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North Korea’s Nuclear Shadow: A Worrisome Expansion

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Abstract: The nuclear news from North Korea remains clear and threatening.  Ignoring both political warnings and legal prohibitions, Kim Jong Un has continued testing shorter range weapons that could imperil U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. In September, the North tested a new cruise missile it intends to arm with nuclear warheads and demonstrated a new system for firing ballistic missiles from trains. Kim’s escalatory launch from rail cars came just hours before the South reported its first test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Tackling such complexities, the following article by Professor Louis René Beres recommends issue-specific forms of dialectical thinking to US planners and policy-makers. His focused recommendations include a US policy shift in strategic objective from enemy “denuclearization” to mutual nuclear deterrence.

“The worst does sometimes happen.”-Friedrich Durrenmatt, Swiss Playwright

 Pyongyang’s recent missile tests reveal more than narrowly technical information about advanced military hardware. These tests reveal that Kim Jong Un has no intention to “denuclearize.” A reciprocal question now arises for the United States: What should Washington do in response?

To begin, there should be no resumption of incoherent and needlessly belligerent escalatory threats by an American president. There should be, instead, a conscious refinement of conceptual understandings. Before the United States can limit Pyongyang’s determined capacity to expand ever-more aggressively with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, Washington will need to embrace much more deeply thoughtful ideas about military power and national security.[1]

What should this required “embrace” actually look like? First, President Joseph Biden will need to understand that even a tangible US superiority in delivery vehicles and nuclear firepower need not signify American safety or potential “victory.” Though not readily apparent, this presumed US advantage could encourage a false sense of national influence and a visceral pattern of strategic risk-taking.

Overall, there could be no “minor” nuclear crises. In essence, a nuclear confrontation with North Korea – any nuclear confrontation – could quickly spin out of control, leaving even the militarily “superior” nation with grievous losses or impairments.[2]  What then?

The Intellectual Imperative

For the United States, the core policy obligations are plain. Going forward, proper reactions to North Korean nuclear expansion must be based exclusively upon Science and Reason. Rejecting the previous American president’s announced preference for “attitude” over “preparation,” Mr. Biden should restore this country to intellectually defensible foreign policies.

During the rancorous Trump Era, all proposed presidential solutions to North Korean nuclearization became crudely ad hominem (“We fell in love,” said Donald Trump about Kim Jong Un). At this point, to restore basic coherence to US-North Korean diplomacy, pertinent strategic policies will need to be based upon a more significant American appreciation of decision -making complexities. Inter alia, this appreciation should include an awareness of various multiple “synergies.” 

What intersections should be included? In all synergistic intersections, the “whole” of any particular outcome must be greater than the sum of its “parts.” Additionally, among military planners, the term “force multiplier” is often used to communicate the same or similar principles.

                There is more. For American planners, specificity and generality[3] will both be required. Comprehensive theories are necessary.[4] Always, the prevailing world order,[5] like the myriad individual human bodies who comprise it, will need to be recognized as a system. No discernible effects could be entirely isolated or singular.

Among the clarifying implications of this central metaphor, any more-or-less major conventional conflict in northeast Asia could heighten prospects of international conflicts elsewhere. This is the case whether such prospects would be immediate or incremental.  These prospects could include a regional nuclear war. Significant risks of such a worst case scenario would be enlarged by American searches for no-longer plausible outcomes. An important example of such a mistaken search would be one that is directed toward “victory.”

Perils of Seeking “Victory”

               There is good reason for identifying this example. Here, a cautionary observation about “victory” is persuasive, at least in part, because all core meanings of victory and defeat have changed dramatically.[6] Inter alia, these are no longer the meanings offered by Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz’ classic On War (1832). At a little-examined metaphysical level, the ultimate victory for any human being or institutionalized collection of human beings must be victory over death.[7]

               In most prospectively identifiable wars between nation-states, there are no longer any confirmable criteria of demarcation between victory and defeat. Even a “victory” on some actual field of battle might not in any calculable way reduce serious security threats to the American homeland or US allies. Such grave threats, whether foreseen or unforeseen, could include various sub-state aggressions (terrorism) and/or widening attacks upon regional or non-regional US allies.

               Once it was acknowledged as a distinct foreign-policy objective, any declared US search for “victory” over North Korea could create a corrosively lethal escalatory dynamic with Pyongyang, one from which Washington could no longer expect any derivative military advantages. Such predictably injurious creations could take place in variously unanticipated increments or as an unexpected (“bolt-from-the-blue”) enemy aggression.[8] In the foreseeable worst case, an unwitting US forfeiture of “escalation dominance” would signify starkly irreversible American losses. These losses could include chaotic conditions that create tens or hundreds of thousands of prompt fatalities and much larger numbers of latent cancer deaths.

               For US policy planners, a great deal of subject-matter specificity must soon be taken into close account. In a promisingly coherent post-Trump policy world where history and science regain proper pride of place,[9] a capable American president can finally acknowledge something too long disregarded. It is that because nation-states no longer declare wars or enter into binding war-termination agreements, the application of traditional criteria of “war winning” to interstate conflicts no longer make any legal sense.[10]

Even more important, the empty political rhetoric of “victory” carries no correspondingly objective assessment or evaluation. No one can ever really “know” whether a particular war has been won or lost. And if this ambiguity were not the case, the “winning” side might still remain substantially vulnerable to assorted enemy aggressions, whether state, sub-state or “hybrid” inflicted.

The Limits of Military Acumen, Rationality and Prediction

 There is more. In the very complicated matters at hand, ascertainable benefits might not lie in any traditional forms of military expertise. A core question arises: Exactly how much applicable experience could American generals have garnered in starting, managing or ending a nuclear war? To what extent might the president and his senior commanders see only what they would want to see, including perhaps a seemingly gainful prospect of US military preemption?[11]

               In these opaque nuclear times, selective perceptions could sometimes prove to be mistaken. In principle, even after sober consideration of retaliatory consequences, an American president might still discover tangible benefit in launching specific preemptive strikes against an already nuclear North Korea. This prospect arises at least in exceptionally residual circumstances.[12] Accordingly, there could exist certain definable crises where refraining from striking first would appear more costly than gainful (irrational). These would be crises that allow North Korea to implement certain severely-complicating protective measures.[13]

               What’s the “bottom line” on US defensive first strikes against an already nuclear North Korea? It is that even such an American preemption could sometimes be rational, but only in utterly last resort strategic calculations.

               How can America tap pertinent military expertise on such critical existential judgments? All things considered, it is reasonable to expect that the generals could have no adequate expectation of pertinent “dialectics;”[14] that is, about Pyongyang’s selected response. Still, by no means does this candid expectation represent any ad hominem or gratuitous criticism of professional military planners. It is merely a dispassionate analytic reflection on the historical uniqueness of nuclear conflict.

There have been no nuclear wars; hence, there can be no experts on nuclear warfare.

               This incontestable conclusion is most urgently compelling in regard to the myriad complexities of any two-power nuclear competition: (1) one where there would exist substantial asymmetries in relative military power position; and (2) one where the “weaker” (North Korean) side could maintain a verifiable potential to inflict unacceptably damaging first-strikes or reprisals upon the “stronger” American side.

               Again, no truly reliable probability estimations can ever be undertaken in reference to unprecedented or sui generis situations. In science, authentic probability judgments must always be based upon a carefully calculated frequency of relevant past events.

               There are other problems in seeking an ultimate “victory” over North Korea. Recalling the “good old days,” which extend into the twentieth-century, nation-states have generally had to defeat enemy armies before being able to wreak any wished-for destruction upon the adversary’s cities and infrastructures. In those earlier times of more traditional doctrinal arrangements concerning war and peace, an individual country’s demonstrated capacity to “win” was necessarily prior to a sought-after capacity to destroy. An appropriate and well-known example to US military thinkers would be the case of Persia and Greece at the 480 BCE Battle of Thermopylae. Today, unlike what was purportedly the case at Thermopylae, a state needn’t be able to defeat enemy armies in order to inflict calculably gainful harms. Even if the US were to “win” against North Korea in a war, that “defeated” adversary could still inflict vast harms upon American citizens, institutions and infrastructures.

At a minimum, such an enemy could enlist destructive proxy forces, such as bio-terrorist surrogates.

The Capacity to Deter is Distinct from the Capacity to Win

               For President Biden and his counselors, there does remain some “good news.” The United States needn’t be able to win a particular conflict in order to credibly threaten a significant foe like North Korea (deterrence) or to inflict retaliatory harms upon this enemy. What this “good news” means today is that the capacity to deter is no longer necessarily identical to the capacity to win. For the United States, the principal war-planning or war-deterring lesson of any such ongoing transformations now warrants serious study.

               For the United States, the only prospective “victory” of immediate consequence is an intellectual victory. Conceptually, what matters most will be an American capacity to win bewilderingly complex struggles of “mind over mind.” Going forward, American planner must diligently work through variously dialectic forms of struggle with Pyongyang, not just enter into ad hoc or visceral contests of “mind over matter.”

               There are also various relevant points of law to be considered.[15] This is because jurisprudencehas its own proper place in such bewildering strategic calculations. More specifically, in terms of applicable law, winning and losing may no longer mean much for successful strategic planning. This tangible devaluation of victory and defeat should also become more obvious with regard to America’s wars on terror. Now, after Afghanistan, pressing conflict issues will need to be examined within continuously transforming US military plans and objectives regarding not just North Korea but also Syria, Iraq, Yemen and assorted other places.

               Regarding “victory,” he U.S. can never meaningfully “win” any upcoming wars with Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS-K, Taliban, etc. In part, this is the case because national leaders could never know for certain whether a presumptively zero-sum conflict with virulent sub-state or “hybrid” adversaries was actually “over.” On pertinent definitional matters, a “hybrid” enemy would refer to any adversary that combined state and sub-state elements in changing ratios of composition.

  Operationally, winning and losing are now fully extraneous to America’s collective interests, or, in those foreseeable cases where “victory” might still be expressed as a high-priority national objective, fully harmful. Ironically, a narrowly static American orientation to “winning” against North Korea could sometime lead the United States toward huge and irreversible losses. Such loses would likely ensue from various critical American misjudgments on “escalation dominance.”

               There is more. United States military planners could look usefully to “The East.” Long ago, famed Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu had reasoned simply: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” To meet current US national security objectives vis-à-vis North Korea and other potential nuclear adversaries, this ancient Chinese military wisdom suggests that Washington now openly seek deterrence rather than victory. Any such necessary discontinuance should remain connected to the stringent requirements of maintaining optimal control over all necessary military escalations.

               If, in the future, these requirements were somehow minimized or disregarded, a resultant regional conflict could have “spillover” implications for other nation-states and for other parts of the world. Different elements of chaos notwithstanding, world politics and world military processes are always expressive of an underlying system. This elucidating characterization must lie continuously at the core of any coherent US strategic doctrine. 

Final Strategic Calculations

               Before these systemic connections can be understood and assessed, however, US planners must realize that the complicated logic of strategic nuclear calculations demands a discrete and capably nuanced genre of decision-making. This would be a genre that calls for considerable intellectual refinement in extremis atomicum. As an example, casually expecting an American president to convincingly leverage Chinese and Russian sanctions on behalf of the United States would miss at least two vital and intersecting points: (1) the regime in Pyongyang will likely never back down on its overall plan for nuclearization, however severe sanctions might seemingly become; and (2) counting upon meaningful sanctions from Beijing or Moscow would become inherently problematic for the United States.

 Both China and Russia remain substantially more worried about their traditional national enemy in Washington than about future dangers arising from Pyongyang.

               Truth will out. In world politics, as in law,[16] truth is exculpatory.  Like it or not, a nuclear North Korea is a fait accompli. Soon, President Biden will have to focus upon creating stable nuclear deterrence with North Korea (a) for the benefit of the United States; (b) for the benefit of America’s directly vulnerable allies in South Korea and Japan; and (c) for the benefit of its indirectly vulnerable allies elsewhere, including Israel in the still-dissembling Middle East.

               However inconspicuous, these important allies remain integral components of the same organic world system; they can never be helpfully separated from the palpable consequences of American geopolitical posture.

               “The existence of `system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” observed 20th century French Jesuit scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “no matter whom….” Nowhere is this interrelatedness more obvious or more potentially consequential than in the continuing matter of a nuclear North Korea and US foreign policy decision-making. This urgent threat from Pyongyang will not subside or disappear on its own. Immediately, it must be America’s sober responsibility to better understand all relevant American security obligations as well as their derivative complications.

Nuclear Warfighting Scenarios

 Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into any future conflict between the United States and North Korea, actual instances of nuclear war-fighting could occur. This would be the case as long as: (a) US conventional first-strikes against North Korea would not destroy Pyongyang’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) US conventional retaliations for a North Korean conventional first-strike would not destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) US preemptive nuclear strikes would  not destroy Pyongyang’s second-strike nuclear capability; and (d) US conventional retaliations for North Korean conventional first strikes would not destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.

Any US nuclear preemption would be potentially catastrophic and hence implausible. Reciprocally, assuming rationality, any North Korean nuclear preemption against the United States or its allies would be unlikely or altogether inconceivable. Can we reasonably and continuously assume North Korean rationality? Kim Jong Un has been steadily accelerating his testing of advanced nuclear missiles and supporting infrastructures. There is no persuasive basis to doubt that his vast commitment to nuclear weapons is in any manner reversible.

In January 2021, after describing the United States as “our biggest enemy,” Kim Jong Un called openly for more advanced nuclear weapons and infrastructures. At that time, during fully nine hours of blistering remarks at a party conference in Pyongyang, Kim summarized his country’s basic strategic posture: “Our foreign political activities should be focused and redirected on subduing the United States, our biggest enemy…No matter who is in power in the US, the true nature of the US and its fundamental policies towards North Korea never change.”

               Now, capable strategic analysts guiding American president Joseph Bien should enhance their nuclear investigations by carefully identifying basic distinctions between intentional or deliberate nuclear war and unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The risks are apt to vary considerably, especially if rationality is also factored into the manty-sided calculation. Those American analysts who would remain too singularly focused upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could all-too-casually underestimate a far more serious nuclear threat to the United States.

               This means the increasingly credible threat of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war.

                An additional conceptual distinction must be inserted into any US analytic scenario “mix.” This is the subtle but still important difference between an inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. Any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not be accidental. Most critical, in this connection, would be significant errors in calculation committed by one or both sides – that is, more-or-less reciprocal mistakes that lead directly and/or inexorably to nuclear conflict.

The most blatant example of such a mistake would concern assorted misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that emerge during the course of any ongoing crisis escalation.

Wider Implications of Chaos

               What about “chaos?” How would this indecipherable condition impact pertinent models of rational decision-making? Whether described in the Old Testament or in other evident sources of Western philosophy, chaos could become as much a source of human improvement as decline.[17] It is this prospectively positive side of chaos that is intended by Friedrich Nietzsche’s dense remark  in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883): “I tell you, ye have still chaos in you.”

               When expressed in aptly neutral tones, chaos represents that condition which prepares the world for all things, whether sacred or profane. It reveals that yawning gulf of “emptiness” where nothing is as yet, but where variously remaining civilizational opportunity can still originate. The 18th century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observed: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic, which stands at the roots of the things, and which prepares all things.”

               Insightfully, in the ancient pagan world, Greek philosophers thought of this “desert” as logos, a primal designation which indicates that chaos is anything but starkly random or without merit.

One core conclusion is beyond reasonable question. It is that the only rational use for American nuclear weapons in any forthcoming US-North Korea negotiation must be as diplomatic bargaining elements of interstate dissuasion/persuasion. Barring any sudden crisis initiated by North Korean nuclear strike – a crisis that would immediately place the American president in extremis atomicum –  there could be absolutely no gainful use for such weapons as actual implements of war. If there could sometime arise a strategically rational justification for nuclear war-waging, one in which the expected benefits of nuclear weapons use would seemingly exceed expected costs, the planet as a whole could be imperiled, perhaps even irremediably.

Prima facie, there can be no credible guarantees that US-North Korean relations will not sometime descend into tangible nuclear conflict. “The worst,” warns Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “does sometimes happen.” For the United States, the best way to avoid any such irreversible folly with North Korea would be to reluctantly accept that belligerent country into the “nuclear club,” but still take intellect-based steps to ensure that it remains subject to American nuclear deterrence.


[1] “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another,” asks Samuel Beckett philosophically in Endgame, “of seeking justification always on the same plane?” Thought the celebrated Irish playwright was certainly not thinking specifically about world politics or national security, his generalized query remains well-suited to this strategic inquiry. As competitive power-politics has never worked, why keep insisting upon it as a presumptively viable doctrine?

[2] For informed assessments of plausible consequences of nuclear war fighting, see, by this author: Louis René Beres, SURVIVING AMID CHAOS: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016/2018); 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: U S 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).

[3] The need for generality notwithstanding, strategic thinkers should never lose sight of the human consequences of their abstractions. By definition, theory is a simplification, one purposely excluding from consideration those factors deemed unessential to analytic explanation. This indispensable exclusion comes at a cost, however, because it involves the palpable sacrifice of espirit de finesse or the individual human element of any catastrophe. Recalling the poet Goethe’s observation in Urfaust, the original Faust fragment: “All theory, dear friend, is gray, and the golden tree of life is green.” (Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und grűn des Lebens goldner Baum.”)

[4] “Theory is a net,” observes German poet Novalis,” and “only those who cast, can catch.” This apt metaphor was embraced by philosopher of science Karl Popper as the epigraph to his classic work on philosophy of science:  The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934).

[5] The term “world order” has its contemporary origins in a scholarly movement begun at the Yale Law School in the mid- and late 1960s and later “adopted” by the Politics Department at Princeton University in 1967-68. The present author was an early member of the Princeton-based World Order Models Project, and wrote several of the early books and articles in this once still-emergent academic genre.

[6]See by this writer, at The Hill: Louis René Beres: https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/the-military/347395-opinion-victory-in-afghanistan-has-no-serious-meaning

[7]Throughout history, notions of ultimate “victory” have been associated with personal immortality. To wit, in his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of legal regulation in their interactions with each other.

[8] See especially: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51… Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[9] “Intellect rots the brain” shrieked Joseph Goebbels at a Nuremberg Germany rally in 1935. “I love the poorly educated” echoed American presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 rally in the United States. Perhaps to authenticate his anti-intellectualism, Trump went on to propose household bleach as a Covid19 treatment, urge the use of nuclear weapons against hurricanes and praise American revolutionary armies in the 18th century for “gaining control of all national airports.”

[10] Under authoritative international law, which is generally a part of US law, the question of whether or not a “state of war” exists between states is ordinarily ambiguous. Traditionally, it was held that a formal declaration of war was necessary before any true state of war could be said to exist. Hugo Grotius divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not. (See Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace, Bk. III, Chas. III, IV, and XI.) By the start of the twentieth century, the position that war can obtain only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties was codified by Hague Convention III. This treaty stipulated, inter alia, that hostilities must never commence without a “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.) Currently, formal declarations of war could be tantamount to admissions of international criminality because of the express criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law. It could, therefore, represent a clear jurisprudential absurdity to tie any true state of war to prior declarations of belligerency. It follows, further, that a state of war may exist without any formal declarations, but only if there should exist an actual armed conflict between two or more states, and/or at least one of these affected states considers itself “at war.”

[11] As a legally permissible form of such a preemption, “anticipatory self-defense” is rooted in customary international law (see note immediately below), Customary international law is identified as an authoritative source of world legal norms at Art. 38 of the UN’s Statute of the International Court of Justice. International law, an integral part of the legal system of all states in world politics, assumes a general obligation of states to supply benefits to one another and to avoid war wherever possible. This core assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is not subject to any reasonable question. It can be found, inter alia, in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis, Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625) and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law (1758).

[12] In law, any such defensive first-strikes, if permissible, could be considered “anticipatory self-defense.” The normative origins of such defense liein customary international law, more precisely, 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).

[13]Designed to guard against any US preemption, 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 pre-delegations of launch authority. This means, incrementally, that the US could find itself endangered by certain steps taken by Pyongyang to prevent a belligerent preemption. Optimally, the United States would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks launched against its own or allied armaments/ populations. But if such steps were to become a fait accompli, Washington could still calculate correctly that a preemptive strike would be legal and cost-effective. This is because the expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, could still appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of enemy first-strikes –  strikes likely occasioned by the antecedent failure of “anti-preemption” protocols.

[14] “Dialectic” is Plato’s term for what science and philosophy “do.” It is rooted in the Greek word for conversation, and stipulates that only through conversation can one genuinely discover “what each thing is” (Republic 533b).

[15] Under international law, every use of forcemust be judged twice: once with regard to the underlying right to wage war (jus ad bellum) and once to the means used in conducting a war (jus in bello). Following the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the United Nations Charter, there can be absolutely no right to aggressive war. However, the long-standing customary right of post-attack self-defense remains codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter. Similarly, subject to conformance, inter alia, with jus in bello criteria, certain instances of humanitarian intervention and collective security operations may also be consistent with jus ad bellum. The law of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at The Hague and Geneva Conventions, these rules attempt to bring “discrimination” (aka “distinction”), “proportionality” and “military necessity” into belligerent calculations.

[16] International law is always part of the law of the United States. For early decisions on the US “incorporation” of authoritative international law by Chief Justice John Marshall, see: The Antelope, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 66, 120 (1825); The Nereide, 13 U.S. (9 Cranch) 388, 423 (1815); Rose v. Himely, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 241, 277 (1808) and Murray v. The Schooner Charming Betsy, 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 64, 118 (1804).

[17] “Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning.”

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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Defense

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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