Game theory teaches us that deterrence is a preferred instrument of international conflict prevention and geopolitical stability. All this is true but it is based on a presupposition: that the players are rational.
Very often, when analysing the Middle East, most experts will say that a nuclear Iran would be a force for stability and that Israel’s nuclear arsenal requires a check or a balance.
One must wonder however, why Iran is treated as a rational player. If for no other reason, its very quarrel with Israel should be very enlightening on how little reason goes into the decision-making process going on in Tehran.
True, today’s Islamic Republic is not quite as extreme as Khomeini’s. Iran has even displayed some tactical pragmatism in its regional game in the past few years, playing successfully a number of relative gains games. Hopeful as this may be, it is not indicative of rational behaviour.
Here are some contentions worth retorting to:
Iran is a rational actor, not in any way dangerous to its neighbours – It is puzzling to even entertain such a notion when Iran made several aggressive moves towards the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states during the Iran-Iraq War. Tehran has implied Bahrein to be an absent Iranian province, Israel as been threatened with dismantlement (not to mention the inherent ethnic cleansing) and most recently Morocco deemed Iranian religious activity in its country as intolerable and expelled its ambassador.
Iran is a rational actor, a force for stability in the region – It is true that Iran cooperated with Russia and India against the Taliban. As wise as this may have been, hardly would a shia regime be very fond of Deobandi sunni extremists…
Most importantly, how does antagonising the USA, the predominant naval power in the Indian Ocean and a major Middle East player, bring stability to the region?
Iran is a rational actor, it seeks only to fulfil its national interest – How does attempting to export a theological revolution fulfil Iran’s national interest? What about Israel? How does dismantling Israel benefit Iran’s national interests? Prior to the revolution, Iran maintained an entente with Turkey and Israel meant to counter-balance the Arab League. Can anyone say that breaking this arrangement and isolating itself promoted Iran’s interests?
When Iran basis one of its foreign policy priorities on the eradication of Israel, one must wonder if in Tehran the game isn’t perceived as zero sum rather than a relative gains one.
Israel is very much alone in its vision of theocratic Iran as an irrational player. The US needs Iran and the Aqaba Concert wants simply to preserve the status quo. Thus, only in Tehran and Jerusalem is the game being played.
The State of Israel would be interested first and foremost, in increasing the number of rational players – or irrational if friendly (Neocon executives) – in order to isolate and cooperate against Iran.
1 – The financial backers of the Arab League and/or the Aqaba Concert are under tacit threat by “rational” Iran which has made clear an American or Israeli attack would be met with reprisals on the “region” – i.e. the GCC states – as a whole and more specifically the oil trade.
This invalidates any logistical support and also compromises the north-American willingness to attack.
Equally important, if an attack on Iran were conducted with nuclear devices, the fallout would most certainly affect the Gulf states;
2 – Other regional players such as Russia have received cooperation from Iran. Iran is an important client for Russia and abstained from helping the Chechens which Moscow will always be thankful for.
Turkey itself has reached an important level of understanding with Iran – in no small part due to cooperation on the Kurd dossier – albeit their opposition to any potential Iranian nuclear weapons programme.
Unlikely as it is that Israel coalesces against Iran, it must therefore study its unilateral options.
Nuclear Exchange Hypothesis
The previously described problems notwithstanding there are others which make it even more difficult for Israel to act against Iran:
First-aggressor Discrediting Syndrome – If the Jewish state took the initiative, even at the behest of the Aqaba Concert, the escape goat for regional destabilisation would be Israel and not only would its belligerence be punished but it would also risk its existential legitimacy and award Iran carte blanche for reprisal. Not to even mention the tenability danger for the pro-western Arab regimes.
The same is of course, true of Iran but the Islamic Republic could afford abdicating the first strike advantage. Its territory is wide enough and Israel is not expected to target civilian populations unless it has to.
Israel on the contrary, would abdicate the first strike advantage at its own peril. One strike by Iran would suffice to extinguish the State of Israel permanently and would seriously impair Israel’s capability of response.
Disproportional Deterrence – A nuclear exchange between Jerusalem and Tehran would not ensure MAD (mutually assured destruction) since enough Iranian population would undoubtedly survive to reconstitute the country, whereas the same isn’t true of Israel.
Intra-War Deterrence – During the Cold War American strategists hypothesised that a first strike by the US that eliminated all Soviet launch sites, would not be met by a counter-offensive from Soviet SLBMs (submarine launched ballistic missiles) since the Soviet leadership would not risk an equivalent response in turn from American SLBMs. If in Iran a more radical faction came to power (lets say an ultra-Khomeinian one) or if Israel intervened with conventional or unconventional means against nuclear sites or facilities, the leadership might consider a nuclear exchange with Israel, betting on disproportion of means during a conflict. If Iran pursues a nuclear weapons programme, it will rapidly be able to manufacture hundreds of warheads. Even if its retaliatory capability was annihilated by Israel in a first strike, Iran would in all likelihood be able to smuggle a device to the Levant and have one of its proxies deliver it. Possibly Hezbollah with their own ballistic means.
Expanded Deterrence – The US modified its deterrence doctrine a few decades ago due to the threat of rogue nuclear powers. They now claim the right of response if attacked by a WMD, even if no state has carried out the attack. It suffices that the device is identified as having been produced in a given state (plutonium signature, etc.) and later sold, delivered or stolen by any given organisation. If Iran adopted a similar posture, after acquiring a nuclear arsenal, in regards to its Gulf neighbours, as a response to an American or Israeli strike, this would most likely tie Jerusalem’s hands.
Conventional Exchange Hypothesis
Short of seeing Jerichos and Shahabs crossing in the skies, a conflict making use of conventional means is quite possible in a foreseeable future.
Many publications have discussed a possible Israeli aerial strike in the likes of those against Iraq and Syria. While possible, the effectiveness remains doubtful:
Israel would have to make use of most of its air force and risk the loss of a great part of its perhaps more crucial means of defence.
If Israel didn’t manage to achieve all the targets, Iran would retaliate immediately.
Iran would probably pursue a nuclear weapons programme or work to rebuild it afterwards.
All aerial routes of approach are unlikely to be open to Israel and be it the Syrian-Turkish, the Jordanian-Syrian or the Saudi-Jordanian corridor, Israel would always gamble for tacit consent.
A second possibility is to implement a Cuban Missile Crisis style “Quarantine” if Israel gets hold of evidence that clearly demonstrates Iran to be working on a weapons programme or is deploying nuclear weapons.
Israel does not have the necessary resources to mobilise an expeditionary naval task force in order to impose a total blockade and once again, it would all depend on the goodwill of Arab states.
But if Israel were to prevent enough Iranian oil derivatives imports, the Iranian economy would suffer and cause tension between population and regime.
It is not inconceivable for Israel to position a small number of vessels in the Gulf of Oman and avert some gasoline shipments to Iran.
The obvious flaws to this course of action are that the nuclear programme is not necessarily shut down and that Israel still risks a lethal first strike from Iran. On the bright side, Israel’s diplomatic stance should remain largely unscathed, and it is an escalation with which both the USA and the Aqaba Concert can live with.
In any event, Israel faces dark times ahead and it seems clear that Iran cannot be countered without at least the tacit approval of the international community.