Yesterday’s headline topics included unusually “blunt” remarks by U.S. Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba of the United Arab Emirates on U.S. intervention against Iran’s nuclear program:
I think it’s a cost-benefit analysis. I think despite the large amount of trade we do with Iran, which is close to $12 billion … there will be consequences, there will be a backlash and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country; that is going to happen no matter what.
If you are asking me, “Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?,” my answer is still the same: “We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.” I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the U.A.E.
Later, the U.A.E. officially clarified the remarks – by muddying them slightly, declaring them “not precise” and “out of context,” although Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic, who spoke with Otaiba in person at the “Aspen Ideas Festival,” found them quite straightforward. Otaiba expanded on his thinking to Goldberg as follows:
There are many countries in the region who, if they lack the assurance the U.S. is willing to confront Iran, they will start running for cover towards Iran. Small, rich, vulnerable countries in the region do not want to be the ones who stick their finger in the big bully’s eye, if nobody’s going to come to their support.
Though fairly elementary, this perspective is more sophisticated than what usually passes for “threat analysis.” This subject is potentially quite complex, but any attempt to think it through concretely will be subject to gross misinterpretation – easily taken as arguments in favor of ignoring the the Iranian nuclear program.
The discussion isn’t helped much by recycling of dramatic but ill-founded assumptions as though they’re tested truths. Ed Morrissey’s post attempting to expand on Otaiba’s statements included a typical example of this pattern. I think it’s worth reading Morrissey’s words closely, not to pick on him, but to illustrate how many questionable assumptions can be embedded in conventional political wisdom.
Morrissey begins by expanding on Otaiba’s stated skepticism on “containment and deterrence”:
That policy has led us to where we are today, with the Iranian regime entrenched behind a military police state and well on their way to acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Is it only the policy of containment and deterrence that “has led us to where we are today”? Has nothing else occurred in the Gulf region and in Iran itself that has led to the current situation? And what real world alternative is Morrissey proposing – or wishing we had tried instead?
Maybe “containment and deterrence” is just a phrase for “peace” in the world as we know it.
Next sentence, referring to “weapons of mass destruction”:
They already have the means to deliver them, if they choose to do so in open military conflict.
Like any moderately developed nation, Iran possesses rudimentary means to deliver bombs, and is said to have devoted attention to nuclear warhead technology, but I strongly doubt that Ed Morrissey knows how far Iran has gotten with the daunting technical challenges. The Iranians themselves won’t know how far they have gotten prior to manufacture and testing, with uncertain prospects. I also doubt that either Morrissey or the Iranians have worked out how a small nuclear arsenal could be used in “open military conflict.” No one but the United States has ever done so, and that was under quite unusual circumstances.
While Iran is working on that problem, and perhaps deciding exactly how far to go on the continuum from development, to bomb-making, to testing, to deployment, the country’s friends, neighbors, enemies, and people will all become increasingly interested in the precise state of its cost-benefit-risk analysis and its command and control measures: No one is going to want to do business with, or to be standing close to, or to be living in a nuclear suicide state, and Iran will likely be at pains to re-assure the world that it’s nothing of the kind.
However, they would more likely use their proxy terrorist armies, Hamas and Hezbollah, to park a nuke in Tel Aviv in order to claim deniability.
Before I take a long look at this commonplace of rightwing punditry, let me just say that I don’t believe the option will ever be seriously considered by anyone with the ability to make it happen.
Morrissey’s scenario asks us to imagine an Iranian cabal and accomplices  acquiring, and  transporting a nuclear bomb, then  handing it off to Hamas and/or Hezbollah, while  maintaining total operational security and  effective control,  indefinitely; until,  one very bright day, the bomb can be successfully set off in Tel Aviv (see illustration at beginning of post). They must also (in this scenario) believe  that no one will know for sure who did it (“plausible deniability”),  that Israel will require absolute certainty before retaliating, and  that other reactions will be predictable, controllable, and on balance beneficial to said cabal.
The masterminds have to convince themselves and their accomplices that they have handled all ten assumptions well enough to put their own lives and the fate of their nation and their political or religious movement at risk.
Consider the security challenge: The moment that someone settles on the plan, and begins to put it in motion, he has given everyone with whom he discusses it a winning ticket in the international intelligence lottery, alongside fundamental motivation (such as survival of self, family, nation) to cash the ticket in somehow. The lottery ticket is also very close to a death warrant: Merely learning of the operation would put anyone in danger – not least from the conspirators themselves. The same is true for any close ally who happens to learn of preparations.
The wider the circle of participants – and a wide circle would eventually have to be apprised of crucial elements – the greater the likelihood of security failure. The greater the likelihood of security failure, the greater the likelihood of pre-emption. Furthermore, the greater the mere perception of risk, the greater the urgency and motivation to cash in before it’s too late – before someone else cashes in first, or before pre-emptive measures are taken, or both. These risks, and the likelihood of catastrophic failure, would intensify every step of the way, constantly, from inception of the plan to detonation and beyond.
Meanwhile, everything that affects security also affects practicality and operational control. The planners could seek to control distant operatives under extreme pressure handling a dangerous and unique, highly detectable, incredibly valuable, and mostly likely quite delicate technological apparatus. Or the planners could just send that apparatus into the “void” and cross their fingers, hoping all goes well, and that, for the first time in the history of human life on Earth, everyone does exactly what they’re told, exactly right. Either option, and every hybrid variation in between, involves difficult and complicated technical and operational compromises – with any mistake quite possibly leading not just to failure of the mission, but to the early destruction of the planners, quite possibly their regime, possibly their country.
What exactly the planners would hope to achieve by this riskiest of all conceivable operations is left unstated, or ascribed to psycho-pathological hatred combined with apocalyptic religious zealotry. Yet even if the mission is successful, it won’t achieve much. If we insist on the “religious maniac” theory, there can be no guarantee that the conditions for whatever prophecy (assuming everyone agrees exactly on its terms) will be met. As for genocidal ambitions, whatever you hear about a “one-bomb state,” especially from non-technical and self-interested observers, a simple fission device “parked” somewhere in Tel Aviv and detonated would not incinerate the city, much less the entire country.
The illustration up at the top of the post is a depiction of the direct thermal effects of a “Hiroshima bomb” explosion in Tel Aviv. Note that the blast radius would probably be smaller, since much more of the energy of surface level detonation (“groundburst” as opposed to the Hiroshima “airburst”) would be absorbed and dissipated. Shock-wave effects, whose range roughly approximates thermal effects in an airburst, would tend to be limited in the same way. Here’s how that same explosion looks compared to the map of Israel:
To be clear – no one I’ve heard of even has an estimate of when Iran might acquire a Hydrogen Bomb. The Iranians are likely well aware that building one is far beyond their capacities. In any event, if you go to the site I used to generate these maps, you can perform the experiments for yourself and look up the assumptions that were used. Even dropping the 50-Megaton “Tsar Bomba” – the biggest bomb ever built – might not “wipe out” Israel.
In short, the “park-a-nuke” strategy achieves very little if your objective is genocide. If you’re incredibly lucky with your long-distance high-wire mass murder plot, you’ll kill tens of thousands of Israelis. It doesn’t seem like much of a payoff to me, compared to the cost of the effort and the risks, even if I’m a B-Movie Mahdist Maniac. If you manufactured a large number of nukes, and parked them strategically, you might start to get somewhere… but your security and operational challenges are going to expand synergetically with each additional device, and you’re also using up more and more of your little arsenal.
As for deniability, even if the victims chose to wait for evidence collection and examination, it wouldn’t likely last for long, even assuming (gross assumption here) that Iran’s operational security was perfect. Nuclear forensics – utilizing methods developed over decades during the Cold War, and also taking advantage of additional efforts to catalog and profile nuclear materials and technologies worldwide – would likely soon determine the type, fuel, and origins of the particular bomb.
I think there would be repercussions. In fact, I think the Iranian people themselves would tear the perpetrators and suspected accomplices to bloody pieces, and hand them over for inspection, even before the “verdict” was in – then send aid and beg the world for forgiveness and mercy.
Of course, none of this will happen. My personal guess is that if anyone in the Iranian power structure has thought about scenarios like this one, it’s been strictly for the purpose of getting a good laugh at us and our fears. If at some point in the next generation, however, Iran actually does approach a real strategic capacity – numerous, powerful warheads or bombs and an accurate long-range delivery system – then any lack of transparency or hint of irresponsibility may be treated as intolerable, not just by Iran’s current adversaries, but by its allies, and by the Iranian people themselves. To the extent Iran develops a nuclear arsenal at all, political and economic pressure, in some scenarios including the danger of pre-emption by any means necessary, will also be heightened.
Without pre-judging the overall effects, exhaustively gaming scenarios, or speculating about transformations in Iran’s own political culture, we can observe that if Iran “goes nuclear” – a vague term that can stand for anything from a very limited and uncertain capacity to someday acquiring a major arsenal – the strategic and political calculus will have changed, if not exclusively to the advantage of Iranian adventurists. If we’re going to talk about a threat from Iran, I think we should focus on things that make sense.