How a Nuclear War Would Start in the Middle East

How would a nuclear exchange in the Middle East come to pass?

There is always a chance, of course, that the mullahs in Tehran would decide, while sitting around one day cursing the Jews, that since they now have a nuclear weapon, why not just drop it on Israel and be done with it? I've always believed that, all things being equal, it would be better to see atheists in charge of nuclear weapons, rather than religious fundamentalists. Men who profess belief in the glories of the afterlife might not mind their own nuclear obliteration quite as much as I would like. And it is also true that the Iranian regime is rhetorically genocidal, describing Israel, and Jews, in Hitlerian terms: as cancer and tumors in need of eradication.

But the mullahs are also men interested in keeping hold of temporal power, and it seems unlikely that they would immediately deploy their weapons against the Jewish state. But, as I point out in my Bloomberg View column this week, it might not matter. Put aside all the other good reasons the current Iranian leadership shouldn't be considered appropriate stewards of nuclear weapons. The main threat posed by a nuclear Iran is that, based on its past behavior -- and assuming it will be even more adventurous and provocative once it has gone nuclear -- it will almost inevitably trigger a crisis that will escalate into a nuclear confrontation with Israel:

The experts who study this depressing issue seem to agree that a Middle East in which Iran has four or five nuclear weapons would be dangerously unstable and prone to warp-speed escalation.

Here's one possible scenario for the not-so-distant future: Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese proxy, launches a cross-border attack into Israel, or kills a sizable number of Israeli civilians with conventional rockets. Israel responds by invading southern Lebanon, and promises, as it has in the past, to destroy Hezbollah. Iran, coming to the defense of its proxy, warns Israel to cease hostilities, and leaves open the question of what it will do if Israel refuses to heed its demand.

Dennis Ross, who until recently served as President Barack Obama's Iran point man on the National Security Council, notes Hezbollah's political importance to Tehran. "The only place to which the Iranian government successfully exported the revolution is to Hezbollah in Lebanon," Ross told me. "If it looks as if the Israelis are going to destroy Hezbollah, you can see Iran threatening Israel, and they begin to change the readiness of their forces. This could set in motion a chain of events that would be like 'Guns of August' on steroids."
Imagine that Israel detects a mobilization of Iran's rocket force or the sudden movement of mobile missile launchers. Does Israel assume the Iranians are bluffing, or that they are not? And would Israel have time to figure this out? Or imagine the opposite: Might Iran, which will have no second-strike capability for many years -- that is, no reserve of nuclear weapons to respond with in an exchange -- feel compelled to attack Israel first, knowing that it has no second chance?

The nuclear experts I respect most, including Bruce Blair, of Global Zero, and David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security, both call a Middle East in which Iran possesses a small number of nuclear weapons a dangerously unstable place. Here is what Albright told me Monday about Iran's particular challenges in an escalating confrontation -- the no second-strike conundrum: "In a crisis, you don't want to go first, but you don't want to go second, either. It ends up in an unstable situation. Miscalculations can result in nuclear weapons being used. Iran may feel it doesn't have second-strike capability and so would, in an escalating crisis, feel it has to use what it has first." Iran, he explained, will be hampered, for many years after it crosses the nuclear threshold (assuming it is allowed to cross), by a small arsenal of comparatively modest bombs.

"Our estimate of their warhead design, based on internal documentation fromĀ  the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) is that they would be building low-yield fission weapons of a few kilotons each" -- "Fat Man," dropped on Nagasaki, was roughly a 20-kiloton bomb -- "because they're forced to miniaturize to make it smaller for delivery," Albright said.

The Israelis, on the other hand, have a much larger arsenal than the Iranians could hope for for many years, and much more varied and sophisticated delivery systems. It is, from any angle, a hellish problem. Albright believes that the Middle East with a nuclearized Iran (and a nuclearized Israel, and, presumably, Iran's regional adversaries, including Saudi Arabia, seeking their own nuclear weapons) would be much more unstable than South Asia. "The governments of Pakistan and India don't necessarily see each other as mortal enemies. The relationship between Israel and Iran would be worse."

So, what to do? Not attack. There's plenty of time for war. Right now, the focus should be on convincing Iran, through sanctions, and a promise, if it gives up its nuclear ambitions, to rejoin the international community. Will this work? Probably not, but it has to be pursued. Here's Bruce Blair on the efficacy of a preemptive attack: "The liabilities of preemptive attack on Iran's nuclear program vastly outweigh the benefits. But certainly Iran's program must be stopped before it reaches fruition with a nuclear weapons delivery capability." I would argue that it needs to be stopped before delivery systems are in place. The chance is small, but not vanishingly so, that an Iranian nuclear weapon could be delivered by sea or land, not by air.