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After The Abraham Accords: Nuclear Deterrence And Nuclear War In The Middle East

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Though the Trump-brokered Abraham Agreements[1] with selected Sunni Arab states might first appear sensible, there is actually little here to celebrate. In essence, these Agreements exhibit little more than just another self-serving contrivance of America’s former president. At best, these Agreements codify variously harmonious diplomatic relations between states that were never genuine adversaries. At worst, they further compromise Israel’s existential safety vis-à-vis Iran, a security diminution already exacerbated by Donald Trump’s May 8, 2018 withdrawal of the United States from JCPOA pact obligations.[2]

               Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian, “I believe  because it is absurd.” The JCPOA did exhibit substantial shortcomings as a prospective corrective to Iranian nuclearization, but this did not mean that Israel or the United States would necessarily fare better after America’s unilateral abrogation. In these earlier Trump policies contra Iran, the president’s conspicuous illogic was “impeccable.” In aptly philosophical terms, such illogic was exactly what one ought to have expected from a president guided not by reason, but by “mass.”

               The “mass man,” says 20th century Spanish thinker Jose Ortega y’Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930), “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.” Donald J. Trump was Ortega’s “mass man” par excellence. On matters of national and international security, he learned only “in his own flesh.”[3]

               For Israel, it is high time for candor. Not many thinking Israelis will sleep better by presuming that, “post-Abraham,” they are less subject to aggressions from Morocco, Bahrain, Sudan and/or the United Arab Emirates. What should authentically disturb their sleep, however, is the sorely realistic prospect of still-deteriorating Israeli relations with Iran.

               As long as Israel’s Iranian adversary continues to nuclearize – a scenario that has not been rendered any less worrisome by the Abraham Accords – these Trump-fostered agreements must figure as a net-negative. These public-relations based Agreements have not only failed to reduce mutually belligerent sentiments between Jerusalem and Tehran, they have also had the effect of further marginalizing Iran. When the Shiite Islamic Republic feels more and more apprehensive about the new US-brokered alignments between a “composite” foe  – a prospective “super-enemy” comprised of Israel and certain Sunni Arab states – it could more likely consider various strategies of preemption.

               Always, the core struggle is intellectual. What sort of dialectical thinking can we expect on both sides?[4] Among other things, the likelihood of any such destabilizing decision would depend upon Tehran’s simultaneous assessment of aggressive enemy intentions and Sunni enemy state nuclearization. In those circumstances wherein the “whole” result of any worrisome military intersection would appear greater than the sum of all “parts,” the pertinent relationship would seemingly be synergistic.

               The attendant risks to Israel here would be additive to the previously-mentioned synergy obtaining between US JCOPOA withdrawal and US brokered Abraham Accords.

Understanding Analytic Background

               Always, there must be a suitable analytic background for correctly understanding such Agreements and their multiple implications.[5] Cicero’s epigraph to Emmerich de Vattel’s foundational work of international law, The Law of Nations, or the Principles of Natural Law (1758), offers a good place to  begin:  “…there is nothing on earth more acceptable to the Supreme Deity who rules over this whole world than the councils and assemblages of men bound together by law, which are called States.”[6] This classic observation remains significant for at least two compelling reasons: The statement (1) underscores critically primary connections between international law and natural law;[7] and (2) overstates the civilizational benefits of a nation-centric world politics.[8]

               Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the people of earth have countenanced a geopolitical system based on competitive power politics, belligerent nationalism and endless conflict. This corrosive system of Realpolitik was formally transformed into authoritative law by this landmark treaty.[9] When Realpolitik is joined with a world of proliferating nuclear weapons, the risks of remaining on a seventeenth-century course of international relations exceed all conceivable benefits.

               For relevant political leaders, there is much to learn. The Westphalian peace which put an end to the Thirty Years’ War (the last of the major religious wars sparked by the Protestant Reformation) acknowledged a world system that lacked any loci of central governance. This unstable condition of structural anarchystill stands in marked contrast to any neatly sanitizing or falsely reassuring assumption of solidarity between states.

               Such a “peremptory” expectation (known formally in international law as a jus cogens assumption)[10] was already been mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis(533 C.E.); in Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625);and most plainly of all, in Emmerich De Vattel, The Law of Nations, or The Principles of Natural Law (1758).

               Vattel’s “first principle” of the Law of Nations is the mutual independence and dependence of sovereign states. Though “foreign nations have no right to interfere in the government of an independent state….” (II, sec. 57), these states are “bound mutually to promote the society of the human race…” and, correspondingly, “owe one another all the duties which the safety and welfare of that society require.” In brief, as Vattel clarifies in his Introduction: “What one man owes to other men, one Nation, in its turn, owes to other Nations.”[11]

Paths to a Nuclear War in the Middle East Involving Israel

               Before appropriately legal remedies can be identified and assessed, one key question needs to be asked: How, more-or-less exactly, might Israel ultimately find itself in some configuration or other of an actual nuclear war?[12] What, with still greater exactitude, are the more-or-less identifiable circumstances under which Israel could sometime discover itself involved (whether wittingly or unwittingly) with belligerent nuclear weapons use? To meaningfully answer these complex questions, capable analysts must integrate the expressly strategic aspects of their necessary investigations with the jurisprudential.[13]

               There can be no credibly successful ways of managing the latter without also understanding and applying the former.

               For the moment, all such concerns could appear extraneous, gratuitous or simply without useful foundation. Israel, after all, remains the only presumptive nuclear weapons state in the region. Nonetheless, certain still malleable order-of-battle considerations could change quickly and unexpectedly, perhaps even, from moment to moment.[14] In the always unpredictable Middle East, this “fluidity” is most specifically plausible in regard to future aggressions[15] from Iran.[16]

               Iran will not be easily deflected from its seemingly long-term nuclear ambitions. On the contrary, the implicit existential threat of the Abraham Accords will prod even more accelerated patterns of nuclearization. All things considered, Tehran’s confirmable membership in the Nuclear Club now appears more than likely within just the next several years. This “membership” is reasonable to expect following former US President Trump’s unilateral JCPOA withdrawal.[17]

Israeli Nuclear Deterrence and Non-Nuclear War

               Even in the absence of any actual Iranian nuclear adversary in the region,[18] the Jewish State could still find itself having to rely upon nuclear deterrence against certain biological and/or massive conventional threats.[19] Acknowledging such a prospectively existential reliance, the residual prospect of atomic weapons firings should never be ruled out prematurely or altogether.[20] In all cases, Israel’s nuclear strategy and forces must remain oriented toward successful deterrence; never to actual war fighting.[21] Already, with this in mind, Jerusalem has likely taken certain suitable steps to reject tactical or relatively low-yield “battlefield” nuclear weapons and any corresponding operational plans for counter-force targeting.

               For Israel, always and without exception, nuclear weapons can make sense only for deterrence ex ante; not for revenge ex post.[22]

               Contrary to conventional wisdom, both nuclear deterrence and associated forms of nuclear strategy, including preemption,[23] can possibly support the authoritative expectations of international law.[24] In the end, the adequacy of international law in preventing a nuclear war in the Middle East will depend upon much more than formal treaties, customs and “the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.”[25]  It will depend especially upon the success or failure of particular country strategies in the volatile region. If Israel’s nuclear strategy should successfully reduce the threat of nuclear war, either because of viable forms of nuclear deterrence or because of essential preemptive strikes,[26] this strategy could then be considered as an authentic component of international law enforcement.[27]

               Relevant threat scenarios should remind Israel of an always overriding need for applicable nuclear theory based upon coherent thought.[28] This core need would postulate a counter-value targeted nuclear retaliatory force that is recognizably secure from enemy first-strikes and is seemingly capable of penetrating an enemy state’s deployed active defenses. Inter alia, to best meet this imperative security expectation after the Abraham Accords and America’s JCPOA withdrawal, the IDF would be well-advised to continuously advance with its sea-basing (submarines) of designated portions of the country’s nuclear deterrent force.

               To satisfy the equally important and complex requirements of “penetration-capability,” Tel-Aviv will have to stay visibly well ahead of foreseeable enemy air defense refinements. All such recommendations, if duly followed, could convincingly enhance not only Israel’s national security, but, correspondingly, the more general prospects for nuclear war avoidance in the Middle East. “Everything is very simple in war,” says Clausewitz, in his classical discussion of “friction” in On War, “but the simplest thing is difficult.”[29]

Taking the Bomb out of the Basement

               Sooner rather than later, Jerusalem will need to consider a partial and possibly sequenced end to its historic policy of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.”[30] By selectively beginning to remove the “bomb” from its metaphoric “basement,” Israel’s national strategic planners would be better positioned to enhance the credibility of their country’s vital nuclear deterrence posture and the safety of the region. Any enhancements of Israel’s deterrent would effectively enhance the wider objectives of pertinent international law.

               In Israel’s strategic nuclear planning, would-be aggressors, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, must be systematically encouraged to believe that Jerusalem maintains the required willingness to launch measured nuclear forces in retaliation and that these nuclear forces are sufficiently invulnerable to any-contemplated first-strike attacks. Additionally, these enemies must be made to expect that Israel’s designated nuclear forces could reliably penetrate all their already-deployed ballistic-missile and related air defenses.

                Though perhaps counter-intuitive, Israel and also the wider region could benefit from Jerusalem releasing certain broad outlines of the country’s evolving strategic configurations. Without a prior and well-fashioned strategic doctrine, no such release could make sufficiently persuasive deterrent sense. At the same time, a too-pointed release could be interpreted as a too-explicit rejection of NPT (Nonproliferation Treaty) objectives –  a Treaty to which Israel is not a party (and is therefore not directly beholden by law), but which nonetheless is generally regarded as an authoritative regional nuclear “benchmark.”

                Selectively released Israeli nuclear information could support the perceived utility and security of Israel’s nuclear retaliatory forces. Once disclosed, it should center purposefully upon the targeting, hardening, dispersion, multiplication, basing, and yield of national ordnance. Under certain conditions, the credibility of Israeli nuclear deterrence could vary inversely with the perceived destructiveness of its relevant weapons.     

        Unsurprisingly, there will be many interrelated policy concerns, all with some measure or other of prospectively legal significance. One such concern underscores that Israel will need to prepare differently yet subtly for engagements with an expectedly rational nuclear adversary than for an expectedly irrational foe. In such variously nuanced and unprecedented circumstances, national decision-makers in Jerusalem would need to distinguish precisely and meaningfully between genuine enemy irrationality and feigned enemy irrationality.

               How should they be reasonably expected to make such highly imprecise distinctions? 

Judgments of Rationality and Irrationality

               In studies of world politics, rationality and irrationality have taken on variously specific meanings. An actor (state or sub-state) is determinedly rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. Conversely, an irrational actor might not always display such a determinable preference ordering. Apropos of the scientific limitations already discussed, ascertaining whether such an adversary (e.g., Iran) were rational or irrational could prove to be a distressingly inexact undertaking.[31]

               In actual practice, operationalizing these potentially indecipherable distinctions would present staggeringly complex intellectual challenges; they would need to take account, inter alia, of whether the scrutinized adversaries were (1) fully or partially sovereign states; (2) sub-national terrorist groups;[32] or (3) “hybrid” enemies comprised of assorted state and sub-state foes.[33] A subsidiary but still daunting task would be to ascertain the effective ratio of decision-making responsibilities among all hybridized foes.

               But how should this multi-layered assessment be carried out?

               In principle, at least, such a task might prove not just daunting, but literally impossible.

               At a minimum, this would not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted. To successfully preserve the nuclear “lid” in this volatile region, Joe Biden’s foreign policy will need to be rendered more coherent, predictable and law-oriented than was its predecessor. More precisely, the White House will need to better clarify its position on a Palestinian state, Iranian nuclearization and, reciprocally, on any prospective Sunni nuclear weapons preparations seemingly oriented toward deterring Shiite Iran.

               This last point could mean closely monitoring and eventually supporting or opposing certain increasingly plausible nuclearizing steps undertaken by Saudi Arabia and/or Egypt.

               Whatever calculable nuances will be encountered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (political leadership/IDF leadership), the only rational way for Israel to successfully meet these growing and overlapping challenges will be to stay well ahead of its adversaries through the inestimable powers of strategic erudition and qualitative scholarship. Already, in classical Greece and Macedonia, the linked arts of war and deterrence were being described by military planners as theoretic challenges of “mind over mind;” and not merely as crude ad hoc contests of “mind over matter.” For Israel and the wider Middle East, such ancient descriptions remain entirely valid today.[34]

               There is one further relevant observation concerning Israel’s nuclear strategy and American national security. Although analysts generally examine the foreseeable impact of US nuclear guidance upon Israel, it would be equally valid and important to consider the impact of Israel’s nuclear strategy upon US national security. In essence, though largely unrecognized, there is an ongoing and reciprocal connection between these two factors, a sort of continuous policy feedback-loop.  Going forward, this “loop” should more routinely be examined as a mutual and dynamic relationship than as merely a static and one-directional connection.

               One evident conclusion here must be that the suitability and durability of Israel’s nuclear strategy will impact not only the Middle East, legally as well as strategically, but also American security risks and benefits. To the extent that Israel’s nuclear strategic policies could have certain “spillover” effects for the United States, America would become the unintentional beneficiary of Israel’s own strategic scholarship and planning. It also follows that should Israel’s nuclear posture somehow fail to meet that country’s most urgent or existential security expectations, the derivative effect upon the United States would be correspondingly negative.[35]

               Simultaneously, this effect would concern appropriate international law.

America and New World Security Patterns

               Virtually any Israeli scholarship focused on nuclear war avoidance will be in response to certain world security configurations shaped by the United States. In this connection, Jerusalem will need to pay special attention to the growing importance of “Cold War II,”[36] an adversarial expansion between Washington and Moscow with more-or-less conspicuous manifestations and reverberations throughout the wider world. If, for example, geopolitical competition between the superpowers should become more tangibly war-oriented in Asia[37] –  most notably in regard to ongoing North Korean nuclearization – that could have determining effects upon Israel’s nuclear posture and a Middle Eastern nuclear war.

               Earlier, North Korea had helped Syria build a nuclear reactor, the same facility that was later destroyed by Israel in its Operation Orchard, on September 6, 2007. Although, unlike earlier Operation Opera, this preemptive attack, in the Deir ez-Zor region, was presumptively a second expression of the so-called “Begin Doctrine.” It also illustrated, because of its express North Korea connection, a much wider globalthreat to Israel .

               Deleterious effects would likely be most dramatic if there were to take place any genuine nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea, circumstances in which the nuclear war threshold had actually been crossed. Similar connections could obtain in the aftermath of an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange,[38] and would depend largely upon specific and still-ascertainable Russian/American alignments with either Delhi or Islamabad. In both of these prospective conflict dyads – US-North Korea and India-Pakistan – any expression of nuclear belligerence, however indirect, could immediately and gravely impact Israel’s nuclear strategy and any resultant regional security.

               For Israel, greater familiarity with certain jurisprudential principles could advance the nation’s legal as well as strategic obligations, most plainly those that William Blackstone had famously expressed in his Commentaries on the Law of England (Book 4 “Of Public Wrongs”): “Each state is expected, perpetually,” noted Blackstone, “to aid and enforce the law of nations, as part of the common law, by inflicting an adequate punishment upon the offenses against that universal law.”

                Such ideas don’t just “pop up” in a theoretic vacuum. Blackstone is ultimately indebted to Cicero’s antecedent description of natural law in The Republic: “True law is right reason, harmonious with nature, diffused among all, constant, eternal; a law which calls to duty by its commands and restrains from evil by its prohibitions….”

               “Just wars,” wrote Hugo Grotius, the unchallenged founder of modern international law, “arise from our love of the innocent.”[39] Now, however, it is plain, by definition, that a nuclear war could never be “just” and that certain earlier legal distinctions (e.g., just war vs. unjust war) must be continuously conformed to the ever-changing technologies of military destruction. The only sensible adaptation in this regard must be to acknowledge the persisting connections between international law and natural law, and then to oppose any retrograde movements by powerful nation states to undermine such acknowledgments.

               In the final analysis, to successfully prevent a nuclear war in the Middle East, it will be necessary to resist mightily any world system declensions toward further belligerent nationalism. Among other things, especially in the United States, this will require serious safeguards against another “mass man” as president. For the next four years at least, reassuringly, it does not appear that America need worry about another Trump-type strategic retrogression.

               There is more. Nuclear deterrence and conventional deterrence are never separate security postures. Always, these seemingly discrete protective strategies are structurally interrelated and mutually reinforcing .

                A nuclear attack or nuclear war in the Middle East is never quite out of the question; it is never a casually dismissible prospect, even if Israel should remain the only nuclear weapons state in the region. But how is this possible? The correct answer lies in the irremediably complex and deeply nuanced structure of nuclear warfare possibilities, in the Middle East especially, but also anywhere else that such conflict is logically possible.[40]

               A bellum atomicum could arrive in Israel not only as a “bolt-from-the-blue” enemy nuclear missile attack, but also as a result, intended or unwitting, of certain dynamic escalations. If, for example, particular Arab/Islamic states or Iran were to begin hostilities by launching “only” conventional attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem could then decide to respond, sooner or later, and foolishly or wisely, with precisely calculated and correspondingly graduated nuclear reprisals. Alternatively, if these enemy states were to commence conflict by releasing certain larger-scale conventional attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem’s own conventional reprisals could then be met, at least sometime in the future, with assorted enemy nuclear counterstrikes.

               In the past, Israeli conventional preemptions have figured importantly in presumptive resolution of nuclear threat possibilities. If it hadn’t been for Israel’s earlier defensive first-strike operations against Iraq and Syria (Operations Opera and Orchard,respectively), the Middle East would likely already have suffered certain critically destabilizing impacts of Arab/Islamist nuclear forces. Looking back upon these literally unprecedented examples of anticipatory self-defense, Israel effectively ensured that assorted terror groups (e.g., ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah) would not already have become nuclear.

               The generally unrecognized benefits of these extraordinary operations have impacted not only Israel, but also the United States and some of its allies.[41]

                The regional future, however, is rapidly apt to become substantially less secure. With a still aspirational nuclear Iran, certain derivative risks of nuclear terrorism could become increasingly intolerable.[42] Some of these newer risks might not stay reassuringly confined to the Middle East. Instead, in one form or other, they could “carry over” to certain scarcely well-protected American and/or European homelands.

               By maintaining a credible conventional deterrent, Israel could reasonably expect to reduce its exposure to eventual nuclear war fighting.[43] A fully persuasive Israeli non-nuclear deterrent, at least to the extent that it could reliably prevent enemy conventional attacks, might thereby lower the country’s overall risk of exposure to nuclear escalatory vulnerabilities. More precisely, and in the exquisitely arcane lexicon of dialectical nuclear strategy, Israel could reap meaningful security gains by always staying in conspicuously firm control of “escalation dominance.”[44]

               In such intra-crisis calculations, being “conspicuous” is always potentially very important.

               Meaningful security gains, moreover, could sometime turn out to have genuinely existential benefits.

               Still, a further prior question should now also be raised. Why, after all, should Israel require a conventional deterrent at all? Wouldn’t its presumed nuclear deterrent, taken by itself, and whether still ambiguous or more explicitly disclosed,[45] convincingly deter any and all state-generated aggressions? Wouldn’t all enemy states, at least those that were determinedly rational,[46] resist launching “merely” conventional attacks upon a presumptively nuclear Israel?

               This welcome reluctance would stem from a determinably well-founded fear of Israeli nuclear retaliations.

                The underlying “dialectic” here will need to be carefully charted and understood. Assuming that Israel would cross the specifically nuclear threshold only in highly unusual and existentially threatening circumstances, enemy states could remain convinced, rightly or wrongly, that as long as their own initial attacks were to stay entirely conventional, Israel’s “proportionate” response would remain similarly non-nuclear. This means, at least by reasonably calculated inference, but also by virtue of the documented history of Israel’s several wars, that the only way for the Jewish State to successfully deter a large-scale conventional war over time must be by maintaining large-scale, capable and reciprocally secure conventional forces.

               Certain noteworthy strategic possibilities now warrant special mention. Any rational Arab/Islamic enemy states considering first-strike attacks against Israel using chemical and/or biological weapons could take much more seriously Israel’s nuclear deterrent. This argument suggests, inter alia, that a strong conventional capability will still be needed by Israel to deter or preempt any anticipated conventional attacks, more-or-less plausible strikes that could quickly lead (perhaps via starkly unpredictable escalations) to some form or other of unconventional war.

               Inevitably, in seeking to continually reassess their own power positions, Israel’s enemies will strive to determine just how Jerusalem views its own conventional weapon opportunities and limitations. If Arab/Islamic enemy states did not perceive any Israeli sense of an expanding conventional force weakness, these states, animated by certain expectations of an Israeli unwillingness to escalate to nonconventional weapons, might then opt rationally to attack. The net result in this revealing scenario could include: (1) defeat of Israel in a conventional war; (2) defeat of Israel in an unconventional (chemical/biological/nuclear) war; (3) defeat of Israel in a combined conventional/unconventional war; or (4) defeat of Arab/Islamic enemy states by Israel in an unconventional war.

               Ironically for Israel, even the presumptively “successful” fourth possibility could prove catastrophic. This counter-intuitive conclusion should once again bring to mind the closely related and similarly counter-intuitive matter of Israel’s “bomb in the basement,” its deliberate nuclear ambiguity. In essence, the credibility of Israel’s still hidden or “opaque” nuclear deterrent must always depend on the perceived “usability” of its nuclear arsenal. Should Israel’s own nuclear weapons be regarded by pertinent prospective attackers as high-yield, indiscriminate, “city-busting” (counter-value) weapons, rather than minimal-yield, “war fighting” (counterforce)  ordnance, they might not meaningfully deter.[47]

               Conceivably, and contrary to virtually all prevailing conventional wisdom on the subject, successful Israeli nuclear deterrence could sometime vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. Going forward, this means that Israel’s indispensable nuclear deterrent will require not only recognizably secure second-strike forces, but also weapons that seemingly could be used effectively in “real war.” It also suggests that any continued Israeli policies of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” could encourage variously erroneous calculations by certain prospective attackers. On one occasion or another, such an out-of-date and unsystematic policy could significantly undermine Israel’s nuclear deterrent, perhaps irretrievably.

               In complex matters of Israeli nuclear deterrence, it must never be minimized that enemy perceptions will be determinative. Unintentionally, to be sure, by insistently keeping its nuclear doctrine and capacity in the “basement,” Israel could actually be contributing to a growing impression among regional enemies that its nuclear weapons are not operationally usable. In these sorely problematic circumstances, starkly recalcitrant enemies, now not-quite convinced of Israel’s alleged willingness to employ its nuclear weapons, might calculate the presumed cost-effectiveness of striking first themselves.

               Depending upon the particular circumstances, any such adversarial acceptance could be reluctant or enthusiastic, but with the same or similar outcomes for Israel.

               For Israel, any such adversarial presumptions could sometime prove “unacceptable.”

               There is more. A nuclear war would not respect political boundaries. Because of the particular manner in which nuclear explosions behave in the atmosphere, the altitude reached by a distinctive mushroom-shaped cloud would depend primarily upon tangible forces of the explosion. For yields in the low-kiloton range, this cloud would remain situated in the lower atmosphere. Its effects, therefore, would be almost entirely “local.” For those yields exceeding thirty kilotons, parts of the cloud of radioactive debris could “punch” into the stratosphere, thereby afflicting the launching state and certain noncombatant states together.[48]

               To best prevent a regional nuclear war, especially as Iran will likely continue to approach full and effectively irreversible membership in the “nuclear club,” Israel will need to field a dependable nuclear deterrent. At the same time, it cannot properly rely exclusively upon this one necessary basis of national security doctrine any more than it can depend solely upon conventional deterrence. It must depend, instead, upon increasingly complementary nuclear/conventional forces and doctrine, appropriately intersecting systems of anti-missile defenses, and even the residual availability of certain eleventh-hour preemption options.

               Even now, when the expected costs of any preemption against Iran could already be unacceptably high, Israel should not disavow absolutely all last-resort options for anticipatory self-defense. By definition, there might still be some eventually recognizable consequences of not-preempting that are expectedly greater than the foreseeable costs of a properly focused preemption.[49]

                In the volatile Middle East, strategic deterrence is a “game” that sane national leaders may sometime have to play, but it ought always be a game of strategy, not merely one of chance. In Jerusalem, this means, among other things, a continuing willingness to respect the full range of relevant doctrinal complexity – both its own military doctrines, and those of its pertinent enemies – and a willingness to forge ahead with appropriate and reciprocally complex security policies. Inevitably, to successfully influence the choices that prospectively fearsome adversaries could make vis-à-vis Israel, Jerusalem will first need to clarify unambiguously that its conventional and nuclear deterrence are seamlessly intersecting, and that Israel stands ready to counter enemy attacks at absolutely every conceivable level of possible confrontation.

               There remain two last but still very important and related points to be made.

                First, whether Israel’s intersecting and overlapping deterrent processes are geared primarily toward conventional or to nuclear threats, their success will ultimately depend upon the expected rationality of the nation’s relevant enemies. In those residual cases where such rationality appears implausible, Jerusalem could then find itself under considerable pressures to strike first preemptively. If Jerusalem’s own expected responses were to be judged rational themselves, they might then also need to include a conclusive and operationally-reliable option for expressing anticipatory self-defense. For Israel, it goes without saying that regional conflict prospects should always be curtailed at the very lowest possible levels of controlled engagement, and that under no circumstances should Israel ever need to find itself having to preempt against an already nuclear adversary.[50]

               To prevent such unacceptable but still imaginable circumstances should be Jerusalem’s altogether overriding security obligation.[51]

               Second, even the most meticulous plans for preventing a deliberately-inflicted nuclear conflict would not automatically remove all attendant dangers of an inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. While an accidental nuclear war would necessarily be inadvertent, there are certain forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not necessarily be caused by mechanical, electrical or computer accident. These particular but still-consequential forms of unintentional nuclear conflict could represent the unexpected result of sheer misjudgment or simple miscalculation, whether created as a singular error by one or both sides to a particular (two-party) nuclear crisis escalation; or by certain still unforeseen “synergies” arising between any such singular miscalculations.

               It follows from such vital obiter dicta that the only predictable aspect of any nuclear crisis involving Israel would be its vast and utter unpredictability. More than anything else, this conclusion implies an insistent obligation, in Jerusalem, to remain not only vigilant about comprehensive enemy capabilities and intentions, but also to be relentlessly cautious and studiously modest about Israel’s own capacities to control all prospectively “untoward ” nuclear events.

                Israel, though perhaps largely unaware, is entering into a period of trembling uncertainty. While certain national leaders may presently calculate that security matters are “looking up” – that is, that the expected benefits of the Abraham Accords and corollary normalization agreements (Sudan and Morocco) will outweigh the risks – such simplistic calculations would eventually be forced to confront a far less congenial strategic reality. Even if US President Joseph Biden should succeed in bringing the United States back into calculably viable JCPOA arrangements, the severe harms caused by Trump-generated errors on Iranian nuclearization are unlikely to be tangibly reversed. For Jerusalem, this signifies, above all else, a basic obligation to fashion a continuously refined national strategy of nuclear deterrence and nuclear war avoidance.

               For this preeminently intellectual task, American assistance would be largely beside the point.


[1]See https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/ Also to be considered as complementary in this connection is the Israel-Sudan Normalization Agreement (October 23, 2020) and Israel-Morocco Normalization Agreement (December 10, 2020).

[2]https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/trumps-jcpoa-withdrawal-two-years-on-maximum-pressure-minimum-outcomes/

[3]In a similar vein, says Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carl G. Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957): “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.” .

[4]The term “dialectic” originates from the Greek expression for the art of conversation. A common contemporary meaning is method of seeking truth by correct reasoning. From the standpoint of shaping Israel’s strategy  vis-à-vis Iran, the following operations could be regarded as essential but nonexclusive components: (1)  a method of refutation conducted by examining logical consequences; (2) a method of division or repeated logical analysis of genera into species; (3) logical reasoning using premises that are probable or generally accepted; (4) formal logic; and (5) the logical development of thought through thesis and antithesis to fruitful synthesis of these opposites.

[5]This should bring to mind Sun-Tzu’s strategic suggestion to “embrace the unorthodox.” For a specific application of Sun-Tzu to Israel’s prospective calculations, see: Louis René Beres, “Lessons for Israel from Ancient Chinese Military Thought: Facing Iranian Nuclearization with Sun-Tzu,” Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, posted October 24, 2013.

[6] Cicero, Somnium Scipionis.

[7] According to William Blackstone’s Commentaries (Book IV, “Of Pubic Wrongs,” Chapter V): “All law results from those principles of natural justice in which all the learned of every nation agree….” In legal philosophy, the classic definition of Natural Law is given by Cicero in The Republic: “True law is right reason, harmonious with nature, diffused among all, constant, eternal….”

[8]Dostoyevsky inquires about such benefits: “What is it in us that is mellowed by civilization? All it does, I’d say, is to develop in man a capacity to feel a greater variety of sensations. And nothing, absolutely nothing else. And through this development, man will yet learn how to enjoy bloodshed. Why, it has already happened….Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty.” See: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground 108 (Andrew R. MacAndrew, trans., New American Library, 1961)(1862).

[9] On the global power management system originally codified and effectively “sanctified” at the end of the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia: See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[10] See: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, May 23, 1969, art. 53, 1155 U.N.T.S. 344; reprinted in 8 I.L.M. 679 (1969).

[11] This legal assumption of solidarity between states in a presumptively common struggle against aggression and terrorism is also already mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 C.E.); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli Ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey, tr., Clarendon Press, 1925)(1690).

[12] This question, in turn, is drawn from the basic and incontestable premise that every state’s first responsibility is to assure and maintain national protection, and that citizen allegiance is therefore contingent upon such assurances.  Most famously, in pertinent political theory, is the classic statement of seventeenth-century Englishman Thomas Hobbes at Chapter XXI of his Leviathan: “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last so long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.” Parenthetically, one of Israel’s deployed Dolphin-class submarines (acquired from Germany) is the INS (Israeli Navy Submarine) Leviathan.

[13] For a useful example of such expected overlap, Israel will continuously need to consider various conceivable forms of preemption, or defensive first-strike. When permissible under authoritative international law, any such preemption could permissibly be termed as “anticipatory self-defense.”  Significantly, both nuclear and non-nuclear preemptions by Israel of enemy unconventional attacks could sometime lead to nuclear exchanges.  This grievous outcome would depend, in large part, on the effectiveness and breadth of Israeli targeting, the surviving number of enemy nuclear weapons and the willingness of enemy leaders to risk certain Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations. 

[14]  Considerations impacting Israel’s security may form an intricately interconnected network. Capable assessments of such considerations must include a patient search for synergies and for potential cascades of synergies that could represent one especially serious iteration of security failure. Other risk properties that will warrant careful assessment within this analytic framework include contagion potential and persistence.

[15] Punishment of aggression is a firm and longstanding expectation of international criminal law.  The peremptory principle of Nullum Crimen sine poena, “No crime without a punishment,” has its origins in the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728 – 1686 B.C.E.);  the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 2000 B.C.E.);  the even earlier Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 B.C.E.) and the law of exact retaliation, or Lex Talionis, presented in three separate passages of the Torah

[16] This author, Professor Louis René Beres, was Chair of Project Daniel for PM Sharon (2003).

http://www.acpr.org.il/ENGLISH-NATIV/03-ISSUE/daniel-3.htm  See also: https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/Parameters/articles/07spring/beres.pdf  See further, regarding Iran in particular, with US General (USAF/ret.) John T. Chain: Louis René Beres and John T. Chain: “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran”?, The Atlantic, August, 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[17]https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/08/iran-advances-nuclear-program-withdrawal-jcpoa/

[18] At some point, of course, a major Sunni Arab state in the region (most notably Egypt and/or Saudi Arabia) could also choose to “go nuclear,” more plausibly because of Shiite Iran than Jewish Israel.

[19] See by this author:  https://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/30198   See also by Professor Beres:  https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/israel-nuclear-deterrence/

[20] For generic assessments of the probable consequences of nuclear war fighting by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd. ed., 2018);   Louis René Beres,  Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983);  Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington MA;  Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, ed.,  Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[21] Even before the nuclear age, ancient Chinese military theorist, Sun-Tzu, counseled, inThe Art of War:“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” (See: Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”).

[22] This assumption was a dominant premise of this writer’s Project Daniel Report to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon:  See, Louis René Beres, Chair, Project Daniel: Israel’s Strategic Future (Tel Aviv, 2004).

[23] For early scholarly examinations of anticipatory self-defense, by this author, and with particular reference to Israel, see:  Louis René Beres,  “Preserving the Third Temple:  Israel’s Right of Anticipatory Self-Defense Under International Law,”  Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law,  Vol. 26,  No. 1,  April 1993,  pp. 111- 148;  Louis René Beres,  “After the Gulf War:  Israel, Preemption and Anticipatory Self-Defense,”  Houston Journal of International Law, Vol. 13,  No. 2,  Spring 1991,  pp. 259 – 280;  and Louis René Beres,  “Striking `First’: Israel’s Post Gulf War Options Under International Law,” Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Journal  Vol. 14,  Nov. 1991,  pp. 1 – 24.

[24] The precise origins of anticipatory self-defense in customary law lie in the Caroline, a case that concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally justified certain militarily defensive actions. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require an antecedent attack. Here, the jurisprudential framework permitted a military response to a threat so long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” See: Beth M. Polebaum, “National Self-defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,” 59 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 187, 190-91 (1984)(noting that the Caroline case had transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a legal doctrine). Still earlier, see: Hugo Grotius, Of the Causes of War, and First of Self-Defense, and Defense of Our Property, reprinted in 2 Classics of International Law, 168-75 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1925)(1625); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations, reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1916)(1758). Also, Samuel Pufendorf, The Two Books on the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law,  32 (Frank Gardner Moore., tr., 1927 (1682).

[25] See art. 38 of the UN’s Statute of the International Court of Justice.

[26]Regarding such strikes, the obvious Israeli precedents for any such defensive moves would be Operation Opera directed against the Osiraq (Iraqi) nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981, and, later (though lesser known) Operation Orchard against Syria on September 6, 2007. In April 2011, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that he bombed Syrian site in the Deir ez-Zoe region of Syria had indeed been a developing nuclear reactor. In this writer’s judgment, both preemptions were fully lawful assertions of Israel’s core “Begin Doctrine.”

[27] Nuclear war and genocide need not be considered as mutually exclusive.  War might well be the means whereby genocide is undertaken.  According to Articles II and III of the Genocide Convention, which entered into force on January 12, 1951, genocide includes any of several listed acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such….”  See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Done at New York, Dec. 9,  1948.  Entered into force, Jan. 12, 1951.  78 U.N.T.S.  277.

[28]In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked prophetically  (Pensées): “All our dignity consists in thought….It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further from Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.

[29] Here, this concept refers to the unpredictable effects of errors in knowledge and information concerning intra-Israel (IDF/MOD) strategic uncertainties; on Israeli and Iranian under-estimations or over-estimations of relative power position; and on the unalterably vast and largely irremediable differences between theories of deterrence, and enemy intent “as it actually is.” See: Carl von Clausewitz, “Uber das Leben und den Charakter von Scharnhorst,”

Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, 1 (1832); cited in Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper No. 52, October, 1996, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Washington, D.C. p. 9.

[30] See, for example, by this author:  https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/11/15/israels-nuclear-ambiguity-would-a-shift-to-selective-nuclear-disclosure-enhance-strategic-deterrence

[31]Expressions of decisional irrationality could take various different and overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[32] Some current Israeli supporters of a Palestinian state argue that its prospective harms to Israel could be reduced or even eliminated by ensuring that state’s immediate “demilitarization.” For informed reasoning against this naive argument, see: Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why a Demilitarized Palestinian State Would Not Remain Demilitarized: A View Under International Law,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, Winter 1998, pp. 347-363; and Louis René Beres and Ambassador Shoval, “On Demilitarizing a Palestinian `Entity’ and the Golan Heights: An International Law Perspective,” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vo. 28., No.5., November 1995, pp. 959-972.

[33] Under international law, sub-state movements are always Hostes humani generis, or “Common enemies of mankind.” See: Research in International Law: Draft Convention on Jurisdiction with Respect to Crime, 29 AM J. INT’L L. (Supp 1935) 435, 566 (quoting King v. Marsh (1615), 3 Bulstr. 27, 81 Eng. Rep 23 (1615)(“a pirate est Hostes humani generis”)).

[34]This calls to mind the obligations of formal doctrine. Such doctrine defines the framework from which any state’s strategic goals should be suitably extrapolated. Generically, in “standard” or orthodox military thinking, such doctrine describes the tactical manner in which national forces ought to fight in various combat situations, the prescribed “order of battle,” and variously assorted corollary operations. The literal definition of “doctrine” derives from Middle English, from the Latin doctrina, meaning teaching, learning, and instruction. Always, a central importance of codified military doctrine lies not only in the way it can animate, unify and optimize pertinent military forces, but also in the way it can transmit certain desired “messages” to an enemy.

[35] See jointly-authored monograph in Israel by Professor Louis René Beres and General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey   https://sectech.tau.ac.il/sites/sectech.tau.ac.il/files/PalmBeachBook.pdf

General McCaffrey is the most decorated 4-star general in United States history.

[36] Hypothesizing the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of any such expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[37]On the growing dangers of further North Korean nuclearization, by this author, at West Point (Pentagon): See: Louis René Beres,  https://mwi.usma.edu/theres-no-historical-guide-assessing-risks-us-north-korea-nuclear-war/

[38]https://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://search.yahoo.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1318&context=auilr

[39] See Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace 70 (William Whewell, tr.), London: John W. Parker, 1853(1625).

[40] The North Korea-United States rivalry should come immediately to mind. Though Donald Trump vainly sought North Korean denuclearization, Joe Biden ought instead to be refining America’s overall capacities for long-term nuclear deterrence. In this Asian theatre of possible nuclear conflict, a  context which bears certain marked differences from the Middle East, US forces can never expectedly function as a compelling conventional deterrent. Here, their only true role could be as a “trip wire” for generating more-or-less rapid American escalations to nuclear levels.

[41] On vital interconnections between US and Israeli nuclear security, see previously referenced 2016 monograph (published at Tel Aviv University) co-authored by Professor Beres and US General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey:

See also: http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/parameters/Articles/07spring/beres.pdf

[42] See, by Professor Beres: http://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1410&context=gjicl

[43] The avoidance of nuclear war fighting in any form was a major conclusion of the Project Daniel Group in its 2003 report to Prime Minister Arik Sharon: 

Click to access 2905LouisReneBeres.pdf

[44] See, for example:  http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/28836

[45] The reference here is to modifying or ending “deliberate ambiguity,” Israel’s longstanding policy of a “bomb in the basement.”  See: http://www.herzliyaconference.org/eng/_Uploads/dbsAttachedFiles/LouisReneBeres.pdf

[46] In absolutely all matters of calculable deterrence, whether conventional, nuclear or both, a presumption of enemy rationality is sine qua non. It follows that in those foreseeable circumstances wherein enemy rationality cannot be expected, security methods other than deterrence must immediately be sought.

[47] On such issues, see the latest book by Professor Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). See also, by Professor Beres: http://www.inss.org.il/uploadImages/systemFiles/adkan17_3ENG%20(3)_Beres.pdf  and, from Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School: http://harvardnsj.org/?s=louis+rene+beres

[48] For an early book by Professor Beres dealing with the expected effects of a nuclear war, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980).  https://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Nuclear-Catastrophe-World-Politics/dp/0226043606/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8   See also, by Professor Beres: http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1318&context=auilr

[49] From the standpoint of international law, it is always necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive ones.” Preemption is a military strategy of striking an enemy first in the expectation that the only alternative is to be struck first oneself.  A preemptive attack is launched by a state that believes enemy forces are about to attack.  A preventive attack, however, is launched not out of genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but for fear of a longer-term deterioration in a pertinent military balance.  Hence, in a preemptive attack, the length of time by which the enemy’s action is anticipated is very short, while in a preventive strike the interval is considerably longer. A problem for Israel, in this regard, is not only the practical difficulty of determining imminence, but also that delaying a defensive strike until appropriately ascertained imminence is acknowledged ,could be fatal.

[50] Among other more obvious dangers, if Israel should refrain from striking first until an enemy state or states had actually acquired nuclear weapons, these new nuclear powers could implement protective measures that would then pose additional hazards to the Jewish State. Designed to guard against preemption, either by Israel or by other regional enemies, these measures could involve the attachment of “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems, and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies, possibly coupled with certain pre-delegations of launch authority.  This means, in essence, that Israel would be increasingly endangered by steps taken by its nuclear enemies to prevent a preemption. Optimally, Israel would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of the expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its own armaments and populations. Yet, if such steps were to become a fait accompli, Jerusalem might still calculate, correctly, that a preemptive strike would be legal and cost-effective. This is because the expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, might still appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of enemy first-strikes  –  strikes likely occasioned by the failure of “anti-preemption” protocols.

[51] Although it cannot be ruled out that an Israeli non-nuclear preemption would lead to nuclear exchanges (this would depend on the effectiveness and breadth of Israeli targeting, the surviving number of enemy nuclear weapons, and the willingness of some enemy leaders to risk Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations), such exchanges appear more likely if Iran were ultimately allowed to deploy nuclear weapons without any meaningful interference. Should such deployment ever take place, Israel could conceivably confront a rationally-compelling incentive to launch a nuclearpreemption. In the plainly worst-case scenario for Jerusalem, one where even properly intersecting levels of conventional and nuclear deterrence had failed to protect Israel and where Israel had undertaken a nuclear preemption without any confirmable success (i.e., without destroying an essential number of enemy missiles and warheads), literal survival of the State would then essentially rest upon the country’s multiple and closely-interlinkedactive defenses. 

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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The Road Leading Nowhere

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A few days ago, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, announced the expulsion of several diplomats from the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the Organization. The only justification NATO could muster up for this was the traditional rhetoric of Russia’s alleged “malign activities” in NATO member states. As it so usually happens, no evidence or illustrations of such activities were ever provided. It is almost as if NATO’s leadership is consistently trying to destroy everything that Moscow and Brussels have built to bolster European security architecture through joint efforts during the last two decades.

Russia launched its Permanent Mission to NATO in 2003 following the establishment of the NATO–Russia Council (NRC) on May 28, 2002 in Rome. Prior to that, Russia’s ambassador to Belgium had also acted as the nation’s non-resident ambassador to the Organization. The establishment of the NATO–Russia Council was a momentous event, which is evident by the fact that the heads of state and government of all NATO member states as well as the president of the Russian Federation gathered in Rome to sign the Declaration on “NATO–Russia Relations: a New Quality” at an official ceremony.

I happened to be present at that ceremony in Rome. The atmosphere was very spirited, and the leaders were quite optimistic about the prospects of the new mode of cooperation between Russia and the West. Those present at that memorable event unanimously welcomed the new mechanism, while U.S. President George W. Bush stressed that should Russia be left behind the alliance would fail in resolving the issues facing the world in the new century and responding to the new security challenges in the Euro-Atlantic region and beyond. Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister of Canada, noted that NATO was “opening a new chapter in strengthening our ties with Russia,” emphasizing that the surest way of responding to the challenges of the 21st century would be to coordinate the efforts of the international community at large. He concluded, “It was high time that Russia be involved in the process.”

For his part, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia expected “the Rome Declaration to be a sound solution to work in a cooperative and constructive spirit rather than a mere statement of intentions.” He went on to say that Russia and NATO have a fraught history—however, the two had made real headway, shifting the paradigm “from opposition to dialogue, from confrontation to cooperation.” The Rome Declaration, Russia’s leader argued, was only to mark the beginning of the endeavours to arrive at fundamentally different relations.

While the reason why the two parties agreed two decades ago to establish the NATO–Russia Council and the extent to which the new joint mechanism indeed proved an agent of change for the military and political situation in the Euro-Atlantic (and globally) remain subject of persistent speculation, I believe it would be hard to refute the idea that the old shibboleths of the Cold War needed to be revised amid the evolving circumstances at the dawn of the new millennium. First and foremost, this had to do with security issues. By that time, sober-minded politicians in the West came to realize that Russia was far from what posed threats to world peace and international security. The foreground now featured a new set of global challenges, such as terrorism, WMD proliferation risks, illegal migration and regional crises, with no nation—even the largest and most powerful among the powers that be—able to counter them on their own. Russia was the first to face the challenge of global terrorism. Following hard on Russia’s heels, this threat engulfed the United States and other countries in its most cruel and dramatic form.

In accordance with the Rome Declaration, Russia and NATO member states committed to cooperating as equals in areas of mutual interest. The members of the Council, acting in their national capacities and in a manner consistent with their collective commitments and obligations, agreed to take joint decisions and bear equal responsibility, individually and collectively, for the decisions to be implemented. The Council saw some 25 working groups and committees established to foster meaningful cooperation in critical areas.

Following a meeting with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson in November 2002, President Vladimir Putin offered the following vision of Russia’s relations with NATO, “Never before have we raised the question of our full-fledged participation in NATO. Nor do we raise that matter today. Should our relationship, should our cooperation develop as positively as is the case now… And if NATO as an alliance transforms in implementing institutional reforms… And as long as our cooperation is in line with Russia’s national interests, meaning that we’ll see that this framework could serve a tool to pursue our own interests… Then our cooperation with NATO will surely be changing to encompass a broader involvement and participation.”

It has been some 20 years since the NATO–Russia Council was established. Can we deem this experiment to be a success? Both a “yes” and a “no.” On the one hand, we all could see for ourselves that dialogue and cooperation were, in fact, possible. Over the years, joint working groups were offering decisions whose implementation was in line with the fundamental interests of both parties. These included combatting terrorism, engaging on the Afghanistan dossier, enhancing military and technical cooperation, addressing arms control in Europe as well as other issues.

On the other hand, we also discovered that the old stereotypes were deeply entrenched in the minds of some strategists in the West who still believe Russia to be the principal and indispensable factor to cement “Western solidarity.” Otherwise, how can we account for the fact that NATO’s leadership chose to freeze all the Council’s proceedings and contacts with Russia contrary to what is stipulated in the Rome Declaration that provides for an urgent session of the NATO–Russia Council in the events such as brutal conflicts in South Ossetia or Ukraine?

NATO’s only approach to Moscow as of today is to expel as much staff as they can from Russia’s mission in Brussels. The purpose of all this is not hard to guess. NATO is busily getting ready for its next Summit, which is due to be held in 2022 in Madrid. At that summit, NATO plans to approve a new strategy for the alliance to make it “even stronger.”

This will not be an easy task in the wake of the alliance’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is why it has been taking strides to shift attention and search for an adversary whose presence would justify the organization’s continued existence as well as another hike in military budgets of its members. Individual statements make it clear that the new conceptual framework should bring NATO back to its former rhetoric of approaching Russia (and China) as a threat.

Apparently, the alliance would rather wave a final goodbye to the NATO–Russia Council by the time of the upcoming summit. This explains why they are trying to elicit a response from Moscow, which will definitely happen in the near future, likely to affect both Russia’s mission to NATO in Brussels and NATO’s Information Office in Moscow. It seems to be obvious that the only way an international organization can be effective is if this is indeed what all the parties want—in deeds rather than in words. If NATO has for whatever reason decided that it no longer needs the NATO–Russia Council, NATO should then be responsible for dismantling it.

However short-sighted and dangerous such a step on the part of NATO could be, this does not erase from the agenda the question of what the Euro-Atlantic security architecture would look like in the future. New challenges and threats continue to undermine the entire system of international security. Therefore, the feat of building a full-fledged and equal dialogue between Moscow and the West on a whole range of strategic stability issues is more relevant than ever. Under the current circumstances, such a dialogue being absent is fraught with risks that are too high for all the parties. These problems can surely be covered up and left to fester beneath the surface. For how long, though?

From our partner RIAC

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Iran in the SCO: a Forced “Look East” Strategy and an Alternative World Order

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On September 17, a package of several dozen documents was signed in Dushanbe at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The highlight of the meeting was the decision taken by the Heads of State Council of the SCO on launching the procedure of granting SCO membership to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Technically, this decision does not turn Tehran into a full-fledged SCO member, launching the accession process only. Granting full membership involves a number of agreements signed, which usually takes about two years. However, a proactive decision has de facto been made, and the Islamic Republic of Iran can already be considered a member of the Organization.

Moscow played a key role in granting SCO membership to Iran. It was after a telephone talk on August 11 with Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, that Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, announced that the political obstacles to Iran’s membership in the SCO had been removed so that Iran’s SCO membership could be finalized. Besides, throughout this year, Russia has repeatedly urged to endorse Iran’s bid for SCO membership.

Intrinsic Motivation

Endorsing Tehran’s bid for SCO membership was the first significant victory for the new ultra-conservative Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s foreign policy. One of the key tasks for the Islamic Republic’s new head of government is to demonstrate his own achievements as opposed to the failures of his predecessor, the reformist Hassan Rouhani. The latter has repeatedly advocated for expanding cooperation with the SCO; however, Tehran did not manage to join the Organization during his presidency.

One of the reasons for this was Rouhani’s team pursuing the Western vector of Iran’s foreign policy. The nuclear deal with the leading world powers, including the United States, as well as the subsequent prospects of large-scale investments from Europe, clearly exceeded what other international projects could offer. Therefore, other integration initiatives were temporarily set aside. While this looked rather reasonable at that point, the subsequent failure of this plan because of the inconsistencies in the U.S. foreign policy raised the burning issue of exploring the alternatives.

Yet, Hassan Rouhani never completely abandoned the non-Western vector. There have been at least two remarkable achievements here during his tenure. On May 17, 2018, the Eurasian Economic Union and Iran signed a provisional free trade zone agreement, which entered into force on October 27, 2019, for a period of three years. Then, late into Rouhani’s presidency, China and Iran signed a 25-year cooperation agreement on March 27, 2021, to comprehensively enhance the bilateral relations.

Ebrahim Raisi is largely trying to prove himself as polar opposite to Hassan Rouhani, whose recent years have been one of the most proving times for Iran’s economy. First and foremost, Ebrahim Raisi needs to live up to the confidence placed in him, while the new president’s decisive victory in June 2021 was overshadowed by the extreme political apathy demonstrated by large segments of the country’s population, resulting in a record low voter turnout in Iran’s history.

Domestically, the fight against COVID-19 is still serving this purpose. Lockdown restrictions are consistently lifted in Iran amid reports of high vaccination rates. This stands in sharp contrast with Rouhani’s administration, when the epidemic was only growing, with the authorities resorting to closures of businesses and public institutions as well as to movement restrictions, and with Tehran constantly having problems with vaccines import.

Iran’s accession into the SCO demonstrates another good start for Raisi—this time, in terms of foreign policy. This is especially important amid stalled negotiations on restoring the nuclear deal. Technically, reviving the JCPOA remains valuable for Tehran and Washington, which both sides confirm every now and then. However, trust between the parties is so low after Donald Trump’s demarche that the prospects for new agreements are increasingly elusive.

All the more so since Iran is demanding security guarantees from the U.S. so that the incident does not recur and that the new U.S. elections do not destroy any previous agreements. However, Washington cannot guarantee this due to the very nature of the American political system. At the same time, Joe Biden, in fearing domestic criticism, has not yet made any concessions that could give Tehran at least some confidence in the intentions of the U.S. president. Washington could well have announced its unilateral return to the JCPOA without the sanctions lifted. However, the White House did not do this, which means a U.S. delegation cannot sit at the negotiating table on the nuclear deal in Vienna, with the JCPOA dialogue with the U.S. held separately.

There are still chances for the JCPOA to be revived and the sanctions against Tehran to be lifted. Even if this is case, however, there is no quick positive outcome for Raisi—which is why the SCO membership has gained momentum for his image within the country. It is no coincidence that his participation in the SCO Summit in Dushanbe was the first international trip made by the Iranian president in the wake of the elections.

Looking East

At the turn of the 2010s, the demand for better relations with the West grew so strong in Iran that both the legislative and the executive were taken over by Westerners amid the struggle for power, with President Rouhani becoming the epitome of the process. This turn may seem paradoxical to the casual observer since the ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran is anti-Western at its core. However, pro-Western forces were rather strong in Iran of the 1990s. President Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–1997) was the first who cautiously spoke out for the normalization of relations with the United States and Europe to be then succeeded by Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005), an open advocate for dialogue.

Therefore, of the last four presidents in Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013) was the only who proved a consistent opponent of the West. Hassan Rouhani seemed right for establishing the dialogue. The United States under Obama’s administration and the European countries seemed to have weighed all the possibilities in embarking on the path of normalizing the relations with Tehran. However, the Collective West found itself hostage to the twists and turns of the U.S. domestic policy.

Donald Trump’s hasty withdrawal from the JCPOA was carried out in spite of no violations of the deal’s terms on the Iranian side, the position of the UN Security Council, or the opinion of U.S. allies in Europe. This became a critical point for the Iran’s “pivot West.” The political elite of the Islamic Republic of Iran saw once again that treaties with the U.S. and assurances from the U.S. are not worth anything. However, this does not mean that the West has lost Iran forever. In theory, there might be a new chance in the long run—for the foreseeable future, this is out of the question, though.

For Iran, joining the SCO symbolizes a consolidation of its foreign policy’s Eastern dimension. Even a prospective return to the nuclear deal under Raisi will not change this trend. This may look like a victory for the “Look East” strategy promoted earlier on by Ahmadinejad as the basic tenet of his foreign policy. Moreover, it was right during his presidential term that Iran attained observer status with the SCO in 2005 and made two failed attempts to become a full member.

While this was a deliberate choice made by Iranian conservatives under President Ahmadinejad who sought to hinder relations with the West with their own hands, today’s Iran is taking such a step as a desperate measure. The West has closed off the path to normalization, doing so for no good reason, whose rationale would be shared by the majority of the players, but because one of them is in the grip of political instability domestically.

Reassessing the Image

The nuclear deal, coupled with the desire to cooperate with the outside world and the attempts to break the isolation, have borne some fruit for Iran. Iran’s image as a collective threat has consistently been blurred by Tehran’s efforts. The Islamic Republic is increasingly perceived as a rational actor on the international arena, if in pursuit of its specific goals.

Thus, Iran’s failed attempt to attain SCO membership was largely due to the fact that the Central Asian nations had been rather wary of Iranian Islamism and its proneness to ideological expansion. However, the following years have shown that Tehran is ready for constructive cooperation with secular forces. Realistic considerations increasingly prevail over Islamic motivation, while the expansionism is limited to certain regions in the Middle East. Moreover, Iran’s anti-terrorist aspirations tend to overlap with the vision of other countries. Iran’s fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, a terrorist group banned in Russia) and its meaningful interaction with Russia and Turkey in Syria are another important indicator.

Another obstacle to Iran’s membership in the SCO was its pronounced and unrelenting anti-Americanism, especially characteristic of Ahmadinejad’s years in power. China, remaining one of the key economic partners of the United States in the 2000s and 2010s, did not want the SCO to become a platform for anti-American rhetoric. Russia, too, had expectations to normalize relations with Washington at that time.

However, Tehran showed again that pragmatism, rather than ideology, is the highlight of its foreign policy, proving that Iran can even negotiate the nuclear deal with the “Great Satan”. The failure of the JCPOA framework should be attributed to the inconsistency of the United States rather than to the stance professed by Iran. Besides, anti-Americanism no longer seems to be an issue today. The relations between Moscow and Washington have progressively been degrading all this time, while China has turned from a stable partner of the U.S. into the main threat to it as a leading world power. In other words, Iranian anti-Americanism now looks much more acceptable to the founding members of the SCO than was the case 10 or 15 years ago.

Tehran’s general vector, pursuing an end to the isolation and aiming to legitimize the state around the world, has yielded certain results, and the SCO membership is one of them. At the same time, this was facilitated by the broader shifts in the international situation as much as by ideology having lesser sway in the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic.

An Alternative World Order

Iran’s accession into the SCO is taking place amidst the growing demand from the organization’s member states for new mechanisms of interaction. For a significant part of its history, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization looked like a showcase alternative to the Western order—today, in a number of dimensions, this “alternativeness” is not just an option but a need.

The most striking example is Afghanistan. In resolving security threats emanating from Afghanistan, including terrorism and drugs, the SCO member states have no one else to rely on, except for themselves, following the withdrawal of the U.S. forces. Against this background, Iran’s accession at this moment seems to be of significance, as an effective Afghan settlement seems hardly possible without Tehran.

Establishing alternative (to the Western) financial mechanisms and looking for new ways of handling economic activity is another challenge. And Iran’s example confirms the need for such an alternative. The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, all other participants being against it, threatened the very existence of the Agreement. First of all, this happened due to the dominant influence of Washington on the global economy. Despite all attempts, Europe, China and Russia have failed to neutralize the consequences of U.S. secondary sanctions against Tehran.

At the same time, the sanctions policy has become a very popular instrument in international relations. Restrictions imposed by Western governments are becoming less and less predictable each year, since the internal political situation is the key factor. In the future, China, Russia and other countries may face similar pressure measures that are now used against Iran.

In this regard, Tehran is in the “vanguard”, exploring new pilot approaches. So far, circumventing sanctions has proved difficult and time-consuming, although there has been some progress in this area.

Finally, the key prospect for the SCO is its transformation into a dialogue platform for politically diverse states in order to agree on new approaches. The Organization’s extremely broad mandate allows it to tackle a huge range of issues and unlock the potential to coordinate efforts of different international actors.

In this vein, Iran turns out to be a unique test case for the entire structure. A country with a completely different worldview and specific goals will be forced to talk and negotiate on a regular basis with the largest states of the macro-region. From now on, Tehran as a full member cannot simply observe the course of meetings, it will have to adopt a position on the SCO agenda issues.

As far as the interest of Iran goes, the Organization is quite in line with its political objectives in the short term. Promoting trade ties is mostly based on bilateral agreements between the countries, while the role of the SCO as an economic driver is still at its early stage. This institution will primarily contribute to Tehran’s cooperation in the field of security and political rapprochement; however, closer economic cooperation may come as a by-product of this.

In any case, Iran’s membership in the SCO can be called an important stage in the SCO’s maturing into a solid international institution. Until now, the Organization has focused on combating terrorism, separatism and extremism, although its mandate allows it to tackle a much broader range of issues. The expansion of the membership increases the legitimacy of the SCO—but, at the same time, expectations from the organization as a global powerbroker are growing. To justify them, the SCO must take on greater responsibility, looking beyond security issues.

From our partner RIAC

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Defense

US military presence in the Middle East: The less the better

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It may not have been planned or coordinated but efforts by Middle Eastern states to dial down tensions serve as an example of what happens when big power interests coincide.

It also provides evidence of the potentially positive fallout of a lower US profile in the region.

Afghanistan, the United States’ chaotic withdrawal notwithstanding, could emerge as another example of the positive impact when global interests coincide. That is if the Taliban prove willing and capable of policing militant groups to ensure that they don’t strike beyond the Central Asian nation’s borders or at embassies and other foreign targets in the country.

Analysts credit the coming to office of US President Joe Biden with a focus on Asia rather than the Middle East and growing uncertainty about his commitment to the security of the Gulf for efforts to reduce tensions by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirate and Egypt on the one hand and on the other, Turkey, Iran, and Qatar. Those efforts resulted in the lifting, early this year, of the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar.

Doubts about the United States’ commitment also played an important role in efforts to shore up or formalise alliances like the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel by the UAE and Bahrain.

For its part, Saudi Arabia has de facto acknowledged its ties with the Jewish state even if Riyadh is not about to formally establish relations. In a sign of the times, that did not stop then Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu from last year visiting the kingdom.

To be sure, changes in Washington’s priorities impact regional defence strategies and postures given that the United States has a significant military presence in the Middle East and serves as its sole security guarantor.

Yet, what rings alarm bells in Gulf capitals also sparks concerns in Beijing, which depends to a significant degree on the flow of its trade and energy from and through Middle Eastern waters, and Moscow with its own security concerns and geopolitical aspirations.

Little surprise that Russia and China, each in their own way and independent of the United States, over the last year echoed the United States’ message that the Middle East needs to get its act together.

Eager to change rather than reform the world order, Russia proposed an all-new regional security architecture modelled on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) adding not only Russia but also China, India, and Europe to the mix.

China, determined to secure its proper place in the new world order rather than fundamentally altering it, sent smoke signals through its academics and analysts that conveyed a double-barrelled message. On the one hand, China suggested that the Middle East did not rank high on its agenda. In other words, the Middle East would have to act to climb Beijing’s totem pole.

For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant back burner of China’s strategic global strategies,” Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), China’s most prestigious think tank, told a webinar last year.

Prominent Chinese scholars Sun Degang and Wu Sike provided months later a carrot to accompany Mr. Niu’s stick. Taking the opposite tack, they argued that the Middle East was a “key region in big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in a new era.”

Chinese characteristics, they said, would involve “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution.

On that basis, the two scholars suggest, Chinese engagement in Middle Eastern security would seek to build an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.

In the final analysis, Chinese and Russian signalling that there was an unspoken big power consensus likely reinforced American messaging and gave Middle Eastern states a further nudge to change course and demonstrate a willingness to control tensions and differences.

Implicit in the unspoken big power consensus was not only the need to dial down tensions but also the projection of a reduced, not an eliminated, US presence in the Middle East.

While there has been little real on-the-ground reduction of US forces, just talking about it seemingly opened pathways. It altered the US’ weighting in the equation.

“The U.S. has a habit of seeing itself as indispensable to regional stability around the world, when in fact its intervention can be very destabilizing because it becomes part of the local equation rather than sitting above it,” noted Raad Alkadiri, an international risk consultant.

While important, the United States’ willingness to get out of the way is no guarantee that talks will do anything more than at best avert conflicts spinning out of control.

Saudi and Iranian leaders and officials have sought to put a positive spin on several rounds of direct and indirect talks between the two rivals.

Yet, more important than the talk of progress, expressions of willingness to bury hatchets, and toning down of rhetoric is Saudi King Salman’s insistence in remarks last month to the United Nations General Assembly on the need to build trust.

The monarch suggested that could be achieved by Iran ceasing “all types of support” for armed groups in the region, including the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.

The potential monkey wrench is not just the improbability of Iran making meaningful concessions to improve relations but also the fact that the chances are fading for a revival of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

“We have to prepare for a world where Iran doesn’t have constraints on its nuclear program and we have to consider options for dealing with that. This is what we are doing while we hope they do go back to the deal,” said US negotiator Rob Malley.

Already, Israeli politicians, unhappy with the original nuclear deal and the Biden administration’s effort to revive it, are taking a more alarmist view than may be prevalent in their intelligence services.

In Washington this week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that Iran was “becoming a nuclear threshold state.” Back home Yossi Cohen, a close confidante of Mr. Netanyahu, who stepped down in June as head of the Mossad, asserted at the same time that Iran was “no closer than before” to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

There is no doubt, however that both men agree that Israel retains the option of a military strike against Iran. “Israel reserves the right to act at any moment in any way,” Mr. Lapid told his American interlocutors as they sought to resolve differences of how to deal with Iran if a revival of the agreement proves elusive.

Meanwhile, a foreplay of the fallout of a potential failure to put a nuclear deal in place is playing out on multiple fronts. Tension have been rising along the border between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Iran sees closer Azerbaijani-Israeli relations as part of an effort to encircle it and fears that the Caucasian state would be a staging ground for Israeli operations against the Islamic republic. Iran and Azerbaijan agreed this week to hold talks to reduce the friction.

At the same time, Iran, Turkey and Israel have been engaged in a shadow boxing match in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq while a poll showed half of Israeli Jews believe that attacking Iran early on rather than negotiating a deal would have been a better approach.

Taken together, these factors cast a shadow over optimism that the Middle East is pulling back from the brink. They suggest that coordinated big power leadership is what could make the difference as the Middle East balances between forging a path towards stability and waging a continuous covert war and potentially an overt one.

A Johns Hopkins University Iran research program suggested that a US return to the nuclear deal may be the catalyst for cooperation with Europe, China, and Russia.

“Should the United States refuse to re-join the agreement following sufficient attempts by Iran to demonstrate flexibility in their negotiating posture, Russia and China will ramp up their economic and security cooperation with Iran in a manner fundamentally opposed to US interests,” the program warned.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh announced this week that Russia and Iran were finalizing a ‘Global Agreement for Cooperation between Iran and Russia’ along the lines of a  similar 25-year agreement between China and the Islamic republic last year that has yet to get legs.

Even so, Iran scored an important victory when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in which China and Russia loom large last month agreed to process Iran’s application for membership.

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