Extended Deterrence in the Middle East
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It appears that the regional states’ deterrence policies toward Iran, backed by the informal commitments (and, in some cases, presence) of the United States, are effective. Iran’s attempts to threaten regional states with its conventional military are effectively deterred, either by the conventional capabilities of regional states, as in the Israeli case, or by the security assurances provided by the United States. To illustrate the efficacy of these deterrence policies, by 2012, Iran ceased its threats to close the Straits of Hormuz after the United States moved its ships and later its aircraft into the Persian Gulf.
In this context, it is important to draw a distinction between US deterrence posture, and US readiness to initiate offensive military action in new theaters of conflict. With the enormous costs of the involvement in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the United States is not eager to initiate additional military entanglements. However, should Iran make significant, aggressive moves against US allies and vital US interests, the United States would almost certainly react with a direct military response. Under these circumstances, US deterrence policy appears credible.
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Egypt, which has no common border with Iran or territorial proximity to it, most likely does not perceive the same kind of threat.6 Its concern is not about the possibility of a direct nuclear threat (explicit or implicit), but rather an assessment that a nuclear Iran might increase its regional political influence. It is instructive to compare this with Egypt’s attitude towards Israel’s nuclear capability. Before the 1979 peace treaty between the two states, Egypt viewed the Israeli nuclear capability as a possible military threat. This concern gradually diminished, yet Egypt maintained its strong and persistent opposition because it viewed the nuclear arsenal as an additional component in Israel’s suspected*and resented*regional political ambitions.7 It is doubtful, however, that the concern about the political advantages Iran might gain through a nuclear weapons capability would provide sufficient motivation for Egypt to seek further American military guarantees. Nonetheless, Cairo would likely welcome a stronger US defense commitment to the GCC states designed to deter Iranian dominance in the region.
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Among the Gulf states, the only one that could conceivably choose either of these alternatives is Saudi Arabia. Thanks to its long and close relationship with nuclear- capable Pakistan, Saudi Arabia might be able to develop a nuclear capability with Pakistan’s active support. However, barring the direct transfer of the weapons themselves, this is an option with many obstacles; the development of a nuclear infrastructure is difficult and time-consuming. Moreover, Saudi Arabia lacks the scientific manpower to develop and maintain such infrastructure. It might take at least a full decade before such a project could materialize, if at all.8 Iran, which has a strong group of nuclear scientists and engineers, has required more than a decade to develop its enriched uranium project, even with significant assistance from the A.Q. Khan network. All of this might lead Saudi Arabia to prefer formal guarantees, including strong extended deterrence commitments, from the United States. (However, public opposition to closer overt military relations with the United States might lead the Saudi regime to seek only low-visibility US commitments.) Hints that Saudi Arabia would seek a nuclear weapons capability could either be interpreted as valid indications of intent, or as an effort to apply pressure on the United States to act against Iran. Either way, because of the difficulties associated with developing a nuclear capability, Saudi Arabia would likely need a US defense guarantee, and the US would most probably oppose an independent Saudi nuclear deterrent.9
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For a variety of reasons*political, technological, cognitive*the context from which the US-Soviet model of deterrence emerged is very different from a possible Israeli-Iranian nuclear relationship. To name just a few: stable deterrence was achieved only after a long period of learning about the nature of nuclear weapons, during which major crises occurred (most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis) with a high risk of escalation to the nuclear level. The two superpowers maintained open channels of communication. Indeed, even before the establishment of the nuclear hotline in 1963, there were full diplomatic relationships between them that enabled them to manage their crises. Their regimes were stable, both deployed significant second-strike capabilities, and over time they developed extensive and credible early warning systems. Moreover, beginning in the early 1960s, the two superpowers embarked on a process of arms control negotiations and agreements that increased the stability of their strategic relationship. All of these elements are absent from the Israeli-Iranian relationship and would take time to develop, perhaps only after severe regional conflicts. Iran lacks a credible command and control system, a fact that would likely arouse anxieties in Israel. The regime in Tehran is unstable. The process of ‘‘learning’’ and ‘‘socialization’’ with regard to nuclear weapons would take a long period of time, and there are serious cognitive obstacles that might hamper rational decisions in times of crisis, such as the possibility of misperceiving the other side’s readiness to launch a first strike.