Chirac has a transient dishonesty malfunction

Everyone’s now blogged about Jacques Chirac’s unexpected remarks about Iranian nuclear weapons.

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 Libération, 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.

2 thoughts on “Chirac has a transient dishonesty malfunction

  1. The Israel-as-an-extended-deterrer theory sounds overplayed. I think it’s too strong a statement to say that a hypothetical nuclear Iran would refrain from attacking Saudi Arabia for fear of Israeli retaliation. I might, however, be able to believe that a hypothetic nuclear Iran would refrain from attacking Egypt, for fear that Israel wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t aimed at them.

    The Israel-as-an-extended deterrer theory works at its best against potential nuclear powers: a state might refrain from developing nuclear weapons, for fear of pre-emptive (non-nuclear) Israeli action.

    In Iran’s case, however, the point remains that having the option to develop nuclear weapons remains a far more potent bargaining chip than actually having them would be. With a civilian (but readily weaponizable) nuclear program, their position remains ambiguous enough that it difficult to convince the world that something ought to be done about them. Meanwhile, they can saber-rattle the price of oil up almost as effectively as they could as an actual nuclear power.

  2. I think this is nonsense. If Israel having the bomb wasn’t sufficient motivation for the Saudis, Egypt, Syria, Jordan etc to get a bomb, its hard to see how Iran having it would be.

    And it’s true that one or two bombs are no good to bully the neighbours – they’d rightly believe you’d not launch them unless you’re desperate, for the reasons you cite. They are excellent though if you are in fact desperate and everyone knows it, so they are an effective deterrent against actual invasion.

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