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The Threat That Could Ensure Peace: Why a Nuclear Iran Doesn't Equal War

Posted: 4/04/2012 00:00

Let's jump ahead a few years and imagine the following: despite all efforts by Israel and possibly the U.S., Iran has managed to build nuclear weapons and would now be ready to engage in nuclear warfare with its Israeli counterpart. However, instead of a nuclear Armageddon, peace dominates the political landscape of the Middle East; not despite the presence of nuclear weapons but because of it.

Nuclear weapons could foster peace and relax tensions in this region that is riddled with potential conflict. What might sound overly optimistic or even foolish has in fact a lot of arguments and evidence backing it.

Although the presence of nuclear weapons can surely heighten suspicion and hostility between rival parties, they have also been a source of stability between nuclear opponents as the détente period between the U.S. and the Soviet Union showed. Similarly, tensions and actual conflict decreased between India and Pakistan when the latter developed nuclear capabilities. As a matter of fact, nuclear weapons have been around and proliferating for a while, yet not a single one of these powerful war tools has actually been used for combat purposes between two nuclear powers. So, what is it that makes leaders so reluctant to actually use their nuclear capacities?

In nuclear warfare, there are no winners but only losers; such is the reality of the conflict. As Kenneth Waltz, a distinguished political scholar, once wrote: "Why fight if you can't win much and might lose everything?". The stakes are simply too high to play it risky and certainty doesn't exist in the nuclear game. The only thing that you can be sure of is that each and every nuke has a return address written on it. So far, leaders knew and respected this.

Nuclear weapons have thus become deterrents of war rather than war-winning tools. Unless a given state is the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in a conflict, nukes are fairly inadequate for offensive warfare. When both parties are nuclear powers, a 'balance of terror', as Lester B. Pearson coined it, normally controls the proceedings and ensures stability. Mutual possession of nukes leads to mutual and equal distribution of fear among concerned states. They fear the intentions of the other one, but they are equally afraid of the consequences their own actions might have. Thereby, the utility of the threat of war, the nuclear deterrence, becomes far more important than the utility of an actual attack. Israel and Iran ought to think about the Hasidic proverb: "Fear the man who fears you" which resembles the basic principle of the Mutually Assured Destruction strategy that ensured peace during the Cold War.

The trouble with nuclear weapons however is that they have a very ambiguous symbolism, which makes it impossible to assess if they are used for defensive or offensive purposes. Although Iran has a long history of threatening Israel, which it labels as 'cancerous tumour', and proposing its annihilation, it must nevertheless be clear that Iran has a strong defensive interest in the development of nuclear weapons. Internal and external pressure on the regime, U.S. presence in its neighbouring countries Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Israeli military hegemony in the region have all contributed to the rising fears of the regime.

If there is one thing you don't want in the nuclear context, it's surely irrationality; the buzz - word to describe Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his regime. Just thinking about his finger on the nuclear button probably sends down cold shivers up and down the spines of millions of people. But so did the images of Stalin, Mao or Kim Jong-il possessing such devices and yet they never used them. Even aggressive dictators have things they value that would be threatened by nuclear war. They hesitate and fear as every other leader does. They are also seldom the sole decision makers; one would have to assume a whole group of leaders going mad which seems, despite any previous irrational behaviour, rather unlikely. Back in the 1970s, former U.S. president Richard Nixon even deliberately tried to appear irrational and mad as the so-called 'Mad Man Theory' suggested this would make him look far more dangerous and volatile and would thereby reduce the Soviets' willingness to play tricks on him.

There is of course no guarantee that nuclear war might not take place between the two rival parties, and be it only by accident. To quote the prominent US political scholar Hans Morgenthau: "it would be the height of thoughtless optimism to assume that something so absurd as a nuclear war cannot happen because it is so absurd."

Nuclear war has never been absurd and it will remain a serious threat. However, nukes have a paradoxical force for peace and to assume that sabre-rattling must lead to conflict might equally be the height of thoughtless pessimism. If barking dogs seldom bite, Iran's behaviour should not be too worrying. But what about the 'nuclear duck' Israel is worried about?