Jerusalem’s Itchy Trigger Finger

Forget sanctions. If there's one thing that should convince Tehran not to go nuclear, it's that Israel might use its own nukes -- first.

Of all the dangers associated with a nuclear-armed Iran -- from the onset of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and an Iranian extension of "a nuclear umbrella" to regional proxies, from a nuclear bomb falling into terrorist hands to an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel or even on the United States -- the one we should take most seriously goes virtually unmentioned: a miscalculated nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran. It's a risk that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei should consider carefully; when push comes to shove, having a bomb might only make a conflict between the two countries more likely. In fact, when considering how this chain of events might unfold, the basic strategic calculus would suggest that it is Israel -- rather than Iran -- that would be more liable to make the calamitous mistake of initiating a nuclear conflagration.

This assessment is not invoked lightly, let alone accusingly. Since Israel first obtained nuclear military capabilities in the late 1960s, it has proven itself to be an extremely responsible nuclear power. In fact, given the level of threat the country has faced -- including the perceived threat to its very existence during the 1973 Yom Kippur War -- Israel might well be deemed the most responsible nuclear power in the world.

The case of the Yom Kippur War is particularly enlightening. Fearing it might be overrun by the combined Syrian and Egyptian armies on its northern and southern fronts, Israel came close to making use of its nuclear arsenal -- though not as close as many believe. In the most illuminating testimony to have come out in recent years about the deliberations that took place among Israel's top political and military echelons during the first days of the war, a former Israeli official who was an eye-witness to the exchange recounted how Defense Minister Moshe Dayan asked Prime Minister Golda Meir "to authorize him to start making the necessary preparations so that if we have to make a decision to activate [the nuclear option], we could do it in a few minutes, rather than wandering around for half a day in order to prepare everything." According to this official, Meir rebuffed Dayan out of hand.

In other words, even at the fateful moment when Israel's defense minister assessed that the country was in imminent danger of collapse -- so imminent, as he explained to his prime minister, that "half a day" might not be enough lead time to activate the ultimate deterrence -- Israel's top leader opted for restraint.

However reassuring Israel's record is to date, it is hard to extrapolate from it about the future, especially one in which Iran possesses military nuclear capabilities. After all, the prospect of invasion by enemy armies pales in comparison to that of nuclear annihilation. And that is a threat that neither Israel -- nor any other nation -- has ever really faced before. (While the specter of a nuclear exchange was raised during both the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, none of the various powers involved feared complete nuclear annihilation.)

How would Israel conduct itself when faced with a nuclear foe -- and one, moreover, that continued to spew exterminationist rhetoric against it? While restraint may well rule the day, the danger of a catastrophic mishap cannot be discounted. And although this may hold true for other nuclear rivals -- such as India and Pakistan -- the case of Iran and Israel is particularly acute, with Israel being the more liable actor to make the calamitous error.

The reasons are multiple and mutually reinforcing. And they have little to do with safeguards. First, Tehran's explicit hatred for Israel -- the latest display of which was offered by Khamenei last month when he declared that "the Israeli regime is doomed to failure and annihilation" -- is extreme even among the bitterest of adversaries. (By comparison, the most prevalent context in which the term "annihilation" crops up in the context of Indian-Pakistani relations is cricket.) Backed up by new military nuclear capabilities, such threats could, under certain circumstances, push an Israeli leader to take desperate action.

In addition, Israel is uniquely vulnerable to nuclear annihilation on account of its small size -- a size that has earned it the horrific epithet "a one-bomb country." With no margins for error, Israel may sooner choose to act than risk having to react.

In the face of a nuclear scare, the asymmetry in second-strike capabilities would give Israel an added incentive to go ahead and initiate an attack on Iran rather than the other way around. After all, if the aim is to successfully eliminate the nuclear arsenal of the other, Israel could hope to destroy the handful of weapons Iran could make, leaving it unable to retaliate with nukes of its own. Iran, though, could not hope to eliminate Israel's entire arsenal.

Israel's military history also suggests a penchant for preemptive action. The heroic example of the 1967 Six-Day War stands in stark contrast to the dire lesson of 1973 and informs a military ethos that prioritizes proactive measures.

Finally, in the absence of a hotline between the Iranian and Israeli leaderships -- the kind of quick and secure communication link that was set up following the Cuban Missile Crisis between Washington and Moscow, and which exists today between such foes as Delhi and Islamabad and even Seoul and Pyongyang -- any accident or misunderstanding would be difficult to address speedily and effectively before triggering a potentially nuclear action.

None of this is to shift the focus from the need to roll back Iran's nuclear program; on the contrary, such a sobering perspective on the real risks at stake should only firm up international resolve to reach a permanent agreement with Iran in the next 6-12 months.

Nor should world powers turn their attention to Israel's nuclear status, either in parallel to negotiations with Iran or immediately following an agreement. Assuming Iran's nuclear program is successfully constrained, Israel can be counted on to remain a highly reliable nuclear player. On other hand, pressing Israel toward greater nuclear transparency -- such as by joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- is certain to be met by stiff Israeli resistance. Worse, it may set off a dynamic that risks only undermining the overarching goal of preventing the nuclearization of the Middle East. After all, whether or not one buys into the argument that Israel's policy of nuclear opacity has indeed served to stave off a nuclear arms race in the region, the counter argument that Israeli transparency will serve better the cause is even more fanciful.

What the world needs to realize -- and especially Iran and the Western powers trying to forge more constructive dialogue with Tehran -- is that the risk of a nuclear Iran is not so much Iran itself as it is the co-presence of two nuclear-armed enemies in the region. At the very least, such honesty might begin to address -- even if not defuse -- Iran's longstanding claims of a Western double standard toward its nuclear program. And it might just convince Iran that, with a foe like Israel, the danger of acquiring military nuclear capabilities far outweighs the benefits.

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Burma's Senseless Census

Burma's census disregards the complex ethnic identities of its people. Could this breathe new life into sectarian conflict?

Next year, Burma will embark on its first census-taking process in more than three decades. It's an opportunity, but it's also a significant risk. On the one hand, the census could compel the state to finally recognize long-excluded people and foster a better collective understanding of the daily struggles that most Burmese face. But on the other, the census is set up to obscure Burma's incredible diversity by requiring that Burmese people choose just one ethnic identity, even if they identify with many ethnicities. This comes at a dangerous point in Burma's simmering ethnic conflict, especially since nationalists are now using conceptions of exclusive and timeless ethnicity to justify violence against populations suddenly deemed irrevocably "foreign."

Instead of fueling such demagoguery, politics around the census process should expose the inaccuracy of those narratives and highlight the wonderfully mixed-up nature of ethnicity in Burma. Otherwise, the census seems poised to be part of a new kind of Burmese state practice, one that simply goes from domination (direct and despotic) to a new kind of control (diffused and bureaucratic) that limits rather than enables Burma's people.

Burma has 135 "official national races" (in addition to the Chinese, Indians, Rohingya, etc., who have yet to be recognized as autochthonous despite their long-standing membership in Burma's society). Observers use this number to remark on Burma's incredible diversity -- but this categorization is often myopic. The current categories imply that every citizen fits snugly into one silo: only Shan, only Karen, only Burman. A closer look at Burma's ethnic make-up, however, shows a vast diversity not simply within the country, but within people themselves.

Over three months of field research in Yangon this summer, I asked dozens of Burmese about their lu-myo (race or ethnicity) and found that individuals often describe complex, mixed-ethnic genealogies. For example, a Burmese colleague explained that ethnic identity is highly dependent on context: "For people like me who live in cities and don't speak an ethnic minority language, don't have ethnic minority names, and who are Buddhists, I don't think it would be a problem to identify ourselves as ‘Bamar lu-myo' ['Burman'] at first. But as we talk more about ourselves we include more information about different ethnic roots we have.... I am Bamar, but I'm also Mon, Pa-O, and Chinese." As this suggests, in Burma, ethnicity is lived less as a pseudo-scientific racial category and more as a set of practices shaped by one's environment.

Because context matters, an individual's own lu-myo can also be "on the move," changing between generations or within individuals over their own lifetimes. For instance, a man told me about his father's shifting identity: he was born Rohingya Muslim, but after refraining from Islamic worship practices, marrying a Rakhine Buddhist, taking on Rakhine modes of dress, drinking habits, etc., he now is often considered Rakhine. There are countless examples of this phenomenon: a colleague identifies as Mon though a cousin of hers does not; another scholar found a Karen-identified brother and Kachin-identified sister.

And yet, against these mutating and elusive identifications, the recent conflict in Burma's western Arakan state between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims -- in which mobs of local Buddhists have left hundreds of Rohingya dead and 125,000 displaced -- relies on a concept of ethnicity that is more absolute. (In the photo above, Muslim residents of Rakhine state await aid after losing their homes in sectarian violence in early October.) I interviewed multiple Rakhine individuals who insisted that "all so-called Rohingya" were actually "Bengalis" (considered "outsiders") and should be expelled. At the same time, Wakkar Uddin, a prominent Rohingya activist, told an audience at Columbia University last year that the Rohingya were determined to expel illegal "Bengalis." Significant here is how Buddhist Rakhine reject any potential blurring of boundaries between themselves and Muslims (whether Rohingya or "Bengali"), while the Rohingya are doing the same with themselves and "Bengalis."

The Rakhine/Rohingya case shows that conflicts can ossify conceptions of ethnicity to the point where they are no longer fluid and flexible, particularly when ethnicity becomes in part a vehicle for accessing resources. International media coverage has focused on racist monks or shadowy military elites collaborating with Rakhine demagogues to foment unrest. However, interviews with Rakhine individuals suggest that the conflict is grounded in perceived struggles over resources, especially surrounding the recently completed Shwe Pipeline, which carries gas to China but has left Rakhine state the second-least developed in Burma. Moreover, Rakhine individuals told me they were afraid of "losing their land" to Rohingya, who are ostensibly able to win control of resources by utilizing the support of international Muslim communities.

Other Rakhine say that international development only benefits Rohingya and ignores Rakhine needs. One man asked, "Why do the NGOs always come to our land but provide nothing for us, only for the Rohingya?" As a Rakhine woman explained, in this context, "Rakhine" has come to mean something very particular: "If we had development, we might say we are just 'Myanmar' [citizens]. But we don't." Rapid and unequal development is making ethnicity a conduit for protecting access to resources, a phenomenon that appears to be spreading across the country.

Given that ethnicity is a fluid but potentially charged concept, the question becomes whether Burma's reform process will embrace the country's complexity, or choose to privilege mono-ethnicity. This is where the census comes in. Interviews with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the agency providing technical assistance to the census process, reveal that the census has been designed to ignore the existence of multiple identities. Respondents must choose only one of the official 135 ethnicities, or check the "Other" box and write in their ethnicity. If a person with multiple identities refuses to choose one, the census defaults to their father's ethnic identity.

This may have serious political consequences. If people who claim multiple identities choose to report only, for instance, a "Burman" identity, hyper-nationalist movements may argue that these data "prove" that Burma's ethnic issues were always overstated and demand that the government grant collective resources to the besieged majority. Alternatively, if people report only non-Burman identities, the same movement could use those data to construct an equally dangerous argument: "We Burmans, the rightful sons of Burma's soil, are being bred out by the ethnic minorities. We must fight back." Burma's current monk-led, anti-Muslim "969 movement" can be seen as an inchoate version of such politics.

Why, then, would the state choose to implement the census this way? Is this a government conspiracy, a project to foment extremism while displacing official recognition of diversity? It appears not: UNFPA's technical advisors say that it is simply logistically difficult -- for both the census enumerators and its respondents -- to record multiple ethnicities.

But this could have drastic consequences. Comparative historical evidence shows that state census projects can intervene in sociological reality, creating the very categories they count. Indeed, a closer inspection of Burma's current 135 official races show them to already be arbitrary and confused, asserting phantom ethnicities on one hand and eliminating existing identities on the other. As scholar Mufti Myint Thein shows, the government concocted the number 135 in 1982, when many Muslim ethnicities were removed from official recognition (link in Burmese). These acts of reduction provide the grounds for exclusion: as in, "you are group x, and group x is not part of us."

How will Burmese people respond to such a project? During the long years of military control, state messages were often disregarded or ignored by a wary or disinterested populace. But now, Burma's state elites are busy reforming health, education, legal, and tax sectors, and much more, promising a transition from military authoritarianism to an aspiring Weberian-bureaucracy. When institutional changes actually affect people's daily needs, they have reason to listen; when these changes hinge on ideas of ethnic belonging, ethnic conflict may follow. Since Burma's most recent constitution guarantees special political representation if a lu-myo achieves 0.1 percent of the population, ethnicity will be a powerful means for groups to fight for their interests -- but only for the ones that qualify. The census, then, will help determine which groups matter in Burma, and which don't.

So what can census makers do to fix this problem? The best option seems to be to change the current format to allow citizens to select multiple identities to accurately represent their experiences. Even then, this may not be enough to dampen the socially fragmentary effects of Burma's current scramble for development.

Indeed, whether the census is reformed or not, what ultimately matters is how this census information is turned into political narratives about legitimate political belonging. Contesting ethnic violence in Burma will require messages that stress that the military regime was abusive to Burmese people of all ethnic backgrounds -- but that people from these varied groups are still able to forge relationships based on mutual respect and benefit, and are all committed to participating in a future Burma.

In other words, the census can certainly make things worse, but it cannot make things better on its own. Political leaders and citizens must together craft a new concept of citizenship in Burma, one based on the shared politics of daily life there that embraces all of Burma's diverse people without eliding any of their particular identities.

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