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Striking Syria when the real danger is Iran

By Louis René Beres


As the world’s attention focuses on still-escalating tensions in Syria, Tehran marches complacently to nuclear weapons status, notably nonplussed and unhindered. When this long-looming strategic plateau is finally reached, most probably in the next two or three years, Israel and the United States will have lost any once-latent opportunities to act preemptively. Then, with an irrevocable atomic fait accompli on their hands, national leaders in Jerusalem and Washington will do whatever they still can to contain a new nuclear menace.

Once again, America has been focusing on the wrong national enemy. Yes, recent Syrian crimes against humanity are plainly egregious, and thus warrant prompt and suitable action. This obligation reflects a distinctly fundamental or “peremptory” rule of international law, one that has its roots in the Hebrew Bible and is reaffirmed in the binding Nuremberg principles of 1950: Nullum crimen sine poena (No crime without a punishment).

Indeed, in the absence of a UN Security Council that is ready and willing to inflict proportionate punishment upon Syria, the residual “Responsibility to Protect” falls upon certain remaining “great powers,” even if one of these states must act unilaterally. From the particular standpoint of the United States, this expectation is reinforced by Article 6 of the US Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”), which incorporates all authoritative treaty obligations into the national law of the United States, and also by assorted US Supreme Court decisions, especially the Paquete Habana (1900), which brings customary international law into US municipal law. In the specific matter of Syrian Assad regime use of chemical weapons against Syrian noncombatants, the United States is bound by the Geneva Protocol (1925); the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction (1997); and relevant customary international law, which now binds all states, even those that are not recorded parties to any of the pertinent treaties or conventions.

But this hierarchy of obligation only describes the jurisprudential or legal background of the crisis with Syria. It does not directly consider the more-or-less equally meaningful strategic or geopolitical issues. Significantly, in this latter connection, Washington seems yet to realize that Damascus is effectively a mere proxy or surrogate of the core leadership in Tehran. Waging any military operations against Syria alone, therefore, would fail to blunt the power and animosity of America’s most truly primary enemy in the region.

What if this power and animosity should result in a fully-nuclear Iran? What would Washington do next? Inevitably, perhaps in concert with Jerusalem or even other US allies, the United States would then attempt to institute a durable and dependable system of regional nuclear deterrence.

Map of the Middle East from the CIA World Factbook. Public domain via cia.gov.

Map of the Middle East from the CIA World Factbook. Public domain via cia.gov.

This possibly last-ditch security effort would likely be well-intentioned and indispensable. More precisely, in order to avoid a future of palpably measureless lamentations, Washington would then need to reconstruct certain earlier elements of “Mutual Assured Destruction.” MAD, of course, was the nuclear threat-based scheme that had successfully preserved a delicate superpower peace during the US-Soviet Cold War.

But this would not be your father’s Cold War. Could this more-or-less desperate final effort actually work? Could MAD, once again, produce genuine stability?

To be sure, it will seem odd to wax nostalgic about the original Cold War. In retrospect, that historic and protracted standoff between “two scorpions in a bottle” (Manhattan Project physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s famous metaphor) could seem relatively congenial and benign. During that time, essentially from 1949 to the end of the Soviet Union, two dominant national players had shared a conspicuously overriding commitment to stay “alive.” At that time, more than any other presumed obligation, both sides were prudentially disposed toward “coexistence.” Then, each side was predictably rational.

To work, any military system of deterrence must normally be premised on an assumption of rationality. This means that each side must believe the other will value its continued national survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences. In the Cold War era, this proved to be an indisputably reasonable and correct assumption.

Now, however, things are different. Now, we have several good reasons to doubt that a nuclear-endowed government in Tehran could maintain, over time, the same stable and necessary hierarchy of national preferences.

It is certainly possible that the principal decision-makers in Tehran would turn out to be rational – perhaps even just as rational as were the Soviets. There is, however, no way of knowing this for sure.

This brings up an unavoidable query, easily the most sobering question of all. What if nuclear deterrence were to fail specifically between Iran and Israel? What, exactly, would happen, if Tehran were to launch a nuclear attack against Israel, whether as an atomic “bolt from the blue,” or as a result of deliberate or inadvertent escalation? Reasons could include (1) incorrect information used in its vital decisional calculations; (2) mechanical, electronic, or computer malfunctions; (3) unauthorized decisions to fire, in the national decisional command authority; or (4) coup d’état.

None of this strategic scenario would even need to be considered if Iran could still be kept distant from nuclear weapons. Barring the very unlikely prospect of an eleventh-hour preemption against Iranian hard targets, however, it will become necessary to implement a broadly stable program for regional nuclear deterrence. Within this historically familiar threat system, one that has determined international power-management logic from the seventeenth-century Peace of Westphalia (1648) to the present, Israel might still be able to identify certain remaining deterrence options.

Of necessity, these options would pertain to both rational and irrational decision-makers in Tehran. By definition, irrational adversaries do not value their own national survival most highly. Nonetheless, they could still maintain a determinable and potentially manipulable ordering of preferences. Washington and Jerusalem, therefore, should promptly undertake a meticulous effort (1) to adequately anticipate this prospective ordering; and (2) to fashion deterrent threats accordingly. Future preference orderings would not be created in a vacuum. Assorted strategic developments could impact such orderings and become manifest in the form of certain game-changing “synergies,” or in more narrowly military parlance, as significant “force multipliers.”

One last observation here is critical, and brings us full circle, back to Syria. The preference orderings of a steadily nuclearizing Iran will also be impacted, especially in the short term, by whatever happens in Damascus. If an American missile strike is launched against certain hard targets of the al-Assad regime, President Barack Obama, however unintentionally, may also be declaring a de facto war against Iran. In such circumstances, Washington’s jurisprudential motives would not include a wider conflict, but any more plainly generous motives could prove to be irrelevant. Here, Tehran would almost certainly choose to accelerate the pace of its nuclear weapons program. In part, this acceleration would represent the result of an increased fear of becoming the object of (an American and/or Israeli) preemptive attack itself.

In the longer-term, Iran’s cumulative response to any American attacks on Syrian regime targets could trigger a reduced willingness to abide by the indispensable deterrence logic of Mutual Assured Destruction. It follows that any such American attacks, especially if they did not remain expectedly “tailored” or “limited,” could hasten the outbreak of a more-or-less region-wide war involving nuclear arms. Once again, this is not to suggest that a suitably proportionate American military response to Syria’s domestic use of chemical weapons would be inherently law-violating or inappropriate (as indicated here earlier, quite the contrary), but only that there might also be various unintended, yet distinctly substantial, nuclear consequences.

To the extent that the Lebanon-based Shiite militia group, Hezbollah, might become the beneficiary of any Iran-developed nuclear weapons — Hezbollah, after all, is a closely allied proxy of both Syria and Iran — such atomic consequences could include expanding regional and worldwide risks of nuclear terrorism. None of these potentially threatening possibilities will have been lost upon Vladimir Putin, who might well decide, in Russia’s considered response, to reinvigorate certain elements of the original Cold War. Ironically, should this happen, the more complex and intersecting effects of multiple state and sub-state participants could rapidly undermine any previously-expected deterrence benefits of Mutual Assured Destruction.

For the United States, and for Israel, Syria is not the real problem. Iran is the real problem. To be sure, launching certain proportionate attacks against Assad-regime military targets could conceivably be lawful or even law-enforcing, but such consciously “limited” operations could also represent an unwitting invitation to wider war, and ultimately to an Iranian acceleration of nuclear weapons-related activities.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Professor of International Law at Purdue. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is the author of many major books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. His most recent publication dealing with Syria, Israel, and the law of war, appears in the Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School (August, 2013). Ten years earlier, in Israel, Professor Beres served as Chair of Project Daniel (2003). Professor Beres is a frequent contributor to OUPblog.

If you’re interested in Middle Eastern politics, The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics, edited by John L. Esposito and Emad El-Din Shahin provides a comprehensive analysis of what we know and where we are in the study of political Islam. It enables scholars, students, and policymakers to understand the interaction of Islam and politics and the multiple and diverse roles of Islamic movements, as well as issues of authoritarianism and democratization, religious extremism and terrorism regionally and globally.

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2 Responses to “Striking Syria when the real danger is Iran”
  1. [...] Louis René Beres at the OUP blog argues that the crisis is serving as a distraction from the real danger in the Middle East: Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Taking a slightly different angle, Wyn [...]

  2. Michael says:

    Prof. Bere’s argument is exactly correct. However, I am fully convinced that Iran already has a nuclear weapon despite the US government’s believe to the contrary. The mullahs are capable of infinite duplicity and play us for fools anyway just for the hell of it.

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