Weapons-Grade Confusion: The Danger of Misreading Our Nuclear Adversaries

Miscommunication and mutual mistrust almost led us into an unwanted war with the Soviet Union -- are we making similar mistakes with Iran today?

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President Ahmadinejad speaks on Iranian TV in advance of a December 2010 nuclear summit / Reuters
In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union launched a covert operation ordering its spies to watch for signs of an imminent surprise attack from NATO. The plan, code-named RYAN, was flawed from the start; Soviet agents were told to report signs that the U.S. was preparing for an attack, so that is precisely what they did, sending back every scrap of rhetoric or hint of aggression. Leaders in Moscow were already paranoid about President Ronald Reagan's sudden ramp-up of Cold War tensions, and in 1983 things very nearly got out of control.

According to David Hoffman in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Dead Hand, both operation RYAN and the Soviet paranoia fuelling it were in full swing when NATO began a major military exercise in November of 1983. That exercise simulated a full-on nuclear war in Europe, and in one segment even called for the President and Vice President to be whisked away to take part in the drill -- all signs that the KGB viewed as potential preparation for a real and sudden first strike. Soviet analysts had predicted that if the U.S. were to launch a surprise attack, it would do so under the guise of a routine exercise; after all, the Soviets' war plans called for exactly the same thing.

In the middle of the NATO exercise, Moscow flashed telegrams to its field offices erroneously reporting that the U.S. had placed its nuclear forces on alert and was preparing for a first strike. In the game of nuclear brinkmanship, escalating alerts only heighten the sense of fear and distrust on both sides. Though neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union actually wanted to attack the other, the confusion brought them nearly as close to World War III as they had come during the Cuban Missile Crisis two decade earlier. If the Soviets overreacted, the U.S. could have interpreted their moves as a sign of aggression and stood up its forces in response. This would, of course, only have validated the Soviets' original fear that the U.S. was indeed preparing to attack.

It's easy to see how such a situation could quickly spiral out of control. The fear and miscommunication on both sides could have led, ironically, to the one outcome that no one wanted. Fortunately, Soviet leaders kept their heads, and the crisis passed without incident.

The threat posed by nuclear weapons has a way of bringing out the worst fears in people. Because nuclear bombs are unimaginably dangerous, when policymakers have to deal with uncertainty in the nuclear realm they often resort to imagining the worst-case scenario. It makes sense; anything less could leave you unacceptably vulnerable, so it's best to prepare for the worst. But the episode from 1983 should stand as a warning that there is such a thing as being too suspicious, allowing fear to grow into paranoia in a way that can pose nearly as much of a threat as the warheads themselves.

The Soviet Union may be gone, but the U.S. once again faces the threat of confusion, miscommunication, and over-reaction as it responds to Iran's nuclear program. Iran is feared to be pursuing nuclear weapons, though, according to most intelligence assessments, has not decided to build them yet. Over the past couple of decades, the U.S. has made it abundantly clear that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be "unacceptable," and has taken a number of steps to prevent it. But in the course of constantly ratcheting up sanctions and penalties, a pattern has developed where the U.S. threatens to punish Iran if it doesn't change course, only to have Iran dig its heels in further. Iran's leaders refuse to bow to pressure, while the U.S. insists that it will find a way to break them eventually, whether it be through sanctions and isolation, or sabotage and cyber warfare.

This dynamic is a subtler version of the crisis escalation that played out in 1983 between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In today's case, Iran is building up its capability to develop nuclear weapons, but intelligence experts agree that as of right now it is only interested in having the option to build them in the future. That way, when Iran's leaders argue that it is unfair for the West to punish them since they do not currently intend to weaponize, they are sort of telling the truth. But the cycle of hostility that both sides have fallen into, where the West imposes sanctions and Iran responds to pressure with pressure of its own, carries real danger.

There is a possibility that Iran could become convinced that the U.S. plans to punish it no matter what it actually does in the nuclear realm. From Iran's viewpoint, it has made concessions in the past only to find itself the victim of yet further Western sanctions. When Iran inked a deal to turn over a large portion of its stockpile of enriched uranium last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced one day later that the U.S. was calling for another UN Security Council sanctions resolution. Clinton told the Senate, "I think this announcement is as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide." Iran sanctions often have a momentum of their own within the U.S. political system, at times blind to matters of timing, strategy, or even long-term consequences. Recently, that momentum has expanded the so-called "pressure track" to include deliberate acts of sabotage, cyber warfare, and even the apparent targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists.

If Iran thinks it will be punished regardless of its true intentions, then why wouldn't it build nuclear weapons? If Iran's clerics have not yet made up their minds about weaponization, Washington's apparently insatiable desire to punish Iran could be the thing that pushes them to build a bomb. This would be a tragedy for both sides; nuclear weapons would endanger rather than guarantee the regime's security, and though Washington would likely claim vindication in its suspicion of Iran's intentions, it would represent a major U.S. policy failures. Both sides would be to blame: Washington for its obsession with the pressure track and Iran for its belief that compromise shows weakness. But just as the U.S. and the Soviets almost came to blows in the 1980s, Iran and the West could end up with an outcome that neither one explicitly sought, all because of miscommunication and fear.

One contributing factor to the U.S.-Iran communication problem is the absence of formal diplomatic relations between the two sides. Without an official dialogue, the U.S. and Iran struggle to avoid miscommunication, deescalate crises, or build trust in the diplomatic relationship. U.S.-Iran relations extend little further than trading rhetorical barbs -- in much the same way that Reagan eschewed dealing with the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, often preferring speeches to summit meetings. Contrast this with the U.S.-China relationship, which consists of multiple nodes of direct contact through trade, finance, and exchanges, and it's easy to understand why few observers worry about a U.S.-China miscalculation or miscommunication spiraling out of control as happened with the Soviet Union in 1983. Yet the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs recently warned of just such a clash breaking out between the U.S. and Iran in the Persian Gulf.

The way things are going now, the above outcome, in which mutual misunderstanding leads Iran to believe its best course is to go nuclear, is highly predictable and, therefore, should be avoidable. Washington can't do much to convince Iran to make unilateral concessions, but it can tailor its own policies to account for Iran's predictable response. That means understanding the risks of a backlash when engaging in provocative actions like cyber warfare and sabotage, and making careful calculations about whether we stand to gain more from the policies we choose than the risk of it blowing up in our face.  The current policy of sanctions, sabotage, and assassinations is on course to hand Iran a pretext for building nuclear bombs, whether or not that was Tehran's plan all along.