Miscalculating Nuclear Deterrence in the Middle East: Why Kenneth Waltz Gets It Wrong

Photo by European External Action Service

Photo by European External Action Service/Flickr |

This article was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 1 |

By Roslyn Warren |

In his Foreign Affairs article, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” Kenneth Waltz suggests that a nuclear-armed Iran is nothing to fear. Indeed, he goes so far as to claim that Iran’s membership in the nuclear club will actually increase stability in the Middle East. However, Waltz misses an essential point: nuclear deterrence does not rule out the potential for conventional escalation, which can destabilize regions in unpredictable and potentially catastrophic ways. When it comes to nuclear-armed adversaries, the outbreak of “full-scale war”[1] cannot be the only definition of instability. Tense relations between nuclear-armed foes, be they offensive posturing or limited conventional conflict, create opportunities for miscalculation and escalation to the nuclear level.

A closer examination of relations between India and Pakistan reveals that nuclear weapons embolden revisionist nuclear states – i.e., states dissatisfied with the existing regional balance of power – and raises the propensity for and incidence of conventional conflict. Taking Pakistan as a model, a weaponized Iran, believing it has a significant deterrent capability, will, at a minimum, increasingly antagonize Israel without fear of nuclear reprisal. Another, more frightening, side effect of Iranian weaponization runs contrary to Waltz’s deterrence model: Both Israel and Iran could each believe a preemptive strike lay in its favor. For these reasons, Waltz’s assertion that a nuclear Iran will increase stability in the Middle East is wrong.

Waltzian neorealists claim that states are rational actors seeking, above all, security within an anarchical international system. States maximize their own security by attempting to balance their power against the status quo power; i.e., a state content with the existing, regional balance of power. Security imbalances spur instability. For Waltz, such is currently the case in the Middle East. Because of Israel’s nuclear dominance, it can project undeterred hostility towards its neighbors.[2] The defensive realist remedy for this type of instability is nuclear balance. Waltz suggests that, “By reducing imbalances in military power, new nuclear states generally produce more regional and international stability, not less.”[3] Given that all states are rational actors seeking to maximize their relative security, Waltz argues that fear of nuclear reprisal vis-à-vis a second-strike capability acts as a sufficient deterrent between two nuclear-armed adversaries.[4]  Hence, if Iran developed nuclear weapons, relations between the two most powerful actors in the Middle East would become more stable.

In contrast, many nuclear proliferation experts use the stability-instability paradox to explain how regions with rival nuclear powers become increasingly unstable. The stability-instability paradox posits that two nuclear-armed, adversarial states, believing that neither will initiate a nuclear strike, can and will increasingly engage in offensive posturing and limited conflict with one another.[5] The newly-weaponized, revisionist state – for example, Pakistan or potentially Iran – feels emboldened, and more freely resorts to adventurism in the form of enhanced offensive posturing, increasing low-level conflict, and perhaps stronger support for terrorists.  On the other hand, the status quo state – India or Israel in these cases – perceives its freedom of action constrained by its adversary’s new status.[6] Instability at the conventional level in the form of more pronounced aggressive posturing and/or limited conflict heightens tensions between major regional powers, and leaves the door open for escalation and miscalculation at the nuclear level.

For Waltz, India and Pakistan prove his point: These two nuclear-armed adversaries have not launched a nuclear war against one another because they fear a reciprocal strike, thereby balancing each other and stabilizing their relations. However, Waltz’s analysis only explains why India and Pakistan have not yet launched a calculated nuclear attack against one another. He fails to consider how tensions across the conflict spectrum have increased since India and Pakistan both weaponized, which could inadvertently escalate to the nuclear level.

Flashpoints between India and Pakistan highlight the stability-instability paradox clearly. S. Paul Kapur reveals how Pakistan’s weaponization has “encouraged aggressive Pakistani behavior,” whereby it can challenge India “without fearing catastrophic Indian retaliation.”[7] In the Kashmir crisis, Pakistan supported a violent insurgency in Kashmir and the Indian state of Jammu.  While the extent to which Pakistan involved itself in the initial fighting remains unclear, Pakistani forces did engage in their “largest-ever peacetime military exercise” and announced a strategic shift to a “policy of offensive defense” in relations with India.[8] Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto acknowledged, “Nuclear weapons ‘came out’ as an important tool in that struggle,” allowing Pakistan to “provide extensive support for ‘a low-scale insurgency’…while insulat[ing it] from a full-scale Indian response.”[9]

Similarly, in the Kargil crisis, the Pakistani military “marshaled a substantial body of forces” and crossed the Line of Control (the military border between the Indian and Pakistani-controlled parts of the disputed region), resulting in Indian air and ground mobilization and significant casualties on both sides.[10] Sumit Ganguly explains, “Absent nuclear weapons, Pakistan would not have undertaken the…misadventure.”[11] Relations between India and Pakistan reveal that weaponization emboldens revisionist nuclear states and raises the propensity for conventional conflict.

While exhibiting nuclear restraint in both of these situations, India has made “aggressive changes” to its “conventional military posture.”[12] India’s new Cold Start doctrine, for example, “enable[s] India to rapidly launch a large-scale attack against Pakistan.”[13] Responding to this, the director-general of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), illustrates how conventional instability can escalate to the nuclear level: Cold Start “is destabilizing; it is meant to circumvent nuclear deterrence […]. If it becomes too threatening we [Pakistan] will have to rely on our nuclear capability.”[14] While the line at which Pakistan would employ nuclear weapons remains unclear, this statement suggests that Pakistan’s strategic calculations in responding to conventional conflicts with India now include a nuclear contingency plan. Equally disconcerting, Indian officials believe they can “calibrate” their actions relative to Pakistan’s tolerance, “stopping short of Pakistan’s strategic nuclear thresholds.”[15] Erroneously appraising another country’s red lines could have catastrophic effects, leading to unintended drastic escalation.[16] The India-Pakistan relationship displays how the stability-instability paradox subjects the region to escalation and miscalculation on a nuclear scale.

The stability-instability paradox also holds true for the Israel-Iran case. Colin Kahl, Melissa Dalton, and Matthew Irvine point out that a nuclear-armed Iran could stir regional conflict, producing high-stakes miscalculations with “some inherent risk of inadvertent escalation to nuclear war.”[17] A Middle East where “conflict below the nuclear threshold seem[s] ‘safe’” will likely “encourage Iranian adventurism, reduce Israeli freedom of action, and increase aggressive actions by Iranian proxies.”[18] Geographic proximity and mutual distrust could lead “Israel and Iran [to] adopt ‘launch-on-warning’” doctrines for their nuclear arsenals, increasing the chances that “false warnings of an impending attack by one side” could unravel into an “accidental nuclear war.”[19]

When it comes to a weaponized Iran, Waltz’s contention fails to follow its own rational deterrence logic. In this scenario, it is not fear of a second strike that deters Israel and Iran, but vulnerability to a first strike that could lead one side or the other to initiate a nuclear attack. Kahl notes, “Reciprocal fears of surprise attack could produce incentives for either side to launch a deliberate pre-emptive attack.”[20] Israel, with its nuclear superiority, fearing a nuclear-armed Iran, could seek to annihilate Iran’s small arsenal by initiating a first strike. Even if Iran only feared an Israeli conventional attack, Iran’s nascent nuclear arsenal, extremely vulnerable to an Israeli strike, could generate an Iranian “use them or lose them” sentiment, where Iran could also calculate that a first strike lay in its favor.[21] This would leave two nuclear-armed adversaries without diplomatic relations living in close proximity to one another, both feeling vulnerable and potentially believing a first strike could work to its advantage.[22] In the Middle East, even the prospect of a weaponized Iran heightens the potential for conflict to escalate to nuclear levels.

While no one can know with certainty what the regional security environment will look like if Iran joins the nuclear club, one thing is certain: nuclear weapons sustain the possibility of nuclear war. The Waltzian deterrence model may hold true in a Cold War retrospective, but unintended accidents and escalation are still possible. When adversarial states both possess a nuclear second-strike capability, relative security gains cannot be achieved at the nuclear level. Waltz concedes that because states seek to maximize their relative security, nuclear states may choose to develop a massive conventional weapons arsenal as well. In this way, even Waltz acknowledges the paradoxical nature of nuclear weapons, admitting heightened aggression and limited war is possible even when both states are nuclear-armed.[23]

As demonstrated by the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons generate increasingly aggressive behavior, creating greater opportunities for conflict, not fewer. A likely scenario between Israel and a nuclear Iran involves increased low-intensity conflict where low-level skirmishes could lead to unintended escalation or accidental nuclear detonation. At worst, nuclear-armed foes could decide that a first strike is worth the risk.

Ms. Warren is an M.A. candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

[1] Kenneth N.  Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability.”  Foreign Affairs 91.2 (2012), 2-5.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Peter R.  Lavoy, “The Strategic Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: A Review Essay,” Security Studies 4.4 (1995), 695-753.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Lecture, Professor Colin Kahl, 24 Sept. 2012.
[7] S. Paul Kapur, “Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia,” International Security 33.2 (2008), 71-94.
[8] Sumit Ganguly, “Nuclear Stability in South Asia,” International Security 33.2 (2008): 45-70.
[9] Kapur, “Ten Years of Instability,” 71-94.
[10] Ganguly, “Nuclear Stability in South Asia,” 45-70.
[11] Kapur, “Ten Years of Instability,” 71-94.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Lecture, Professor Colin Kahl, 24 Sept. 2012.
[17] Colin H. Kahl, Melissa G. Dalton, and Matthew Irvine, “Risk and Rivalry: Iran, Israel and the Bomb,” (Center for a New American Security, 2012).
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Lecture, Professor Colin Kahl, 24 Sept. 2012.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Peter R. Lavoy, “The Strategic Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: A Review Essay,” Security Studies4.4 (1995), 695-753.

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