Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Nuclear Standoff:" Part III of Iranian-Israeli Confrontation

The current Iranian-Israeli confrontation could evolve into a nuclear standoff, either at a dangerously high level of hostility characterized by a mutually threatening arms race or by focusing on nuclear parity as paving the way for mutual accomodation. Either way, nuclear weapons policy will be at the core of this relationship for the foreseeable future. "Nuclear Standoff" is the second of five scenarios laying out potential Iranian-Israeli futures.

Nuclear Standoff

Following a transitional period of very high tension but with mutual political skill that keeps the extremists on each side at bay, Israel and Iran succeed in avoiding war. Nuclear parity, achieved either through denuclearization of the Mideast or Iran’s achieving sufficient nuclear capability to deter Israel ends up lowering tensions as it becomes evident to all that parity means standoff. To the extent that Iran remains isolated, it remains dissatisfied, but its progress in real power terms means that it comes to accept the trade-offs. Iran and Israel play in separate sandpiles, and Iran’s ties to China, Russian, and Asia generally become the focus of its attentions. Israel takes the wind out of the sails of Iranian aspirations to dominate the eastern shore of the Mediterranean by removing itself from Lebanese domestic affairs, returning the Golan Heights, and allowing a genuinely independent Palestinian state.

Comment: "Nuclear Standoff" differs from "Mideast Bipolarity" by being less positive, less cooperative because, although it is based on the assumption that Iran and Israel move toward equality of power, this power balance is not matched in the "Nuclear Standoff" scenario by equivalence of status. Nevertheless, the core dynamic foreseen in this scenario is a positive one in which the two sides perceive that a mutual willingness to negotiate the nuclear weapons issue will lead to enhanced mutual security, which, in turn, will lead to a greater willingness to negotiate, generating a reinforcing feedback cycle leading to nuclear parity.
The gradual evolution of "Nuclear Standoff" into "Mideast Bipolarity," as the two sides learn to respect each other and cooperate—i.e., as they learn to accord each other the same status that they accord other states—is a possible long-term outcome. "Nuclear Standoff" could also evolve into a highly unstable nuclear confrontation like the Pakistani-Indian situation in 2002 or the Cuban Missile Crisis. In brief, "Nuclear Standoff" seems likely to be a transitional scenario. The direction it evolves will be highly dependent not only on how bilateral ties are managed but on the broader international context.

The importance of the international context is why emphasis in the milestones that could be anticipated if "Nuclear Standoff" became reality include steps by the U.S. to adhere to the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

  • Agreement on principle of no first strike
  • U.S. promotes campaing to reduce the number of nuclear states
  • U.S. cuts some domestic nuclear programs to "move toward a non-nuclear world"
  • Israel joins NPT and eliminates its nukes
  • Israel and Iran agree to accept same rules on nukes

Future posts in this series on Iranian-Israeli confrontation will lay out the scenarios in which the relative power of the two sides remains highly unequal.

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