But I think there may still be some angular momentum to be had. Chirac stated that, should a hypothetically nuclear Iran launch a nuclear weapon, Tehran would be destroyed before it had gone 200 metres. This is a pretty basic statement of nuclear deterrence, with the further point that in a sense, having one or two nuclear bombs makes you weaker than having zero nuclear bombs but the capacity to make them. Once you fire the one bomb, you have no further deterrent, and you’re definitely going to be nuked.
Quite a range of powers have credible deterrence against Iran – there’s the US, obviously, Israel, obviously, but less obviously France, Britain, Russia, India, China, and Pakistan. So, Chirac argued, the real danger wasn’t so much from a North Korean-style couple of bombs, but that this would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt also rushing to obtain nukes as a counterdeterrent. (In yesterday’s LibÃ©ration, Francois Heisbourg, the director of the IISS, restates this point adding Jordan to the list of presumed possible proliferators.)
He was of course right. Saudi Arabia has been quietly and consistently making noises about nuclear bombs for years, and it has close military-to-military ties with Pakistan. Some say Saudi money financed the Pakistani bomb project, and alone among nations they are in a position to actually buy the bomb. Egypt would probably see a Saudi bomb as unacceptable, and start using its own considerable scientific-technical establishment to work on going nuclear. (Chirac saw this differently – he suggested rather that the Saudis would finance Egyptian efforts – but I doubt this due to the historic competition for Arab leadership between the two states, and the Pakistani option.) Gah.
Dan Nexon argues that Chirac might be wrong due to the Schelling critique of extended deterrence, which argues that threatening to use nuclear weapons to defend an ally is always less credible than threatening to use them in self-defence. I’m not sure this is applicable. Israeli strategic security doesn’t rest primarily on US extended deterrence, but on its own nuclear capability. Or does he imply that other states in the Middle East might effectively free-ride on Israeli deterrence? It’s a fascinating suggestion, if very counterintuitive indeed.
But it isn’t actually as weird as it sounds – the Israelis cannot really isolate themselves to the degree that an Iranian nuclear threat to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Iraq or whereever could be ignored. Quite a lot of the intelligence profile of such a threat would be identical with one against Israel, so anyone making such a threat would be running a gigantic risk. It might even be true to say that Israeli paranoia means that such an implicit guarantee to states Israel despises is actually quite credible.
Discussing the problem leads some way towards what might be needed in the form of security guarantees for a diplomatic solution. Clearly, the possibility of an unrequited nuclear attack must be eliminated, so that other states in the Middle East must have a guarantee. To prevent abuse of the guarantee, through the “security-insecurity paradox”, you come to an agreement not to adjust frontiers except by mutual consent.
But why did Chirac retract? It’s reminiscent of Churchill’s crack about Suez that he would “never have dared start it, and if I had, I’d never have dared stop!” I find it hard to imagine that he is that wedded to the dominant discourse on Iran, and therefore conclude that it was the tone of reporting on it that shocked his media advisers.