, three factors contributed to preventing escalation. First, Kennedy limited his demands to removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba, while further demands would have increased Soviet resistance. Second, Kennedy limited the initial means of coercion to a blockade. The blockade did not involve the use of force, and bought Kennedy time to try persuasion with the Soviets. Finally, both Khrushchev and Kennedy followed important operational principles of crisis management. Kennedy in particular sent clear and consistent signals to the Soviets, acting to slow the pace of the crisis, and signaling his strong preference for a peaceful resolution.

Unfortunately, today the situation is much more complicated given the presence of a third nuclear party, Israel, and its domestic perception of threat. Accordingly, the key is the Israel behaviour. If Israel will contribute to reduce the likelihood of a unilateral attack, then U.S. policymakers will be able to implement a successful strategy of coercive diplomacy.


Photo Credit: Luciapro

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