Thursday, July 24, 2008

Abizaid Gets It Right

Some interesting comments by former CENTCOM John Abizaid:
What, then, when they get the bomb? "I don't believe Iran is a suicide state," he said. "Deterrence will work with Iran. It is a country of many different power centers that are competing. Despite what their crazy president says, I doubt seriously whether the Iranians are interested in starting a nuclear war." As for the Israelis, Abizaid said "they can take care of themselves up to a point...." but "we and the Israelis are going to have to have a very clear conversation about what we will do if the Iranians develop and field a weapon. Over the next 20 years the relationship will have to go from a de-facto alliance to one of an unmistakable alliance." In other words, the US should extend its nuclear shield over Israel.
Bingo. As I've said before, here, the problem with deterring Iran against Israel is the disparity in the sizes and population concentrations of Iran and Israel. The only way deterrence will work is if Iran knows that it will be extinguished as a state if it attempts to nuke Israel, which will be hard for the Israelis to guarantee on their own, given the size of their survivable nuclear arsenal.

So the answer is obvious: If the US puts up a nuclear umbrella over the the Middle East, we can not only deter attacks but hopefully preempt the proliferation in the first place. In fact, this would be an excellent thing for Bush to do right now; he can take the heat for it and his successor need then only stand by the doctrine. Furthermore, by doing this now, it sends and unambiguous signal to the Iranians that all of the international condemnation they're going to endure over their nukes will be futile, because the US simply will not allow them to gain a strategic advantage through their development. Assuming that Iran is a rational state (which is yet to be proven but most states are indeed rational), this seems like the only way to pry Iran away from its nuclear aspirations, short of bombing.


MannyJ said...

Iran's population, wealth, and especially leadership are pretty centralized in a few cities. Israel can wipe those out just fine with its own arsenal, I don't think it really needs our umbrella.

The real question is not whether Iran will be deterred from a missile launch. It's whether it can be deterred from giving a terrorist group a couple of car-trunk size nukes and a map to Tel Aviv and Haifa. The only reasons I have heard yet against this scenario are:
1) You can track who made a bomb by its radiation signature. I don't really know if this is true, or if it's possible to fool the test.
2) Israel would nuke Iran automatically if that happened, just on general principles. This may or may not be true, Iran may or may not believe it, and if enough ME countries acquire nukes, it will stop being a practical answer.

Your thoughts? This worries me a lot, actually.

TheRadicalModerate said...


The stats on Iran's and Israel's demographics are a bit more sobering than you seem to think:

22,072 square kilometers
14 cities with a population of greater than 100,000

10 times Israel's population
75 times Iran's land area
86 cities with a population greater than 100,000

In short Israel is much smaller, with a much smaller population, and a much more concentrated population than Iran. This isn't an issue yet, since Israel probably has hundreds of nukes and can retaliate to Iran's small prospective arsenal. But you probably can't wipe out a country of Iran's size and geographic distribution with even a couple of hundred nukes, whereas Iran can wipe out Israel with fewer than 50, which it is likely to have in a few years.

I worry less about the suitcase nuke scenario for the immediate future: Suitcase nukes are technically hard to build and they have to be tested, which betrays their existence. Nevertheless, things get worse as time passes.

The proper answer is to relieve Israel of the deterrent responsibility. If the US can credibly tell Iran--or any other rogue state--that they get hit in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, irrespective of who actually did it, then those rogue states have a powerful incentive to stop being rogue states. Nothing stops this escalating cycle until everybody believes that the US is really the scariest kid on the block.

MannyJ said...

If the US can credibly tell Iran--or any other rogue state--that they get hit in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, irrespective of who actually did it, then those rogue states have a powerful incentive to stop being rogue states.

Like I said, I think it works just as well if Israel says it as the U.S., but either way, is this a practical answer with so many players? Now you're playing Universal MAD: if any of you use a bomb, you're ALL dead. Let's ignore the risk of nuclear winter and play it out.

Say it's 10 years from now, Iran got the bomb, Mubarak died and the fundies took over Egypt, and Hezbollah rules Lebanon and is rumored to have bought a couple of former Soviet nukes. Do you really destroy all three countries on suspicion when a nuke goes off in Tel Aviv? And somebody claiming to be AQI claims credit? You know for sure that at least 2 of the 3 are completely innocent, and for all you really know, the actual culprit was resurgent Ba'athists trying to get us to wipe out Iran for them. I guess if we can ignore the immorality of MAD, we can ignore the immorality of UMAD -- we're not killing any more innocent people in an attack on 3 ME countries than in an attack on the Soviet Union. And UMAD will in fact deter any individual player from starting the war, but only if you know all the players. One unknown player can bring down the Apocalypse if he so chooses. And what's the next move? The US just wiped out millions on suspicion, not even in a war with most of them. Do we have any option after that for dealing with the rest of the world short of Pax America? (Israel has no such worries, b/c it's dead already if matters reach that point.)

I'm not saying I have a good answer to this either, 'coz I don't.

As for why Israel doesn't need our help, you don't need to destroy every city to kill a country. Destroy the 3 biggest cities in any country smaller than the U.S. and it's dead, the vultures move in. Even we would have trouble recovering from the loss of NY, DC, and LA or Chicago. This is especially true in centralized countries like Iran. To put it another way, the Ayatollahs are not that nuts (quite the opposite - despite the bombast, they've actually played the political game with great realism and practicality from the beginning). They would not consider it a "win" if they turned Israel into glass but ended up personally dead and without a viable country for their successors.

You also don't need more than one nuke per city, assuming your delivery system is reliable. Even if your bomb is smaller than Fat Man, the fallout will spread over most of the metro area. Which is where the "truck bomb" option comes in: it's a very reliable delivery system, although less sexy than missiles. Considering how tiny Israel is, it doesn't matter much that you can't coordinate a suicide truck attack as well as a missile strike -- you only need to get 2 or 3 trucks inside the target cities in the same day.

Suitcase nukes, or more accurately given their weight, truck nukes, are hard to build but Iranians are not stupid and can hire as many ex-Soviet technicians as anyone else.

TheRadicalModerate said...

Ah, I see I've failed to explain myself properly.

What I'm proposing is this: We would need to create a new classification, something like "rogue states with nuclear weapons." We put states on that list that a) have recently acquired nuclear weapons and b) that we don't happen to like. (Note the utter unfairness of this formulation. I'd suspect, for instance that Iran and N. Korea would be on such a list, but that Israel and Pakistan wouldn't. Life kinda sucks that way, though. Nor would Russia make the list, because listing them would be suicidal for the US if something bad happened.)

Now, look how this works: First, prior to any attack, the rogue state would really, really like to get off of this list. That requires either disarming, reducing your missile programs, submitting to international inspection on weapons security, or renouncing terrorist use with an inspection regime with teeth in it (this last extremely difficult). Details of how to get off the list might vary by state but would have to be clearly communicated.

So, to get back to your scenario: If somebody nukes Tel Aviv, Iran and N. Korea get nuked. Lebanon and Egypt don't--they don't have state nuclear programs. But, in reality, N. Korea doesn't get nuked either because they've already seen the handwriting on the wall and are busy winding their program down. So you're left with Iran, which is placed in a postion where possession of nukes is not in their national interest. Note that, in this case (since the nukes came from Russia), nuking Iran is not "fair." However, it is a reasonable consequence of being a state sponsor of terror and a nuclear power.

Let's talk nuclear tactics. There's nothing in this sort of doctrine that precludes a proportional response. Hezbollah or Al Qaeda nukes Tel Aviv, then Iran gets all its Republican Guard bases, its missile bases, and its nuclear research centers taken out. They also are informed that any further action will be met with a broader-based attack. It's a very short war.

BTW, nuclear winter just ain't gonna happen in this kind of war. That requires tens of thousands of bombs. This kind of exchange--if it happened--would require fewer than a hundred. That's really bad, but it's mostly bad for the combatants, not the rest of the world.

But of course the purpose of MAD policies is to deter certain behaviors and encourage others. At this point, Iran has made the calculation that acquiring nukes enhances both their regional power and their own national security. This policy changes the equation so that acquiring nukes does neither.

TheRadicalModerate said...

BTW, mannyj, thanks for commenting. This blog is clearly one of the Great Unwashed Masses, so it's fun when one of my Untold Legions of Readers (all ten of them) engages. I'll try to get to your other comments in the next few days, but I'm on the road right now.