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Instability

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Dan Nexon has a good response to my article on Iranian nuclear diplomacy:

First, if Iran does achieve an effective nuclear deterrent that might, in fact, make it easier for Iran to pursue certain kinds of aggressive actions. This risk reflects B. H. Liddell Hart’s stability-instability paradox (PDF): mutual strategic deterrence might make it easier for states like Iran to contemplate small-scale actions–directly or via proxy–against their neighbors. There’s a robust debate about whether Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities have de-escalated conflicts between them or led to (1) greater Pakastani willingness to support insurgent and terrorist groups against India and (2) greater willingness by India to engage in limited conventional operations that would have once risked full-scale Indian-Pakistani warfare.

This is an excellent point, and does suggest that Iranian nuclear weapons may have some diplomatic effect beyond the establishment of a deterrent and the achievement of prestige. Dan also points out that the US is in a situation of extended deterrence vis-a-vis Israel and Iraq, which makes the commitment less credible. In my defense I’ll make three points. First, Iran will never, at least in the foreseeable future, acquire a second strike capability agains the United States. As Daryl Press and Keir Lieber have demonstrated, the capacity of even the Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals to respond to a US first strike is in serious doubt. This helps take the teeth out of the extended deterrence scenario, since, while will to use is asymmetric, capability is also asymmetric. Second, it’s unclear what exactly the Israeli and US nuclear arsenals are deterring Iran from doing right now. In addition to their nuclear superiority, Israel and the US also have prohibitive conventional superiority, which will limit Tehran’s ability to take diplomatic advantage of its weapons. As Dan notes, the evidence on stability-instability is fairly weak in any case. Finally, refuting Oren and Halevi’s arguments is rather a low bar, as they assert that Tehran will be able to achieve most every diplomatic goal ever imputed to it. Even an increased Iranian willingness to create mischief won’t allow it to dictate the price of oil, the diplomacy of Damscus, Cairo, and Riyadh, or the behavior of the international investment community

I’m less certain about Dan’s third point, that nuclear weapons may not have a sufficient deterrent effect in the Middle East. He invokes the 1973 Yom Kippur War as a case in which Syria and Egypt pursued aggression in spite of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. I would note first that Syria and Egypt expected that Soviet and American pressure would prevent Israel from using its nuclear weapons, and second that the military goals of both Syria and Egypt in 1973 were explicitly limited, such that they could expect to fight without triggering an Israeli nuclear strike. It’s only through the most contorted of mental gymnastics that someone could argue the same about an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel.

Nevertheless, an excellent commentary.

Cross-posted to Tapped.

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