Friday, September 10, 2004

The Slipping Veil

The animosities of the Middle East draw a veil over growing nuclear capabilities that are spreading throughout the region. During the Cold War, the nuclear cards of each player were on the table, the majority face-up. In a strictly Clauswitzian match between the superpowers, such weapons needn’t have been hidden beneath mountains, their existence denied; rather, trumpeting nuclear brawn was essential to wage a psychological war on the enemy. The annual May Day parades in Red Square made pageantry out of trucks pulling huge SS-25 and SS-11 ICBMs while squadrons of nuclear bombers flew in formation overhead. Later it was learned that the bravado was puffed up: the jets were making a circle around Red Square to give the impression of larger forces---more cards were face up than there were actual cards. Mutually assured destruction relied upon nuclear bravado---bristling with atomic weapons kept each player defensively engaged. While not a certainty, loudly proclaiming one’s ability to annihilate the other side was an asset, not a liability.

Thirteen years after the Cold War, the current war takes the opposite tack: Nuclear capabilities are largely kept secret, and denied. Israel disclaims having a nuclear arsenal, although the common assumption is that they have had one for at least 20 years. Iran is bending over backwards to assure the I.A.E.A. that their nuclear ambitions are for peaceful purposes. And yet, there are many allusions to Iran’s implicit nuclear capability made by the theocratic regime. But no specifics. Only North Korea stands apart by changing course and announcing their nuclear ambitions.

Listening to acrimonious speeches by Middle Eastern politicians gives one the sense that beneath the denial lies plausible nuclear capability. The talk is loose. Speeches sometimes become unhinged, with a boldness and confidence that shows more than courage or mere fanaticism. Somewhere behind the rhetoric and threats lies growing nuclear credibility.

Israel’s determination to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities is telling---Germany backs nuclear subs for Israel:
Germany said yesterday it will help Israel acquire two nuclear-capable submarines and modernize three older vessels amid escalating tensions between Iran and Israel over Iran's planned construction of several nuclear reactors.

"We are of course ready to help Israel's acquisition, and support it. ... The exact details now need to be clarified in a working group of both ministries," German Defense Minister Peter Struck said in an interview with Handelsblatt newspaper.

The submarines, which could carry two nuclear warheads, could be used as a deterrent against Iran, which is going ahead with plans to build several nuclear facilities despite American and Israeli pressure to halt construction.

Iran recently announced it may decide to pre-empt an Israeli or American strike against its reactors with an attack against the Jewish state or U.S. interests in the Middle East. The ayatollahs have also gone to great lengths to warn that Iran can "hit anywhere in Israel" with its upgraded version of the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile.
There is a growing confidence coming from both sides that indicates nuclear weapons are in some sense already deployed, or imminently so. The dark veil of secrecy is slipping away, bit by bit. Israel orders submarines capable of deploying two nuclear warheads, although officially they have no such weapons. And Iran’s Shahab-3 missiles are only a credible deterrent against Israeli preemption if they are armed with nukes.

This is an inherently dangerous way to play nuclear poker, with most cards face-down. There is much left to guesswork; gambles are larger and more erratic. The only sane purpose of a nuclear arsenal is to bolster defense by credibly threatening an adversary from launching an attack. Nuclear weapons can level the playing field in a way that most conventional forces cannot. The insane purpose of a nuclear arsenal is to vanquish your enemy first---something that is not unthinkable in a theocratic dictatorship.

There is a nuclear buildup taking place in the Middle East that is unprecedented. The presidential election---now obsessed with forged documents and Swift Boat stories---seems to be a distraction from this reality. Whomever is president in the next term will face a nuclear crisis like none this world has seen since 1962. Prepare yourselves.