There is a pervasive fear that is being spread by American, Israeli and Sunni Gulf leaders that the most dangerous development in modern history will be the capacity of Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. The fear of nuclear weapons is a natural one, and it is well deserved, because a nuclear weapon is far and away the worst technological innovation of murder ever developed in human history, probably the worst that ever will be developed.
It is especially understandable that Israel, composed mostly of Jews, many of whom are from Holocaust families, would be especially vulnerable to the fear of sudden and mass extermination by inveterate enemies. By some estimates, Israel has almost 400 advanced nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and yet there seems to be no limits to the fears that leaders can generate at even the possibility that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons.
Nuclear terror almost brought the world to an end in 1963, and it is amazing that humanity escaped a nuclear holocaust of 50,000 nuclear weapons aimed at each other during the Cold War. But that very reality, that the world did not disappear in 1963, should be a clue as to why the fear being expressed today that is focused exclusively on Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon may be due to an irrational and misguided reading of recent history. On the contrary, a balance of power and terror may bring about a far more stable situation, which is exactly how we escaped nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, and exactly why the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not escape a nuclear holocaust. Let's examine why.
There was a widespread belief in policy circles that during the "real" Cold War, the one between the Soviet Union and the United States, there were two rational actors, interested in their own survival. According to the Nash Equilibrium doctrine of game theory, there was a stable situation of mutually assured destruction that prevented global thermonuclear war for decades, which in turn helped the world escape complete destruction. In fact, the actors were not as rational as was hoped, and groupthink among American military and political advisers almost brought the world to complete destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nevertheless, there was much truth to deterrence theory, and it applies today as well.
There is a current bias that somehow 'rogue' states have crazy leaders who want their own destruction, such as North Korea. Well, North Korea got nuclear weapons, and we are all still here, and so is South Korea. On the contrary, the security that nuclear weapons gave the North Korean leaders (no matter how much we may despise their regime) may have been the only thing keeping them from triggering total war between North and South in recent years. In fact, North Korean leadership have ultimately behaved rationally, in their self-interest, and not triggered their own destruction by using nuclear weapons.
The tragedy at the end of World War II was that there was nothing stopping the United States from using nuclear weapons on civilian populations and creating mass death that would have been an unthinkable moral act for a democracy such as the United States only a few years earlier. But the Nash equilibrium did not exist since the Japanese government did not have such weapons. And so the Americans could not resist the temptation to 'finish off the Japanese,' even if it meant targeting and killing tens of thousands of men, women and children and vaporizing them. At the same time, the Soviet Union, which had run brutal proxy wars throughout the Cold War, as well as the United States, which also ran horrible wars of communist 'containment,' did, in fact, refrain from the use of nuclear weapons all those decades, because it was irrational not to.
Rational actors of the West are not as rational as they always claim to be, and non-Western leaders are not as irrational as Western bias claims them to be. Even the worst dictators are known to calculate their interests very rationally. However it is true that there comes a point in time when many populations, including democratic ones, and especially their political and military leaders, miscalculate their strength and ability to win, and that is when stupid wars happen. This has happened in every civilization throughout history. That is why weapons of destruction are a horrible idea, and should be in no one's hands, due to the possibilities of miscalculation. But once they exist, they should exist in balance, otherwise they tend to get used. That is the evidence of history so far.
It is every bit as likely that Israeli right wing leaders, particularly Netanyahu and Barak, are grossly miscalculating their capacity to strike Iran and "win," contrary to the advice of almost all of their intelligence and military leadership. This is irrational action at its finest, but it is in keeping with the potential of any leadership, democratic or otherwise, to miscalculate, engage in groupthink and commit suicide. In fact, they are likely to trigger a nonconventional war that could lead to mass casualties on all sides.
The Israeli leadership is seriously miscalculating the capacities of the Iranian people, they are throwing a population with no inherent hatred of Israel right into the hands of leaders who are eager to put Iranian popular unrest and democratization behind them. Worse, they are playing with a fire of retaliatory actions that will spiral quickly out of control and lead to massive casualties from which several states may not recover. There already is a balance of terror between Iran and Israel, but the Israeli leadership does not see it yet, because they have nuclear weapons and Iran does not have them. A nuclear balance of terror might make them more rational, as ironic as that appears to be.
This imbalance of nuclear weapons is an unstable and dangerous situation of history. It is not giving enough time for a slow emergence of solutions to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, as well as a slow decrease in the revolutionary fervor of Iranian leadership, which is aging fast, not to mention the long-term democratizing effects of the Arab Spring and that of other emerging Muslim democracies which will eventually have a positive effect on democracy in Muslim and Arab countries, and a pragmatic, less ideological approach by Iran to the United States and Israel. Forcing a military encounter now is the wrong time in history and the wrong tactic. On the contrary, aggressive engagement with the Iranian population, just as the West has aggressively engaged the Chinese population, is the best known de-escalator of dangerous ideologically-based warfare.
The dark reality of MAD and the Nash Equilibrium is that nuclear weapons are incredibly sobering to even the most arrogant ego, when they are pointed at your face. Sometimes this is all that can stand in the way of spiraling conflict. We have faced a deteriorating situation between Iran and other states ever since 1979. One can assign blame to the revolutionary spirit that was injected into the Muslim world as a result of the Iranian Revolution and the support for militant groups that fomented trouble for Gulf states, for Israel and for the West in general. There was an immediate infusion of funds by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states into countering the Shiite revolutions being fomented. A horrible battleground was created in Pakistan that has left that country fractured ever since, with thousands dead -- not to mention Afghanistan.
One can argue, from the Shiite side, that Iran since the Revolution has finally supported persecuted Shiites around the world, especially in Lebanon, and that it was payback time to the West and to Israel for supporting the Shah's murderous practices, as well as Sunni triumphalists in the Gulf, mainly Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, one can look at Iran's allies today, Hezbollah and Syria, and be horrified by who it supports. On the other hand, one can look from the Iranian side on the dozens of American military bases that completely surround and threaten its country from all sides.
There are many ways to analyze destructive conflict from both sides, and this fills volumes of good analysis. But everyone can see that the conflict has gotten worse and worse, and that we are reaching a negative turning point leading to total war in which there will be massively destructive consequences on all sides.
More than anything, the Middle East and Iran need time for the pragmatism of engagement to sink in. Everyone, Jewish Israeli, Arab, Muslim, needs to see the benefits of economic and people-to-people engagement that makes all the disagreements more subject to compromise and co-existence. This can come with time, but not if unconventional war, foolishly miscalculated, sets back all these civilizations by a hundred years. It could happen.
Compared to that horror, a small balance of terror between Israel's massive stockpile of nuclear weapons, and Iran perhaps developing the capacity for a few, seems like a good stimulus to a good nuclear standoff, to greater pragmatism, to a revisiting of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, to exploring the balance of terror in Korea, in the Indian subcontinent, in order to develop a global system of détentes that will parallel the process of the end of the Cold War. This is a more stable vision of the future of Iranian relations to its neighbors, and American and Israeli confrontation with their adversaries.
The question is whether this standoff between the West and Iran could go the way of the North Korean confrontation with the West, namely, as detestable as nuclear proliferation may be. A situation of deterrence between Israel's massive nuclear stockpile and weapons delivery system, the United States massive nuclear capacity in the region pointing at Iran, on the one side, may require balance. It may require some deterrence that brings about a doomsday standoff where taking military action is unacceptable to everyone. This in turn would yield years of negotiations, economic alternatives and possible new venues for détente. That may actually stabilize the situation. It may force the same kind of détente that allowed the United States and Soviet Union to make peace in the long run, despite 50,000 advanced nuclear weapons reaching their targets in minutes. If we can survive that, then the balance of terror may be a good way for two great civilizations, Israeli and Iranian, to survive their leaderships, and build a practical future together that moves from balance of terror to balance of power to balance of trade.
Follow Marc Gopin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mgopin