A number of influential policymakers and foreign policy analysts appear much too complacent regarding the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran. Former CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid has argued that "[d]eterrence will work with Iran," and former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Thomas Fingar, one of the authors of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear capabilities, has voiced similar opinions.
Deterrence in the Middle East, they argue, could be just as stable as it was between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. "Israel's massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon," wrote Fareed Zakaria in the Oct. 12 edition of Newsweek. "Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran."
But this historical analogy is dangerously misconceived. In reality, defusing an Israeli-Iranian nuclear standoff will be far more difficult than averting nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. This is true even if those Iranians with their fingers on the nuclear trigger are not given to messianic doomsday thinking. Here are five factors that will make an Israeli-Iranian nuclear confrontation potentially explosive.
Communication and trust. The October 1962 negotiations that settled the Cuban missile crisis were conducted through a fairly effective, though imperfect, communication system between the United States and Russia. There was also a limited degree of mutual trust between the two superpowers. This did not prevent confusion and suspicion, but it did facilitate the rivals' ability to understand the other's side and eventually resolve the crisis.
Israel and Iran, however, have no such avenues for communication. They don't even have embassies or fast and effective back-channel contacts -- and, what's more, they mistrust each other completely. Israel has heard Iranian leaders -- and not just President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- call for its destruction. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders remain prone to paranoid and conspiratorial views of the outside world, especially Israel and the United States. In any future Iranian-Israeli crisis, each side could easily misinterpret the other's moves, leading to disaster. A proxy war conducted by Iran through Hezbollah or Hamas against Israel could quickly lead to a series of escalating threats.
Goals. The Soviets wanted to extend their power and spread Communism -- they never pledged the annihilation of America. Iranian leaders, however, have called for Israel to be "wiped off the map of the Middle East." After the street protests that followed the June presidential election, Iran has entered into chronic instability. In a moment of heightened tension and urgent need for popular support, an Iranian leader could escalate not only rhetoric but action.
There is a strong precedent in the Middle East of such escalation leading to war. Arab threats to destroy any Jewish state preceded a massive invasion of the new Israeli state in May 1948. In May and June 1967, Egypt's President Gamal Abd al-Nasser loudly proclaimed his intent to "liberate Palestine" (i.e. Israel in its 1949 borders), and moved his panzer divisions to Israel's border. The result was the Six Day War.