Containment Breach

Preventing nuclear war between Iran and Israel would be more difficult than it ever was to avoid a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Here's why.

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.

Command and control. In 1962, the two superpowers possessed sophisticated command-and-control systems securing their nuclear weapons. Both also employed effective centralized decision-making systems. Neither may be the case with Iran: Its control technology will be rudimentary at first, and Tehran's decision-making process is relatively chaotic. Within Iran's byzantine power structure, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mounts an army and navy of its own alongside the regular army and navy, and internal differences within the regime over nuclear diplomacy are evidence of conflicting lines of authority. Recent events suggest that the IRGC, allied with Ahmadinejad, has increasingly infringed on the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a result, no one can be certain how decisions are made and who makes them.

Mutual deterrence. Both the United States and USSR had second-strike capability made credible by huge land masses. They possessed hardened missile silos scattered throughout the countryside, large air forces equipped with nuclear bombs, and missile-launching submarines. In the Middle East, Iran stretches across a vast 636,000 square miles, against Israel's (pre-1967) 8,500 square miles of territory. This point was made by ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2001, who noted, "Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack." If this is the way an Iranian pragmatist thinks, how are the hard-liners thinking?

In contrast, by 1962, the two superpowers implicitly recognized the logic of mutually assured destruction. And yet, they still came relatively close to war -- in John F. Kennedy's words, the risk of a nuclear conflict was "between one out of three and even." When Iran goes nuclear, the huge disparity in size will pose a psychological obstacle for its recognition of mutual deterrence. Even assuming the United States promises Israel a retaliatory nuclear umbrella, Iran will doubt U.S. resolve. The mullahs will be tempted to conclude that with Israel gone, the United States would see no point in destroying Iran. Given the criticism leveled today against President Harry Truman for using the bomb against Japanese civilians in World War II, what are the chances of American retaliation against Iran, especially if the Islamic Republic has not attacked the United States?

Crisis instability. In view of the above dangers, if and when a grave crisis does erupt, Israel would be tempted to strike first in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear attack, which would devastate its urban core. Iran will be well aware of Israel's calculations and, in the early years of becoming a nuclear power, will have a smaller and probably more vulnerable nuclear arsenal. This will give it, in turn, strong incentives to launch its own preemptive strike.

The implications of a nuclear-armed Iran go well beyond the risks of an Iranian-Israeli war. Once Iran is a nuclear power, the Middle East is likely to enter a fast-moving process of nuclear proliferation. Until now, most Arab governments have not made an effort to match Israel's  nuclear arsenal. However, they perceive Iran's nuclear weapons as a real strategic threat. A Middle East where more and more states have nuclear arms, known to experts as a saturated multiplayer environment, will present an almost insurmountable challenge for deterrence calculations by regional or external powers, and a still greater risk of serious instability. Contrary to the wishful thinking of some analysts that the possession of nuclear weapons could make Iran more cautious, a nuclear Iran will likely be emboldened. It could press Hezbollah to be more aggressive in Lebanon, flex its muscles in the Persian Gulf, and step up its challenges against U.S. forces in the region.

If diplomacy and sanctions fail to prevent Iran from going nuclear, Israel will be caught on the horns of an acute existential dilemma not of its own making. If Israel does not act, it will face a future in which it will live under a nuclear sword of Damocles wielded by a state that has called for its destruction. If it does act in the face of what are, after all, probabilities rather than certainties, Israel must expect a serious conventional war that would include attacks from Iran's proxies Hamas and Hezbollah and an escalation in international terrorism, all in exchange for an uncertain degree of success. Contrary to the assessments of those who foresee a best case scenario of stable deterrence, , a nuclear-armed Iran will usher in a new era of instability in the Middle East -- with consequences that nobody can accurately predict, much less contain.

Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images


Crude Is the New Carbon

Since the world can't seem to agree on cutting carbon emissions, maybe it's time to try an easier but equally important target: oil.

Now that delegates to the U.N. climate summit are back from Copenhagen with no more than a non binding, hollow declaration of intent to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, it is clear that the main reason "Cop" turned into a flop is the deep divide between the world's rich and poor -- between those who watch the world on plasma screens and those who are forced to sell their plasma to survive another day.

The platitudes and inspirational speeches on how we must all come together to "save ourselves from ourselves" could not mask an inescapable reality: For poor people, while often being the main casualties of an unstable climate, planetary-scale environmental concerns are a distant second to basic human needs -- access to electricity, food, and shelter. They are therefore unwilling to put their economic growth on hold until the world comes up with economically competitive alternatives to coal-fired electricity. In India alone, 150 million people have no access to basic lighting. In the face of such grinding poverty, it's no wonder that the rich countries' attempts to thwart the expansion of fossil fuels were perceived by many in the developing world as a new form of imperialism.

This pushback by the developing world begs for a unified, yet politically feasible, agenda that can be embraced by rich and poor countries alike. One area where such an agenda can emerge is oil. Whereas reaching consensus about significant cuts in the use of fossil fuels in power generation seems to be unlikely, focusing on reducing the use of oil, which powers 95 percent of the global transportation sector, is a goal that offers a real chance of global acceptance (with the exception of certain oil-exporting countries, of course).

Why should the focus be on oil?

First, unlike the electricity sector where multiple sources of energy can contribute to the grid, in transportation, oil enjoys a virtual monopoly. Almost all of the world's cars, trucks, ships, and planes can run on nothing but petroleum. With no fuel choice at the pump and with most of the world's oil owned by non-democratic regimes, the oil market is subject to perpetual volatility. This makes oil dependence an economic depressant for most oil-importing countries and developing countries in particular. When oil prices soar, as they did in 2008, recession quickly follows, trade deficits swell to dangerous levels, and millions of people in poor countries who have just begun to rise from poverty slide back into destitution. Even in the developed world, in difficult economic times public support for policies that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions falls sharply as citizens expect their governments to put a higher priority on improving the economy. The lesson: Curbing greenhouse-gas emissions is contingent on the prosperity and economic resilience of developed countries. Conversely, prosperity is difficult to achieve so long as our economies hemorrhage money to purchase expensive oil.

Second, major developing countries like China and India are now emerging as the world's biggest auto markets, and their appetite for fuel is the main driver of global growth in petroleum demand. The recent introduction of microcars like the $2,500 Tata Nano (about which Nobel Prize winner Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said he was "having nightmares") means a 65 percent increase in the number of Indian families who will soon be able to afford a car. Scores of other countries where the micro-car market could boom, including China, whose middle class is projected to hit 700 million by 2020, would not only speed the coming of future oil shocks but also contribute to a significant spike in carbon emissions. Stopping the onslaught of gasoline-only cars in the developing world is in the interest of both developed and developing countries.

Third, the renewable alternatives to oil in the transportation sector are more competitive than the renewable alternatives to coal and natural gas in the electricity sector. In other words, oil is easier to substitute than coal. Solar and wind electricity are not at this point economically competitive with fossil fuels, but in the transportation sector most alternative fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, and biodiesel, are fully competitive with roughly $60 to $80 per barrel of oil.

A still more promising possibility is driving on electricity, which is competitive with oil at $5 to $10 a barrel. A mile driven in an electric car -- even if the electricity is made from coal -- produces less carbon dioxide on a mine-to-wheel/well-to-wheel basis than a mile driven on gasoline. And electric cars actually get cleaner as they get older. Unlike oil, which will be polluting ever more as production shifts from light conventional crudes to heavy non conventionals like tar sands and oil shale, the electric grid will no doubt become cleaner over time. This is why environmentalists are so supportive of the electrification of transportation.

An oil-first strategy can position the United States as a leader in the global effort to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. With a stroke of the pen, the U.S. Congress, now struggling to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation, can introduce an Open Fuel Standard requiring that new cars sold in the United States are flex-fuel vehicles. Such technology, which costs automakers barely $100 per new vehicle, can protect economies from high and volatile oil prices and from the threats caused by global instability by providing an immediate pathway to fuel competition -- at least until the 2030s, when most automakers will have mass-produced plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. During the 2008 oil shock, in Brazil, where most cars have flex-fuel engines, gasoline became an alternative fuel as motorists shifted to sugar cane ethanol, which, with oil at over $100 a barrel, was quite a bargain. As a result, Brazil was one of the economies least affected by the run-up in oil prices.

With renewed economic growth and fears of inflation, few would dismiss the possibility of oil rising once again to $100, or even $200, per barrel. But without vehicle platforms that can accommodate petroleum alternatives and hence permit fuel competition, both the world's poor and rich will sooner or later be forced to buy three-digit oil instead of much cheaper alternatives. And if we leave vehicle platforms gasoline-only, we will be stuck with oil forever.

An Open Fuel Standard could have a profound impact on world development. Since no automaker can afford to give up on the U.S. market, such a standard would essentially become an international one. Flex-fuel technology would allow poor countries, most of them with strong agricultural sectors, to grow their fuel rather than import it. Microcars with flex-fuel engines fed by domestically grown fuel would reduce poor countries' trade deficits, strengthen their energy security, create agricultural jobs, and reduce emissions.

Many climate advocates are understandably concerned that flex-fuel vehicles would open the gate to increased use of alternative liquid fuels that are either more carbon intensive than gasoline or are grown in an environmentally unsustainable manner. But such concerns are shortsighted. Alcohol fuels made from sugar cane, non food biomass, sewage sludge, and municipal solid waste offer considerable reduction in CO2 emissions. New approaches to producing methanol (a type of alcohol that can run in flex-fuel vehicles), from recycling CO2 to producing biofuels from CO2-guzzling algae, offer a more cost-effective way of dealing with CO2 than the economically prohibitive yet much-touted approach of carbon sequestration (essentially burying carbon dioxide in the ground or the oceans). But none of these alternatives will ever become prevalent unless we allow our cars to run on something other than petroleum.

In the coming months, major emitting countries will have to agree on priorities for next year's climate meeting in Mexico City. Failure to learn the lessons of Copenhagen will guarantee another debilitating face-off with the developing world. But focusing on oil dependence, the one issue on which the interests of rich and poor are fully aligned, could restore the trust necessary to move the climate process forward.