U.S. extended deterrence security guarantees not enough to assuage Arab allies or contain Iran
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Yet a strategy rooted in extended deterrence could prove far more challenging and far less effective than most analysts and policymakers recognize. Its proponents tend to draw heavily on the experience of the Cold War, but this parallel oversimplifies the problems that the United States would face if nuclear proliferation occurred in the Middle East. Throughout the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, the United States and the allies under its nuclear umbrella were not only aligned against a single overriding threat; they also had few serious security challenges among themselves, particularly as the rivalry between France and Germany dissipated in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, most Middle Eastern states view Iran as a threat, but their own relations remain tense, and in some cases even hostile. These cross-cutting rivalries could complicate U.S. efforts to establish an effective extended deterrence regime in the region, particularly if Washington pledged to defend both Israel and several Arab states.
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Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress might be reluctant to formally endorse a pledge to defend Arab nations, in particular given the resentment toward the United States that exists in many of these countries. Even informal public guarantees could generate significant opposition in Congress. And private commitments are unlikely to be effective, because unlike with public declarations, Washington would not be putting its reputation on the line. Another difference between the Soviet Union and a nuclear-armed Iran is that in most instances with Iran, the United States would not have the option of using significant forward-based forces as a tripwire and so would lack a way to signal its willingness to retaliate after any attack against its partners in the Middle East. Many of those governments would not welcome the presence of U.S. troops because they are reluctant to be perceived by their domestic audiences as U.S. protectorates unable to defend themselves.
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Other serious questions surround the credibility of a U.S. extended deterrence regime. First and foremost, Washington would be issuing a guarantee despite having failed to halt Iran's nuclear program -- after three successive U.S. presidents declared that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a major threat to U.S. security and to stability in the Middle East. Managing the balance of terror during the Cold War may have required "thinking the unthinkable," but for many, the United States' failure to halt Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability would be "accepting the unacceptable." If the United States cannot prevent a conventionally armed Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, its partners in the Middle East will almost certainly question its willingness to stand up to a nuclear-armed Iran.
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Moreover, if the United States fulfills its obligations under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the plans in the Nuclear Posture Review to further reduce its nuclear force and refrain from developing any new warheads, its nuclear arsenal will be shrinking just as its security commitments are expanding substantially. The United States has traditionally adapted the size and the composition of its nuclear arsenal according to the Soviet Union's (and later Russia's) force. Now, however, it must be able to deter attacks against its territory by several countries: Russia, still, as well as China, North Korea, and perhaps soon Iran. And it must also deter attacks against the many states under its nuclear umbrella, including the more than two dozen NATO members in Europe and its allies in Asia, such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea. As the U.S. arsenal decreases, Washington will have fewer weapons to support these commitments, which will raise questions about its ability and its willingness to defend its allies and its partners if they are threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran. Because the United States has thus far chosen not to design a new generation of nuclear weapons, its remaining inventory will consist primarily of high-yield warheads designed to target large cities and civilian populations. This may create the perception among both its allies and its adversaries that the United States is self-deterred -- that it will not be willing to employ nuclear weapons in retaliation for an attack on one of its partners because of the enormous collateral damage and high number of civilian casualties that would result.
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Finally, the United States would confront a fundamental dilemma as it attempted to contain a nuclear-armed Iran: the Iranian actions that are the easiest to deter, namely, a deliberate conventional or nuclear attack, are the least likely forms of Iranian aggression, whereas Iran's most likely forms of aggression, in particular support for terrorism and subversion, are the most difficult to deter. Middle Eastern states take these lower-level threats very seriously, but because such threats are difficult to attribute and inflict less damage than a nuclear or a conventional attack, any promise the United States makes to retaliate forcefully, with nuclear weapons or not, is unlikely to be viewed as credible, either in Tehran or among U.S. allies.
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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.