In The Washingon Times, Graham Allison of Harvard University writes on "Preventing a nuclear terrorist attack". He gives an assessment in two stages. First is this bleak message: "Based on current trends, a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is more likely than not in the decade ahead." Secondly, this horrific scenario is preventable: "There is a feasible, affordable checklist of actions that, if taken, would shrink the risk of nuclear terrorism to nearly zero because, as a fact of physics: no HEU [highly enriched uranium] or plutonium, no mushroom cloud, no nuclear terrorism."
My worry is that the strategy Allison proposes is not fully within our power to effect. In particular I'm unconvinced that a grand bargain with Tehran - as Allison proposes - will have the desired outcome of preventing completion of Iran's nuclear infrastructure. The problem ought to be obvious: Iran has consistently lied about its activities, which include the illicit production of a small amount of fissionable material. The evidence is that Iran responds to pressure, as happened after the exposure of its illicit activities in 2002. It wishes to remain within the regime of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But Iran will cheat if given the opportunity. Thinking on this subject has not been aided by a curious omission in coverage of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, published last December. As David Kay, who led the Iraq Survey Group, commented last month concerning the NIE's confident judgement that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003:
That first line brought me up sharp. There was a footnote to it that a lot of people missed if they were reading just the press reports of it. It turns out what they call a “nuclear weapons program” is just the design work on the actual warhead itself. Actually, the U.S. National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell testified this week that the weapons design work, particularly for an early- generation weapon, is the least important part of a nuclear-weapons program. What’s important is the fissile material and in the case of Tehran, the enriched uranium. That’s the real core of a nuclear-weapons program. And there’s no doubt that activity continues.
The NIE refers to it and so has the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. I particularly found it an egregious statement not only because it showed no sensitivity to what a nuclear-weapons program was but the fact was that Tehran by IAEA standards has cheated and tried to hide that program for eighteen years. I have to emphasize I have not read the classified version and I have no idea whether it reflects a more sophisticated understanding of nuclear proliferation than the unclassified version.
(The British government made this point immediately and rightly, by the way - see the Foreign Secretary's article in the Financial Times on 6 December, arguing that pressure should not be taken off Tehran.)
The reason this is so important is implicit in earlier work done by Graham Allison. His newspaper by-line notes that he served as Assistant Secretary of Defence (under President Clinton), but omits mention of a remarkable and influential book he published in 1971, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's not an overstatement to say this is among the best books ever written about international relations. I can't do justice to its thesis in a few sentences, but here is the baldest of summaries.
Allison presents different models for interpreting the Cuba Missile Crisis. These are: the Rational Actor model, in which contending governments rationally seek to maximise utility; the Organisational Process model; and the Governmental (Bureaucratic) Politics model. You will interpret the crisis differently according to which model you apply.
Nuclear deterrence is a much less stable system under the second and third of these models. Under the Organisational Process model, the actors follow certain set procedures rather than rationally assess the highest pay-off. As Allison puts it: "Nuclear crises between machines as large as the United States and Soviet governments are inherently chancy. The information and estimates available to leaders about the situation will reflect organisational goals and routines as well as facts." Under the third model, which stresses politics within the leadership, the way crises are managed "is obscure and terribly risky". The interaction of different constituencies within government, and the potential for misunderstanding among them, "could indeed yield nuclear war as an outcome". (Quotations are from p. 260.)
There is a common argument that nuclear deterrence is a stable system because the risks of getting it wrong are so high. (A good example is this piece from Christopher Layne of the antediluvian American Conservative magazine: "while a nuclear-armed Iran is hardly desirable, neither is it 'intolerable,' because it could be contained and deterred successfully by the United States.") Allison's work is an important corrective in showing how nuclear war might come about even with rational political actors.
In the Cold War the world came close to a nuclear exchange on two occasions that we know of: not only the Cuban crisis, but also when the Soviet leadership apparently misunderstood a Nato military exercise (Operation Able Archer) in 1983 as the real thing. We can be less confident still of the robustness of deterrence if nuclear weapons are developed or acquired by North Korea or Iran, especially given Iran's sponsorship of terrorist agents. The fact that we no longer include Iraq in that reckoning of potential threats is, in my view, important in judging the consequences of the Iraq War.