Tag Archives: nonproliferation

What to do about Iran Part II: Recapitulation and a new refrain…

Debates in the realm of US nuclear politics conform to a familiar pattern, especially in the academic realm. On the one hand, deterrence pessimists believe that US nuclear force posture must be built on the assumption that deterrence will fail. In order to be credible, a deterrent threat must be backed by a fully operational plan to fight and win a nuclear war. This leads to the operational concepts of nuclear superiority, flexible response, and damage limitation. On the other hand, deterrence optimists believe that everyone loses in the event of a nuclear war. To that end, optimists believe US nuclear force posture should presume that fighting and winning a nuclear war is not an option. To them, the sole purpose of the US nuclear deterrent should be to threaten massive retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack. By limiting the size and composition of its nuclear arsenal, the US reduces the possible pathways to nuclear war. At the same time, if done right, eliminating other options can have the effect of locking the US into massive retaliation as a last resort, increasing the credibility of a retaliatory threat. Deterrence optimism leads to relatively small arsenals that meet a minimum threshold of a secure second-strike capability. The goal is not nuclear superiority, but rather strategic stability through arms control.

In the previous post, I argued that the current debate over whether or not it is time for the US to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities maps nicely onto the old deterrence pessimist/optimist framework.  Explicit arguments that recommend conventional bombing in order to avoid—or at least forestall—a nuclear-armed Iran are implicitly based on the pessimists’ assumptions about deterrence. From this point of view, the alternatives boil down to a choice between a conventional conflict now and living in a constant state of preparation for nuclear war later. Therefore, attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is “the least bad option.” In contrast, the argument against conventional bombing is based on the optimists’ assumption that containing a nuclear-armed Iran would work. Thus, the debate boils down to an implicit disagreement over the interpretation of deterrence theory.

Viewing problems of proliferation through the framework of deterrence provides us no resources through which to assess or recommend diplomatic solutions. If the only questions to which deterrence theory provides us answers lie in the realm of “the diplomacy of violence,” our conversation will be severely limited. In contrast, a theory of nuclear fetishism creates intellectual tools to analyze why various diplomatic agreements might, or might not, work. It widens our aperture by explaining how nuclear weapons function as a currency of power. Thus, we are able to focus our attention on what the technical substance of a negotiated settlement should (or should not) contain in order to resolve the underlying political conflict. (I’ve written about the relationship between the substance and purpose of arms control and nonproliferation agreements at length in a previous post).

Currently, two different communities of experts are addressing questions of what a negotiated settlement would look like. A community of nuclear policy experts is writing primarily about what the technical substance of an agreement would need to entail, while a second community of diplomatic experts is writing about political factors at work. Bringing together these two different perspectives on this crisis, one from nuclear expert Matt Bunn and the other from Ambassadors William H. Luers and Thomas R. Pickering, gives us some building blocks with which to begin putting the pieces of a solution in place (although articulating a unified proposal will have to be work for another day).

Bunn explains what is realistic and possible in the realm of nuclear technology, and Luers and Pickering explain what it is at stake politically. In both cases the suggestions begin with answer the following three questions: “What do they want, what do we want, and what do we both want?” According to Bunn, the formal agreement would include:

  • The P5+1 agrees to allow some operational centrifuges in Iran.
  • Iran agrees to limit enrichment to 2-8 centrifuge cascades (other centrifuges in place, but not operating).
  • All centrifuge operations, R&D, manufacture (also other sensitive nuclear operations) are shifted to international ownership with a 24/7 international staff.
  • Iran agrees to the Additional Protocol and broad transparency measures.
  • The P5+1 implements an incentives package (trade, nuclear assistance, etc.).
  • Bilateral and multilateral dialogues are established to address other issues over time – including recognition and an end to sanctions if these other issues are successfully addressed.
  • The United States pledges not to attack Iran and not to attempt to overthrow the regime as long as (a) Iran complies with its nuclear obligations, (b) Iran does not commit or sponsor aggression or terrorist attacks against others.

And according to Luers and Pickering, politically an agreement would meet the following needs:

“Iran wants recognition of its revolution; an accepted role in its region; a nuclear program; the departure of the United States from the Middle East; and the lifting of sanctions. The United States wants Iran not to have nuclear weapons; security for Israel; a democratic evolution of Arab countries; the end of terrorism; and world access to the region’s oil and gas. Both Iran and the United States want stability in the region — particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of terrorism from Al Qaeda and the Taliban; the reincorporation of Iran into the international community; and no war.”

Taking these two analyses of the conflict as a starting point, the question we are left with is how they interact to create a viable solution.

What to do about Iran Part I: New lyrics, same old tune…

Timed to coincide with the growing tension between the United States and Iran, the most recent print edition of Foreign Affairs arrived last week with Georgetown professor, Matthew Kroenig’s name next to the headline “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option” In response to the question, “should the United States attack Iran and attempt to eliminate its nuclear facilities?” Kroenig answers yes, given the option between a conventional conflict and the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, the choice is clear; The U.S. should set back and potentially eliminate the Iranian nuclear program by bombing a yellowcake-conversion plant, a heavy-water reactor, centrifuge-manufacturing sites, and, of course, the contested uranium enrichment facilities is preferable to the alternative.

Kroenig is part of a new generation of “thought leaders” on issues of nuclear security being funded by the Stanton Foundation. Inaugurated in 2010, the Stanton Fellowship program was created in response to a perception that there are many new challenges in the field of nuclear security, but not many young scholars with new ideas on how to confront those challenges. So far Stanton has been successful at supporting people who are willing to put themselves out there in the contemporary foreign policy debate. In fact, another Stanton Fellow currently at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, Alexandre Debs, co-authored a rebuttal of Kroenig’s argument. In it Debs argues that attacking Iran is not “the least bad option” because Kroenig’s skepticism about containing a nuclear-armed Iran is unwarranted.

Yet, being part of a rising generation of scholars does not necessarily mean that these young men have come up with new ideas. All they have done so far is apply their forefather’s ideological framework to the current political environment. As currently framed this debate about Iran reproduces a predictable Cold War-era ideological split between deterrence pessimists and deterrence optimists.

Kroenig occupies the role of deterrence pessimist. This is an intellectual tradition with roots reaching back two generations to the work of Herman Kahn. Often vilified and derided, Kahn is famous for arguing that nuclear war was survivable and set out to prove it through a macabre mathematical analysis of who and what would survive an all-out nuclear war. Kahn’s intellectual project, like the work of all deterrence pessimists, was motivated by the belief that U.S. nuclear security strategy should be designed with the expectation that nuclear deterrence will fail. This belief leads to two operational doctrines. The first is escalation dominance; the idea that the United States should always be able to up the nuclear ante, one step at a time, responding proportionally to any attack and terminating any conflict through the threat of more to come. The second is damage limitation; the idea that the United States should always work to minimize its casualties. Kroenig’s support of escalation dominance is well known in Washington. In a recent article he argues “nuclear superior states are more likely to win nuclear crises because they are willing to run a greater risk of nuclear war in a crisis than their nuclear inferior opponents.” Also consistent with the deterrence pessimist position is Kroenig’s skepticism about the ability to contain a nuclear Iran and a desire to stop the threat before it starts.

On the other side of the aisle are the deterrence optimists, the most famous of whom is Nobel Laureate, Thomas Schelling. This school of thought advocates accepting the irrationality of nuclear war and the fact of mutual vulnerability. It does not advocate nuclear superiority, but rather seeks a condition of strategy stability. Debs’ rebuttal takes up the position of deterrence optimist as evidenced by the fact that he finds Kroenig’s skepticism about a nuclear-armed Iran unwarranted, and focuses on the success of containing a nuclear North Korea.

The only way to step meaningfully outside of this Cold-War era framework is to move away from placing the use of force in the foreground and start asking a different kind of question. The question shouldn’t be about whether or not to bomb Iran, but about what place the use of force has vis-a-vis U.S. leadership in a changing international environment. More immediately, it should be about next steps towards diplomatic solutions to the conflict over the Iranian nuclear program. Thus far, the best example of a contribution to this debate that refuses to accept Kroenig’s framing and offers and alternative is from Bill Keller of the New York Times. Instead Keller offers a parody of Kroenig’s argument in his op-ed “Bomb-Bomb-Bomb, Bomb-Bomb-Iran.” For those of you who like to get in the weeds, he also looks seriously at the elements of a nonproliferation strategy that focuses on the technical aspects of both uranium-enrichment technology and the politics of negotiations in an election year on his blog.