“The Cold War.” “Freezing tensions.” Terms that are familiar to us. The thinking is simple nuclear armed states do not fight wars with each other.
In many foreign policy circles it is that concept some are turning to and beginning to wonder out loud whether containing a potentially nuclear armed Iran maybe better than an attack on its facilities. An Op-ed in the New York Times explores that theory.
Experts say that an attack, Israeli or otherwise, will only delay Iran and give them ample reason to develop nuclear weapons. All the publicly available evidence suggests that Iran so far has not made the decision to militarise its nuclear programme.
An attack would make that decision simple. The only real way to guarantee a nuclear weapons free Iran is to invade and occupy. There are very few that have the appetite for another US led war in the Middle East.
The thinking then is keep up the pressure on Iran and if it makes the decision to go nuclear then let containment be the predominant policy and hope that cooler heads prevail. There is a precedent for this theory, a precedent that is mentioned in the New York Times article.
Pakistan and India
Pakistan is said to have between 90 – 100 nuclear warheads. India has between 80-90. The Pakistan military prides itself on being able to launch quicker than India and has a first strike policy.
Both sides before they had nuclear weapons fought wars. Since the existence of the weapons has been acknowledged tensions have remained high, skirmishes between the armed forces of each nation occur regularly but no war has been fought. The thought of nuclear armageddon keeps both sides in check.
When I was in Tehran for the Non-aligned Movement summit at the end of August I spoke to several Iranians, some analysts, others journalists and I posed the same question to them all.
“Would Iran ever develop nuclear weapons?” The answer, in varying hues, was always the same “Not now, but look at those countries that have not developed weapons. Iraq, Afghanistan. They have been invaded and occupied. Pakistan, India, North Korea have not”.
A map of US military bases on Iran’s borders confirms the fears felt by Iran. In short it’s surrounded.
So on the surface Iran has more reason than most to want an effective deterrent. Iran lives in a difficult neighbourhood.
Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan are its neighbours. To say the region is powder keg of tensions is no understatement. But by letting Iran develop weapons, if it chooses to do so and then hoping that containment will work is very big ask.
It requires both patience and pressure from the West and Israel and a U-turn in many publicly stated positions. By basing that on the case study of Pakistan and India poses some serious and difficult questions.
Israel and Iran
Arif Rafiq is an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC and is a keen observer of Pakistan, India as well as Israel and Iran. He says that the Pakistan-Indian relationship is much more robust than Israel and Iran’s.
“Pakistan and India have a hotline to warn each other, they also alert each other to military exercises, the 2 countries talk to each other, and that includes the political leadership. That co-operation began in in 1998, after the first nuclear tests and then deepened after the command and control systems for weapons were put in place in 2003. It’s part of the rapprochement on advance measures stop accidental nuclear war.”
Pakistan and India both know what’s at stake. The maturity in their nuclear armed relationship is the key factor in the deterrent. What’s missing from the Israel-Iran relationship is any kind of diplomacy, open or secret.
Dr Mahjoob Zweiri is an expert on Iranian affairs for Qatar University and has written several books on the country. He is skeptical that Iran and Israel, in the current climate, could find an accommodation.
“I think two main elements are important. Firstly the way Israel perceives Iran, to Israel it’s a threat, not a challenge, it’s a threat to the existence of the state. Because of the way the political discourse is, Israel does not believe that Iran will wage direct war against Israel.
“On the other hand, according Iranian security services, Israel is a challenge to the power of Iran in the region. Therefore best way to deal with Israel is to arm proxy’s rather than direct confrontation, and they have achieved this goal at this point.”
By arming the proxies, and for that read the Lebanese group Hezbollah amongst others, is what fuels Israel’s position on Iran. Again Pakistan and India have long accused each other of arming proxy groups to carry out attacks in each other countries.
A war which came to a very real possibility in 2008 after the Mumbai bombings. I was in Islamabad at the time and Pakistan geared up for that war, when cooler heads prevailed, cooler heads tempered by nuclear weapons.
So with little scope to develop the kind of relationship Pakistan and India have, can there be a third way? Can Washington act?
If Iran develops nuclear weapons then The US may will have to step in, not as an aggressor, but as broker. But with little trust in Tehran that is a move that will require more diplomacy than has ever been seen since the Islamic republic came into being 1979.
Geography is also a hindrance. Pakistan and India share a massive border. Iran and Israel don’t. The physical border means that Pakistan and India have to talk, because without clear lines of communication the worst case scenario is a frightening thought.
There’s no real impetus for Iran and Israel to develop the kind of communication that India and Pakistan have and given all the language we have heard from both sides, no real desire either.
Follow Imran Khan on Twitter: @ajimran