Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The (Inevitable) Coming Conflict with Iran

The (Inevitable) Coming Conflict with Iran

Nuclear Symbol on Iranian Flag

“A balance of power legitimized by power would be highly unstable and make unlimited war almost inevitable, for the equilibrium is achieved not by the fact but by the consciousness of balance…this consciousness is never brought about until it is tested.”[1] [emphasis in original]

— Henry A. Kissinger (1954)


No less than “to understand Henry Kissinger.” So promises the dust jacket of Greg Grandin’s new book Kissinger’s Shadow.[2] While making no particular effort to conceal an unflattering view of his subject, Professor Grandin nevertheless artfully cites and parses Kissinger’s writing over many decades, including as a student at Harvard.

I was struck by one particularly absorbing passage from Dr. Kissinger’s 1954 doctoral dissertation, which Grandin cites early in his book (and with which this essay begins). Grandin offers this explanation: “In order to ‘test’ power — that is, in order to create one’s consciousness of power — one needed to be willing to act. On this point at least, Kissinger was unfailingly clear: ‘inaction’ has to be avoided so as to show that action is possible.”[3]

Restated, the awareness of power comes from its use. It is the difference between potential power — what are my resources relative to a given adversary? — and actualized power — what resources will I mobilize and put to use in a specific situation?

The potential power calculation is simple: the greater the discrepancy between the resources of two adversaries — call them A and B — favors A, the more likely (i.) that A will wield power, and (ii.) that A will do so in a way to restrict B‘s options. Thus A can wield power efficiently, that is, do so in a way that minimizes the cost. This brings in the concept of potentiality, or the difference between potential and actualized power. When A deploys greater resources in a specific situation involving A and B, A is said to exercise power over B. Deterrence, however, reflects potentiality. When B assesses that A is likely to deploy greater resources in a specific situation and so restricts its own options accordingly, A is said to exercise influence over B in such a way that B is deterred from acting.[4] In this situation, the power relation between A and B is imbalanced.

Power relationships are marked by interdependence and reciprocity. Where A and B have equal potential power and/or equal actualized power (the “or” is where one has greater potentiality) then a balance of power exists under a condition of mutual deterrence. Kissinger’s concept of legitimization refers to the basis of each party accepting — in Kissinger’s lexicon, being conscious of — two factors. The first factor is the other party’s (in a simple bipolar world of A and B), or parties’ (in a more complex multipolar world of A, B, C…N) position of power. The second factor is a shared understanding of where each party stands in the power hierarchy. A balance of power can emerge in a multipolar world when weaker parties form a coalition to balance the dominant party (and any of its coalition partners). Great Britain used just such coalitions of lesser powers to great effect in the 19th century to achieve a continental balance of power.

Kissinger’s “a balance of power legitimized by power” is different. It means that a balance of power exists only when it is evinced to exist, i.e., proved by demonstration, from which follows his observation about instability and the inevitability of unlimited war. In the simple bipolar world, the acknowledgement by A and B that a balance of potential power exists between them must be accompanied by a shared understanding that a balance of actualized power does as well. This means A and B each understand the other will commit equal resources in any conflict between them. In Kissinger’s “a balance of power legitimized by power,” no such understanding exists (nor indeed, can one). Power must always be demonstrated, ensuring conflict.

The Emerging Balance of Power in the Middle East

The capacity to project power is the difference between a given country’s potential power, and power that can be actualized (more on this anon). To paraphrase Michael Doran,  of the region’s five most powerful countries – in alphabetical order, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – only two — Iran and Israel — are truly capable of projecting military power effectively, i.e., of actualizing it.

The author suggests that the balance of power likely to emerge in the Middle East over the coming months, catalyzed by the Iran nuclear agreement, will be one legitimized by power.

Israel’s potential power remains unchanged after the Iran nuclear agreement but its actualized power does not. Rather, it has declined. This is a function of Israel’s serial, yet in the end unfulfilled, threat to launch a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. This exemplifies what Kissinger characterized as an unwillingness to act manifesting in a failure to act. While the calculation by a potential adversary [read: Iran] regarding Israel’s ability and willingness to actualize power in defense of its borders are likely unchanged — a calculation extending arguably to some contour of a defensive geographic buffer as well — the unfulfilled (and by many estimates, including the author’s, unfulfillable) threat by Israel to project force against Iran in a preventive strike targeting Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure reduces Israeli actualized power overall. Paraphrasing Grandin, threats followed by inaction effectively have reduced Israel’s relative power in the Middle East.

For the “group of three” regional powers — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — while their potential and actualized power remain the same, each now find itself in a situation where Israeli inaction and Iranian action have disturbed the balance of power.

Iran has altered the regional balance of power and a second metric, the offense-defense balance. The offense-defense balance is different than balance of power. The former is a measure of the relative value of attacking versus defending; put another way, it is the ability to do well by attacking relative to defending. It is not a measure of the absolute value of attacking, nor is it the probability that an attacking state will prevail.


When a state develops an innovation that raises the probability that it can attack successfully above that of other states lacking the innovation, that innovation changes the balance of power (not the offense-defense balance).[5] In the case of Iran, the innovation is the development and expansion of its conventional (though by most estimates, nuclear-capable) theater missile systems. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared in a 29 August speech broadcast in Persian on the Islamic Republic’s state-controlled television networks, “We have formally announced that we are not committed to these provisions [related to missiles] mentioned in [the] U.N. resolution.” President Rouhani was referring to outstanding United Nations restrictions governing Iran’s ballistic missile program. While Iran is careful for political and diplomatic reasons to couch its missile arsenal in strictly defensive terms, that label references its deterrent effect, not the weapon’s capability.

On the other side, the author has argued elsewhere that Iran for some time has possessed a limited nuclear weapon arsenal held in deep reserve for the purpose of existential (territorial) defense of the homeland.[6] The single factor of Iranian nuclear weapons — to the extent it possesses them today (or is believed likely to, not unlike Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear weapons) or has the capacity to do so on short notice — changes the offense-defense balance. How Iran deploys its postulated nuclear weapons determines which direction the offense-defense balance shifts. Here, it is toward defense because Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is predicated on a secure second-strike posture.[7]

The Middle East’s emerging balance of power is precisely of the sort the young Kissinger inveighed against — one legitimized by the demonstration of power, both Iran’s positive demonstration of it, and Israel’s negative demonstration (i.e., unfulfilled threats). Separately, the region’s offense-defense balance has shifted at the same time toward defense, at least so far as the most problematic class of weapons (nuclear). Restoring the regional balance of power is problematic since it requires the group of three — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey[8] (the “G3”) — to escalate their potential power, something that has all the makings of a regional arms race. Recent United States’ promises of increased military aid (to Israel, and possibly some or all of the G3) and increased arms sales to all four will no doubt feed this potential. And there is of course no guarantee that the outcome of a regional arms race will be a new, stable balance of power.

The most expedient means to restore the regional balance of power is for the United States to commit sufficient force in theater to counterbalance Iran regionally (Israel is too small and distant to do so) at least until such time as it can shift the burden to the G3. If recent history is a guide, however, the G3 political leadership will be content for the United States to do the heavy lifting such that the promised hand-off never takes place.

What Is To Be Done?

How, then, to deter an expansionist Iran? The United States must articulate a regional security doctrine based on three principles: collective defense, territorial buffers, and an explicit conditional commitment to Israel’s strategic defense. The first principle, collective defense, revives the principle of American regional defense commitments.[9] It corrects the primary deficiency of earlier efforts like the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO),[10] viz., failing to provide collective security means and ends (e.g., a collective command structure).[11] The second principle, territorial buffers, is the enforcement of geographic distance between the G3 and Iran, countering what one analyst calls the Obama Administration’s de facto policy of “recognizing Iranian zones in the Levant as legitimate spheres of influence.”[12] The third principle, Israel’s strategic defense, is an explicit United States commitment to defend Israel in the event of a strategic attack on Israeli countervalue (population) or counterforce (its unacknowledged nuclear retaliatory capability) targets.

Collective Defense: The First Principle. The objective of a collective defense arrangement is twofold: first, to establish a coordinated opposition to Iranian territorial aggression and regional hegemony; and second, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. Regarding the first objective, the renowned American naval strategist Robert “Barney” Rubel wrote recently, “The 2003 Iraq invasion aside, the United States is generally a status-quo power, meaning that our policy is that current borders…are legitimate. Our fundamental military objective is defense of existing borders of allies when they are threatened.”[13] A good model for a new Middle East collective defense arrangement might be the 2014 Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation (known informally as “EDCA”) between the United States and the Philippines, which is oriented toward countering Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. The EDCA complements the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which provides that the United States will come to the Philippines’ assistance if its territory is attacked or if its armed forces are attacked “in the Pacific area.”

Stephen Walt observed in his 1987 study of alliance formation that when confronted by a major external security challenge from an emergent power, states either seek to balance it by allying with other states against the potential threat, or accede to the emergent power by aligning with it.[14] Iran has emerged as a ubiquitous security challenge in the region at a time when many states have been preoccupied with combating domestic insurgencies and/or containing conflicts in neighboring states (especially those in Iraq and Syria). Its territorial ambitions are transforming the regional security dynamic from a focus on internal security to one focused on territorial defense. The shift to territorial defense will be challenging given the region’s predominant geographic models — large countries with lengthy, unguarded borders and sparsely populated expanses, and small, enclave-like countries lacking defensive depth. The new security dynamic will reflect many geopolitical factors. Prominent among these are the emergence of an Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon bloc and the presence of Islamic State’s quasi-state within the “donut hole” of the western Iraq-eastern Syria conflict zone.

United States dominance of the global commons[15] does not translate into dominance of contested zones generally. It most certainly does not do so in regional conflict zones like the Syria-Iraq donut hole. “Continuing to aspire to be the security exporter of first resort globally could lead to highly unfavorable outcomes for U.S. foreign policy,” warns one analysis.[16] Thus the concept of dynamic (in contradistinction to sustained) presence — described as “meter[ing] forces to provide a minimum deterrent in areas of key strategic interest and to respond to crises globally”[17] — which in one sense transmutes the notion of a surge operation.[18] It involves “extracting precise levels of strategic effect from smaller and perhaps less-capable forces,” writes Rubel,[19] a sharp departure from earlier doctrine under which the United States maintained a sustained forward presence.

Nothing is as fundamental to a regional security alliance as its military structure. An alliance cannot fulfill its security mission without the combat, logistics, and command-and-control elements that comprise that structure. A US dynamic presence within an alliance structure is premised on the full commitment of alliance states’ political leadership and armed forces to the mission of collective defense. The role of the United States is twofold. First, it is to deploy dynamically (i.e. on an ad hoc, as-needed basis) the force-elements that other alliance states either do not possess (e.g., IMINT/FIINT/TELINT) or possess at levels insufficient to the mission of defending a threatened ally. The second role of the United States is to backstop alliance forces charged with the primary warfighting mission in defense of a threatened ally.

It is perhaps more useful in a short essay to establish clearly what the proposed alliance structure is not. Here, we turn to a set of forward presence models and their associated security dilemmas, identified by the aforementioned Captain Rubel:

  • Assured Defense. United States armed forces maintain a standing presence sufficient to defeat an adversary quickly and decisively.
  • Delay & Disruption. United States armed forces maintain a standing presence sufficient to “hold the line” in defense of an ally until war-winning American surge forces arrive in theatre to escalate the conflict.
  • Trip Wire. United States armed forces maintain a small standing presence designed to incur (presumably assured) intervention by surge forces, but not to credibly achieve defensive tasks, e.g., disruption, on its own.
  • Virtual Presence. United States armed forces maintain an almost exclusively surge posture. Its minimal standing presence is just sufficient to “hold the line” in an ally’s defense until war-winning American forces can arrive in theatre.

Each of these force structures balance “surge” and “presence” forces differently, as a function the size of their respective forward-positioned United States presence force. “Force-level calculation,” Rubel wrote, “depends significantly on how well the attacked ally fights or is expected to fight.” All forces structures along this continuum presuppose the United States will bear a significant share of the warfighting. This brings into play classic collective action problems. Allies are tempted to free ride, and to count on the United States to “close the gap” and prevent any debilitating shortfalls. Some allies may be tempted to adopt policies that Rubel writes are “more provoking to potential aggressors than if the U.S. defensive umbrella were not present.”[20]

These are not easy problems to remedy and certainly cannot be (and are not) fully exorcized here. The challenge is to devise an alliance military structure that can achieve dominance of a contested zone while disengaging from predictable patterns of ally free-riding and American gap-closing. Here we turn to an earlier generation of French theorists to illuminate a possible pathway.

General Guy Méry argued in the mid-1970s that “the proliferation of increasingly brutal minor or marginal conflicts…leave only an atmosphere of permanent crisis.” In such an atmosphere nuclear weapons “did not have only a passive and inhibitive role, but are becoming more and more necessary to permit action by other means.”[21] What Méry meant is that nuclear weapons act to limit vertical escalation in small conventional conflicts — containing them in such as way as to make them less likely to escalate into strategic ones — but in so doing, caused these conflicts to become more intense.[22] Iranian denials of nuclear capacity (and it might be added, Israeli’s official policy of nuclear ambiguity) notwithstanding, the same dynamic is likely to emerge in the Middle East over the next decade.

“Individual security cannot really be guaranteed…without possession of nuclear armament,” according to Méry.[23] That being said, he doubted the effectiveness of sanctuarisation or the deterrent effect of using nuclear arms to guarantee the integrity of the national territory. Méry challenged a security doctrine premised on a defending a “sanctuary” enclosed by national borders. “In an extreme case when everything in Europe had collapsed about us,” Méry was skeptical whether French “national will would survive to have recourse to the threat of massive destruction, even to ensure our continued existence.”[24] He proposed as an alternative a sanctuarisation élargie (“enlarged sanctuary”) encompassing “the entire zone where the security of [French national] territory may be most immediately threatened.” Méry defined that zone as “Europe and its immediate approaches, particularly the Mediterranean basin.” Within this “first circle,” France must be able “to intervene with the whole or a part of our forces…where the security of [French national] territory may be most immediately threatened.” Later interpretations of sanctuarisation élargie sometimes eschewed strict continuity between the national sanctuary and the area beyond its frontiers, or argued for leaving the zone’s precise boundaries deliberately vague to preserve flexibility when responding to a conflict.[25]

While for Méry, “the ideal situation” was to threaten to use nuclear weapons “at the right moment to prevent fighting,” he acknowledged “it is also possible their use may be necessary.”[26] Thus the dual role assigned tactical nuclear weapons: a battlefield weapon, but also an instrument of deterrence. It implied the necessity of a strong conventional force — one Valéry Giscard d’Estaing believed would increase the credibility of the deterrent force by allowing greater continuity in how France responded to different situations. Giscard rejected the “two battle” concept — one, a “forward battle” in which France might chose to participate with conventional forces or instead abstain from; and should NATO lose the first battle, a second (possibly nuclear) one to preserve French sanctuary[27] — in favor of holding that any European war would likely be fought in “one single space”.[28] He wrote it “would indeed be illusory to hope that France could maintain more than a reduced sovereignty if her neighbors had been occupied by a hostile power or were simply under its control.”[29] While maintaining French nuclear independence, Giscard was suggesting for the first time that France was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend the territory of another state, e.g., Germany, an attack on which might be tantamount to an attack on France.[30]

Sanctuarisation élargie is a useful conceptual approach to territorial defense for U.S. potential alliance partners and allies — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan. It is the foundation, as Giscard suggested, for the sort of collective defense arrangement capable of deterring Iranian territorial ambitions and adventurism over the next decade.

Territorial Buffers: The Second Principle. Maintaining territorial buffers between Iran and the larger regional powers — the land buffers with Turkey[31] and Egypt, and land and marine buffers with Saudi Arabia — are critical to conflict avoidance. Considering the (mostly) noncontiguous geography of Iran and these regional powers, the suggestion of a Venn diagram-like configuration of overlapping circles of sanctuarisation élargie is implicitly sensible from a security perspective. One question is how escalation would work, given that Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not today possess tactical nuclear weapons (and should not in future, accepting as a given the inherent undesirability of nuclear proliferation in the region’s turbulent political climate)?

A correlation between geographic contiguity and the occurrence of war between states has long been recognized among students of geopolitics.[32] The term buffer state is a late 19th century British neologism used to describe Afghanistan’s position between two more powerful, conflicting spheres of influence.[33] Here, however, the idea of a geographic buffer space[34] seems more apt given the political disintegration of Iraq and Syria, the region’s principal buffer states vis-à-vis Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia (along with Jordan and Israel). Iran’s perspective is of course shaped by its historical experience as a buffer state, having witnessed the dominance, weakening, and the ultimate disabling of its governmental structure at the start of the 20th century.

Neutral buffer spaces appear in the area between two or more poles of power only in the case of a tight regional balance of power. The inherent tendency of these spaces is to be short-lived, as they are compromised as soon as the regional balance of power shifts, or when a regional power or alliance decides the change the status quo and expand its own sphere of influence.[35] Here it seems a parallel may exist between the region in question — the eastern Syrian and western Iraqi “white space” that separates Iran from Turkey and Saudi Arabia (plus Jordan and Israel, and by extension, Egypt) — and the southern Caucasus. There, the depiction that Russia seeks “a neutral buffer zone to its west, a new ‘cordon sanitaire,’ which would guard it from NATO and the EU” is wrong, argues Tornike Turmanidze. Instead, “Russia’s actual geopolitical interest is to maintain satellites around its borders, not buffers[36] [emphasis added].

The same claim is made for Iran, the actions of which in Iraq and Syria (and in Lebanon via its Hezbollah proxy) are at odds with the imagined endpoint of vicinal neutral states, which if they did exist would diffuse tensions and allow Iran to avert conflict with contiguous states. Iran’s actions make far more sense in the context of an endpoint where Iraq and Syria (and Lebanon) become Iranian satellites. Today, however, the afore-delineated White Space is neither buffer nor satellite: rather, it is a shatterbelt,[37] a zone in Yezid Sayigh’s description where “the combatants…conduct their main battles, and where they may gain or cede territory without it resulting in complete victory or complete defeat for any of them.”[38]

While Iran and the other regional powers may share a common objective — dislodging Islamic State from the White Space — their respective geopolitical ambitions differ markedly. Iran’s geopolitical ambition is unambiguous: draw the shatterbelt back under the control of its Iraqi and Syrian satellites. For the rest, their ambition is unclear beyond some general restoration of the status quo ante bellum. There is no clear declaration extending the arc of a Turkish or Saudi sanctuarisation élargie into the White Space even though the case for it is obvious. Jordan, perhaps because the existential threat to it is more acute, announced in late June its intention to establish a buffer zone above its northern border. The buffer zone would extend across the contested southern Syrian provinces of Deraa and Suwayda, capped by a militarized zone to separate the rest of the buffer zone from Syrian government forces operating to the north.[39]

Subject to that single exception, the United States and its putative frontline allies are committing the self-same errors that Giscard cautioned against four decade ago. The first error is failing to see national territory and the White Space as a figurative single space, i.e., as a Turkish or Saudi sanctuarisation élargie. Instead, the conflict in the White Space is perceived as a forward battle with an equivocal commitment of non-US conventional forces, at least until such time as the conflict’s migration jeopardizes the Turkish or Saudi national sanctuary. It is lamentably unclear whether that condition would be triggered even by Iran’s effective dominion over the White Space. The second error is failing to commit the military forces required to escalate the conflict in order to prevent Iranian dominion over the contested space. This is apparent in the anemic commitments of Turkish and Saudi conventional forces to the fight, and the absence of a “bright line” demarking where Iranian action in the White Space would trigger a direct conflict.

Subject to the requirement that Turkey and Saudi Arabia (and others as well) declare explicitly that the arc of their respective sanctuarisation élargie extends into the White Space, the United States is uniquely capable of providing the capacity to escalate any conflict quickly through the commitment of massive force, without establishing a problematic fixed ground presence — here, through the United States naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf.

What is proposed is a radical redefinition of the doctrine governing the actions of the United States and its allies in the region. It starts with an unequivocal declaration of each ally’s sanctuarisation élargie to include the eastern Syrian and western Iraqi conflict zone. It also demands the United States delineate explicitly what consequences would be associated with the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into the conflict, arising from two opposite sources. One source is Iran, with its ability to affect a quick nuclear breakout force and an in-place nuclear-capable missile force. The other is Russia and its rapidly escalating military presence in Syria. Tactical nuclear weapons could be used either as a rebalancing expedient (Iran) or to backstop Syrian government forces (Russia). The second, equally volatile source is reactive proliferation[40] most likely involving Turkey or Saudi Arabia and enabled by Pakistan (not to discount completely the longer term possibility of a domestic nuclear weapons program à la Iran[41]).

The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons by Iran, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia (or any other regional state for that matter) as a rebalancing expedient would drastically alter the strategic landscape on the model of the India-Pakistan standoff, a most serious development.[42] It would reshuffle the regional balance of power and the offense-defense balance, tilting the latter dangerously to the offense. Iran would withdraw immediately from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action were Turkey or Saudi Arabia to acquire tactical nuclear weapons. Given the region’s problematic geography, the proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons would greatly complicate the security landscape since in almost all cases, missiles must overfly third countries to reach a target, risking the attacker’s intent and/or target is miscommunicated or misconstrued.[43]

Israel’s Strategic Defense: The Third Principle. The intent of an explicit United States commitment to Israel’s strategic defense[44] is to increase the deterrent effect of Israeli nuclear weapons[45] vis-à-vis Iran. The argued deterrence-bolstering effect borrows from French theorists of nuclear conflict c.1960s such as General Pierre Marie Gallois (deterrence) and General André Beaufre (nuclear “triggering”). The suggested defense commitment has roots in the 1950s, when Israel unsuccessfully sought NATO membership (1954); and later, a collective defense agreement with the United States to counter the Baghdad Pact (also unsuccessfully).

General Gallois theorized that a relatively weak nation could deter a relatively strong one (défense du faible au fort) subject to the condition that the stake must be total for the weaker nation and minor for the stronger one.[46] For General Beaufre, a nuclear deterrent could become too stable and thus lose credibility. He sought to destabilize the nuclear threat in order to increase its deterrent effect. A small force (in Beaufre’s example, France, but here, Israel), contributed to deterrence not so much by the direct threat it posed to a stronger adversary, but rather, by its capacity to initiate conflict that would rapidly escalate and pull in its stronger ally. A weak nation that “intruded” into a situation of equilibrium could have “strategic consequences out of all proportion to its nuclear strength”[47] by increasing risk and uncertainty for the adversary (then, the Soviet Union, but now, Iran).

An explicit strategic defense alliance between Israel and the United States would forcibly link the Israel’s smaller, second-strike retaliatory-oriented nuclear arsenal with the United States’ larger and more powerful one.[48] The intent is to deter and dissuade (to the degree that the linkage is perceived to be ineluctable) Iranian aggression. Israeli inaction vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear infrastructure has substantially degraded Israel’s “nuclear trigger” (Beaufre’s term). Achieving “deterrence of the strong by the weak” is practicable only so far as the weaker state is willing and able to launch a countervalue strike against the stronger state’s population centers. Israel’s blunder was to articulate a counterforce strategy — the oft-threatened preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure — that it had neither the means to execute unilaterally nor in all likelihood, the political will to launch except in the starkest condition of an imminent (and it should be said, likely unforeseeable) existential threat. Small size and lack of strategic depth make Israel vulnerable to, as Gallois once described France, having “nothing to cede that would not be herself.”[49] A countervalue strategy is far better suited to the mission of deterring Iran, but one which Israel would find politically (if not morally) indefensible.

Raymond Aron interpreted Beaufre’s argument as “the threat, though not explicit, of using the French atomic force as a detonator, its sole conceivable deterrent function within the framework of the present Atlantic organization.”[50] Mutatis mutandis, the same can be said of Israel’s (unacknowledged) nuclear force in the context of a broader alliance to deter Iran. As Beaufre wrote, “in a crisis, the existence of the third partner allows its powerful ally to intervene only in second position,” meaning that Israel’s ability to launch a retaliatory strike has a deterrent effect since it brings with it the larger threat of a companion strike by the United States.[51] Furthermore, Beaufre wrote, the powerful ally would have no alternative but to intervene.[52]

One consideration in assessing Israel’s ability to mount a strategic defense (with or without the United States) is the survivability of its second-strike (retaliatory) nuclear arsenal. This raises two considerations. First, it is questionable whether Israel could absorb a first strike and retain its ability to launch a retaliatory strike. This judgment relies on practical considerations — would Israel’s nuclear strike force remain sufficiently intact? — and political ones — would Israel’s command-and-control structure remain operational?[53] Beaufre would answer that the “capacity for riposte was the key to nuclear deterrence, whereas capability to reduce the riposte was the key to nuclear initiative.” Whether Israel could absorb a first-strike, it is uncertain whether it could demonstrate its “capacity for riposte” with sufficient clarity so as to deter Iran. Therefore, the United States and Israel should make explicit the principle of launch on warning.

The second consideration is the direct interest of the United States in the survivability of Israel’s second-strike (retaliatory) capability. Its robustness is the prime determiner of whether Israel can act as intended as a “nuclear trigger” or whether it simply exists under an American penumbra without a reliable retaliatory capability. Israel’s compact geography and associated small airspace constrain the deterrent effect of its land-based missile and fighter-bomber forces. The United States should actively support and facilitate the evolution of Israel’s retaliatory capability to include a modern nuclear submarine force. Today, Israel is forced to deploy its subsurface nuclear deterrent on conventional (non-nuclear) submarines. The limitations of this platform are well known and widely acknowledged. Lacking the range to remain on station for extended periods of time — and with Israel’s limited basing options (Haifa, and possible the Red Sea port of Eilat) — Israeli conventional submarines are vulnerable to a preemptive attack.[54]

Needed: A New Strategic Vision

This essay is a thought-experiment in how to address a real-world security dilemma: catalyzed by the Iran nuclear agreement, the emergence of a balance of power in the Middle East that is legitimized by power. Iran today demonstrates power to dissuade regional rivals from acting to counter Iranian expansionism. Israel’s failure to act on its threatened demonstration of power has further tilted the regional balance of power toward Iran. The author leaves to another day a detailed assessment of events within the White Space, instead deferring to the judgment of Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He rates improbable the likelihood of a status quo ante bellum in which that territory is rejoined with a sovereign Syria and Iraq.[55]

In the abstract at least, the proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons in the region — a veritable “capacity for riposte” indeed — might serve as an effective rebalancing expedient against Iran. While it would further shift the nuclear offense-defense balance to the defense, if Méry were correct, it also would serve merely to intensify the conventional conflict.

Enter the disruptive force of the United States. We should signal clearly that the United States stands prepared — in the event Iran attacks the alliance’s collective sanctuarisation élargie — to escalate any conflict in the region to the level where the United States will consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons (or equally destructive conventional weapons, at its sole and undeclared option). It must demand alliance members do their part and commit their full conventional force to an alliance military structure. The allies must also exercise political means to resist Iran’s emerging constellation of satellite states and check its expansion.

Time and political gamesmanship have corroded the credibility of the United States’ unspoken commitment to Israel’s strategic defense. This is a dangerous development, especially given the vulnerability of Israel’s nuclear triad to an Iranian preemptive attack. Diminution of this force’s deterrent effect tempts a cataclysm, especially if the commitment of the United States to Israel’s strategic defense is doubtful or ambiguously expressed. It is past time for the United States to declare explicitly its commitment to Israel’s strategic defense, and to articulate clearly what conditions will trigger preemptive or retaliatory action to fulfill it.

It is worth revisiting Kissinger’s somewhat elusive concept of “a balance of power legitimized by power.” He claims what matters is not whether a balance of power exists in the abstract. Instead, what matters is “the consciousness of balance.” A workable analogy is a draw in chess. It may occur when it appears neither side will win the game, in a sense, when there is a demonstrated balance of power. One player may claim a draw, and the other player may accept or reject that claim. When the claim is accepted, the balance of power has been tested — neither player has been able to defeat the other — and both players are conscious of it. In Kissinger’s parlance, there is a balance of power and the consciousness of balance. But that consciousness was achieved only through action, i.e., the gain and the loss of pieces. Games are one thing; nuclear warfare quite another. Thus we must act before we reach the point of a nuclear confrontation with Iran. Establishing a consciousness of balance in the region requires the active defense of American interests there. And that starts with the United States defining clearly what those interests are. Thus, the three principles.

As Michael Mukasey wrote in a recent op-ed, we are past the point of talking vaguely about military options in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear agreement. The absence of a clearly articulated doctrine to define American security interests in the region — one that makes the case for the alliance required to defend those interests over the long term against the persistent sources of the threat to them — has allowed something like a perfect storm to emerge: a regional balance of power legitimized by power.

“Deterrence is always a problematic concept, but there is a term in the current maritime strategy that might offer some assistance—’credible combat power.’ The term itself is vague, but some parsing can help. Credibility consists of two parts. The first is the ‘usability’ of the power — that is, whether the political costs and risks of actually using it are sufficiently low to make an American president likely, in a given set of circumstances, to say go. The second aspect of credibility is effectiveness: If used, would the combat power actually disrupt the plans and objectives of the aggressor?”[56]

Iran’s willingness to demonstrate credible combat power is an effect, not a cause, of a regional balance of power legitimized by power, which the young Kissinger warned was a highly unstable. The cause is inaction, in this instance, by regional powers capable of confronting Iran (Turkey and Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt); by Israel, its deterrent diminished by schizophrenic, serial threat-making left unconsummated; and by the demurral of the United States, the only power capable of gluing together a cordon of states to resist Iranian expansionism. The effort to act in concert but not in alliance has been tried and found lacking. Starker measures like preventive strikes have been bluffed, called, and found wanting. It is time for the United States to lead with a new security doctrine.


The translation of all source material is by the author unless otherwise noted.


[1] Henry Kissinger (1954). Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium (A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich), PhD thesis, Department of Government, Harvard University, 7. Published in 1957 as A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problem of Peace, 1812-1822. (New York: Houghton Mifflin).

[2] Greg Grandin (2015). Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman. (New York: Metropolitan Books).

[3] Grandin (2015), op cit., 29.

[4] These concepts were first suggested in Dorwin Cartwright (1959). Studies in Social Power (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press). They are summarized and developed in Diane E. Krause & Eric Kearney (2006). “The Use of Power Bases in Different Contexts.” In Chester Schriesheim and Linda L. Neider, eds. (2006). Power and Influence in Organizations: New Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives. (Hartford, CT: Information Age Publishing, Inc.). A pdf version is available here: Last accessed 2 September 2015.

[5] James D. Fearon (1997). “The Offense-Defense Balance and War Since 1648.” Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the International Studies Association, Chicago, Illinois, 21-25 February 1995, 7. Last accessed 2 September 2015.

[6]Also see John R. Haines (2015). “Between the Fall and the Second Coming: Radiological Weapons & Iran’s Un-Constrained Missile Program.” /articles/2015/08/between-fall-and-second-coming-radiological-weapons-irans-un-constrained-missile-program.

[7] Conversely, nuclear weapons shift the offense-defense balance toward the offense when they are deployed sub-optimally, e.g., as during the early Cold War when nuclear weapons were deployed in aircraft concentrated in exposed airfields. While nuclear weapons do not favor the offense or the defense per se, a particular deployment can. See: Fearon (1997), op cit., 6.

[8] While some commentators have suggested Pakistan might engage actively in a coalition to counter Iran, there are a number of reasons beyond the scope of this essay why that is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.

[9] The best known of these is Article 5 of the April 1949 Washington Treaty, under which the United States is committed to the collective defense of other NATO members. The 1947 Rio Treaty similarly commits the United States to the collective defense of signatories in the Caribbean Basin and Central and South America. The United States has several collective defense agreements in the Pacific Rim, including bilateral one with the Philippines (1951), Republic of Korea (1953), and Japan (1960); and multilateral one in Southeast Asia (1954) and Australia & New Zealand (1951).

[10] In February 1955, Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan entered into a collective defense arrangement (“Pact of Mutual Cooperation Between the Kingdom of Iraq, the Republic of Turkey, the United Kingdom, the Dominion of Pakistan, and the Kingdom of Iran”). Know informally as the “Baghdad Defense Alliance” or the “Baghdad Pact,” it was intended to stem rising Soviet adventurism in the region. The Baghdad Pact was modeled on a February 1954 security agreement between Turkey and Pakistan (“Agreement on Turkey-Pakistan Friendship and Cooperation”). Turkey entered into a similar arrangement with Iraq the following February, which then was opened to other countries. In April 1955, the United Kingdom announced it would adhere to the February 1955 Turkey-Iraq agreement, followed by Pakistan and then Iran. Jordan initially expressed interest but did not join due to domestic political opposition. The United States signed individual agreements with each Baghdad Pact nation but did not formally join. After a series of events culminating in the United States’ 1957 Lebanon intervention, the Baghdad Pact dissolved after Iraq, which formally opposed the United States action, withdrew. The remaining signatories formed the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). The post-revolutionary Iranian government withdrew from CENTO in 1979 along with Pakistan, after which CENTO formally disbanded.

[11] Though a detailed treatment of CENTO is beyond the scope of this essay, it is worth noting that the principle reason the pact was established was to act as a counterweight to Nasser’s Egypt that would frustrate his quest for regional hegemony.

[12] Tony Badran (2015). “The Sixth Annex.” NOW [published online in English 7 September 2015]. Last accessed 7 September 2015.

[13] Captain Robert C. Rubel, USN, Ret. (2015). “‘Straight’ Talk on Forward Presence.” Proceedings Magazine. 141:3. Last accessed 11 September 2015. Professor Rubel recently retired as Dean of Naval Warfare Studies at the United States Naval War College, where earlier he chaired the Wargaming Department.

[14] Stephen M. Walt (1987). The Origins of Alliances. (New York: Cornell University Press), 17.

[15] Barry Posen wrote a decade ago, “Command of the commons” — defined as “the sea and space, are areas that belong to no one state” — is the “key military enabler of the U.S. global power position.” He elaborated: “Command means that the United States gets vastly more military use out of the sea, space, and air than do others; that it can credibly threaten to deny their use to others; and that others would lose a military contest for the commons if they attempted to deny them to the United States.” See: Barry R. Posen (2003). “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony.” International Security. 28:1, 8. Last accessed 11 September 2015.

[16] Mark W. Lawrence (2015). Tailoring the Global Network for Real Burden Sharing at Sea. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield), 3. Last accessed 11 September 2015.

[17] Ibid.

[18] The author is using the term in the classic sense of moving resources quickly to address immediate, usually ad hoc, needs and to augment in-place resources.

[19] Rubel (2015), op cit. He writes, “Dispensing with terms such as ‘dominance’ and ‘overwhelming,’ we will define the strongest forward force posture as that calculated to defeat the local adversary outright.”

[20] Ibid. Ruble in his article also discusses security dilemmas that are specific to each doctrine.

[21] General Guy Méry at the time was France’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff. He outlined his thoughts in a March 1976 speech to the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Defense Nationale that was published in the June 1976 edition of Defense Nationale. An English translation was published later that same year. See: Méry (1976). “French defence policy.” Survival, 18:5, 226-228. Last accessed 12 September 2015.

[22] This raises a secondary point: since the conflict is unlikely to escalate to the point of a threatened nuclear exchange, other countries are less likely to intervene, until and unless it threatens to spread into neighboring countries.

[23] Ibid., 226.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Among those articulating such views were, respectively, General Lucien Poirer and President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

[26] Ibid., 228.

[27] The scenario postulated implicitly in France’s 1972 Le livre blanc sur la Défense et la Sécurité nationale (“National Defense White Paper”).

[28] David S. Yost (1981). “The French defence debate.” Survival. 23:1, 20.

[29] Government of France. (1976) Rapport sur la programmation des dépenses militaires et les équipements des Forces Armées pour la période 1977-1982, 8. This document can be downloaded at

[30] James C. Wendt (1986). “British and French Strategic Forces: Response Options to Soviet Ballistic Missile Defense.” P-7188 RAND Paper Series (March 1986), 11. Last accessed 13 September 2015.

[31] Turkey of course shares a 500km border with Iran that runs north-south between Armenia and Iraq. The Iranian city of Tabriz is located some 283km due east of the border. It is the reputed site of an Iranian nuclear weapons research facility and missile base.

[32] Several studies supporting this contention are cited in Susan G. Sample (2013). “The Outcome of Military Buildups: Minor States vs. Major Powers.” In Sara McLaughlin Mitchell & John A. Vasquez, eds. Conflict, War, and Peace: An Introduction to Scientific Research. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.), 111-112.

[33] Among the multitude of definitions, two stand out for clarity and usefulness in defining the term buffer state for geopolitical discourse. One is “a weak state, small in size, probably without a positive foreign policy of its own, which lies between two or more powerful states, and thus serves to inhibit international aggression.” [Pitman B. Potter (1930). “Buffer State.” In Edwin R.A. Seligman & Alvin Johnson. Encyclopedia of Social Science. v. 3-4 (New York: The Macmillan Company), 45] The other is “a weak power between two or more stronger ones, maintained or even created with the purpose of reducing conflict between them.” [Martin Wight (1995). Power Politics. Hedley Bull & Carsten Holbraad, eds. (London: Leicester University Press, Royal Institute of International Affairs), 160] The author credits Syrus Ahmadia, Mohammad Reza Hafeznia & Bernard Hourcad (2013) “Geopolitics of Buffer Spaces: Characteristics of Iran’s Buffer Situation Between Great Powers in the Nineteenth Century and Twentieth Century.” Science International (Lahore). 25:4, 1019.–1019-1030-%20Syrus%20Ahmadi-Geopolitics%20of%20Buffer%20Spaces%20-%20IRAN%2025-3-13.pdf. Last accessed 14 September 2015.

[34] Ahmadia, et al. (2013), op cit., claim authorship of this term.

[35] The author credits Tornike Turmanidze (2015). “Georgia: Buffer or NATO Ally?” Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, 3-4.

[36] Ibid., 8.

[37] The term is attributed to Gordon East (1963). “The Concept and Political Status of the Shatter Zone.” Norman J.G. Pounds, ed. Geographical Essays on Eastern Europe (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press), 1- 27.

[38] Yezid Sayig (2015). “Drawing the Lines in Syria’s Shatterbelt.” Al-Hayat [published online in Arabic 25 June 2015].

[39] “Jordan to set up buffer zone in southern Syria.” Financial Times [published online 29 June 2015]. Last accessed 14 September 2015. During the same period, press reports discussed Turkey’s plan to establish a small (100km long and 30km deep into Iraq) buffer zone along its southern border with Iraq. The objective, however, is to prevent two areas under Kurdish control (one in the east running from Kobane to the Iraq border; another in the west at Afrin) from linking. See: “Turkey ‘planning to invade Syria’.” The Telegraph [published online 29 June 2015]. Last accessed 14 September 2015.

[40] The term reactive proliferation is based on the simple (though disputed) principle that “proliferation begets proliferation,” i.e., if Iran acquires nuclear weapons (or, as is the case under the JCPOA, the capacity to do so on short notice), other regional states attempt to do the same. It has been argued that while it may be unlikely that all three potential reactive proliferators will build nuclear weapons, it is more likely than not that at least one will. See: Matthew Kroenig (2014). A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan), 121. A less likely contingency — since there is no discernable security or political benefit from it doing so — would involve Israel shedding nuclear ambiguity and acknowledging a defensive second-strike capability.

[41] All three countries have signed nuclear cooperation agreements (NCA) of one form or another. For example, Saudi Arabia signed NCAs with South Korea (2011), China (2012), France and Russia (2015), respectively.

[42] During the Cold War, tactical nuclear weapons aka non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs) in Europe acted as the link between conventional war and a central nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. NATO intentionally placed tactical nuclear weapons directly in front of the assumed axes of Soviet advance, where they would assuredly be overrun or employed. This warned the Soviets, in effect, that if Europe were invaded, the choice to use nuclear arms would be forced upon NATO. Tom Nichols (2012) preface to Tom Nichols, Douglas Stuart & Jeffrey D. McCausland, eds. Tactical Nuclear Weapons and NATO. (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College), viii.

[43] For example, a launch originating in a nuclear-capable state such as Iran might be construed as a nuclear attack since there is no reliable way to discriminate in-flight between nuclear and conventional warheads mounted atop a nuclear-capable missile. On the other hand, the region so far lacks the contiguity problem endemic to the Pakistan-India theatre, where nuclear-capable missile systems invite a preemptive strike because the system affords virtually no warning time (i.e., between launch and impact). For example, Pakistan’s Nasr (Hatf IX) short-range ballistic missile has a range of 60km; India’s Prahaar (which is nuclear-capable but not expressly a nuclear delivery system) has a range of 150km and can be fired in salvos of six independently targeted missiles. This emphasizes the importance of maintaining geographic buffers in the region, as discussed later in this essay.

[44] The author’s use here of the word strategic is intentional and purposeful. Henry Rowen and Albert Wohlstetter wrote in the late 1970s that nuclear weapons “discouraged fundamental thinking about target selection and the purposes of target destruction.” [Rowen & Wohlstetter (1977). “Varying Response with Circumstance.” In Johan J. Holst & Uwe Nerlich, eds. Beyond Nuclear Deterrence. (New York: Crane, Russak & Co., Inc.), 238] Target selection and target destruction are, however, what defines a strategic conflict, which according to Webster is “designed…to strike an enemy at the sources of his military, economic or political power.” Strategic conflict is not per se nuclear conflict thought the latter may be an efficient means to prosecute the former. A strategic conflict is necessarily coercive since it targets an adversary’s vulnerabilities. As such, it is a means to an end (even if that end is to destroy the enemy’s society) rather than an end in itself. Strategic behavior, Thomas Schelling wrote in 1960, “is concerned with influencing another’s choice by working on his expectation of how one’s own behavior is related to his.” [Schelling (1960). The Strategy of Conflict. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 15] It is the difference between threatening credibly to destroy a bridge in order coercively to strand a civilian population, and destroying it to deny the enemy force tactical use of it to move troops. Thus two conditions must be met in order for aggression to require the United States to intervene in Israel’s strategic defense: first, the aggressor must be a state (e.g., Iran) or a direct proxy of a state (e.g., Hezbollah); and second, the threatened or actual aggression must rise to the level of a genuine existential threat.

Regarding the first condition, the deterrence doctrine défense du faible au fort is largely gone from public discourse. Its last explicit reference was in 1988 by President François Mitterrand. It has adapted (or become diffused, depending on one’s point of view) to a world in which regional power adversaries have, or are in the process of acquiring, CBRN weapons, such that President Jacques Chirac declared in June 2001, “deterrence is our best protection against proliferation.” See: Jacques Chirac (2001). Speech to the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Défense Nationale, 8 June 2001. Chirac’s full quote is: “Dans la situation géographique et politique qui est celle de la France, [la dissuasion] est la meilleure garantie face aux menaces nées de la prolifération, quel qu’en soit le vecteur.” (“In France’s geopolitical situation, deterrence is the best guarantee against threats arising from proliferation, whatever the vector.”)

Regarding the second condition, a contemporary of Gallois and Beaufre, General Lucien Poirier, described an existential threat as a “threshold of aggression” (“seuil d’agressivité“) or “nuclearization threshold” (“seuil de nucléarisation“) beyond which France’s survival as a nation was brought into question. [Lucien Poirier (1977). Des Stratégies Nucléaires. (Paris: Hachette), 323]

[45] Israel does not of course acknowledge publicly that it possesses nuclear weapons. Its official policy is one of deliberate ambiguity — doctrinally, nuclear opacity — said to have been first codified in a 1969 secret accord between Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon, the existence of which remains officially unconfirmed. Over the past several years many commentators have questioned the usefulness of Israel continuing its official nuclear opacity. Opacity, the argument goes, made sense in the context of Israel exercising a regional monopoly on the possession of nuclear weapons, and allowed Israel to maintain its position outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but those benefits have largely waned.

[46] André Beaufre (1964). Dissuasion et stratégie. (Paris: Armand Colin), 79.

[47] Philip H. Gordon (1993). A Certain Idea of France (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 60.

[48] Referencing the earlier discussion of strategic conflict and strategic defense, the United States has the ability to engage in Israel’s strategic defense, i.e., to wage strategic warfare, using advanced conventional weaponry as well as nuclear weapons. Iran at this point does not have the ability to threaten Israel at the strategic level with conventional weapons. It must resort to nuclear weapons, or to mass effect radiological, biological or chemical weapons. In the event Iran brought one or more of these weapon-classes into play, deterrence would demand that United States tactical nuclear weapons also come into play. In the end, however, the United States could elect to respond with conventional weapons and achieve a comparable destructive effect: in Beaufre’s view, deterrence principles were not determinants but co-influences with political factors, such that “the end must be the decisive factor, not the means.” The point is that Iran would face a certain end — joint retaliation by Israel and United States (the means of which to be determined) — in the event of a strategic offensive attack (and by definition, a first-use of nuclear weapons) against Israel.

[49] Pierre Marie Gallois (1999). Le Sablier du Siecle: memoires (Lausanne: L’Age d’homme), 402.

[50] Raymond Aron (1963). Le Grand Débat: Initiation à la stratégie atomique (Paris: Calman-Lévy), 156.

[51] André Beaufre (1964). Dissuasion et stratégie. (Paris: Armand Colin), 94.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Two of Gallois’ three preconditions for défense du faible au fort to work were: (1) that the French deterrent was survivable; and (2) that French command and control systems were technically capable of launching the promised retaliatory strike and French political leaders were willing to order it. Recognizing the importance of nuclear signaling — something many analysts claim Israel demonstrated in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War — French leaders since de Gaulle have been unambiguous on this last point: Valéry Giscard d’Estaing said “the decision to put our means of deterrence into play rests with only one person” (“L’utilisation des moyens de dissuasion ne peut reposer que sur la décision d’un seul”) which François Mitterrand put more pointedly as “the core element of deterrence strategy is me” (“la pièce maîtresse de la stratégie de dissuasion, c’est moi”). Giscard is quoted in Bernard Chantebout (1966). “L’Organisation Générale de la Défense Nationale en France Depuis la Fin de la Seconde Guerre] Mondiale,) 441. Cited in David Cumin (2000). “L’Arme Nucléaire Française Devant le Droit International et le Droit Constitutionnel.” Occasional Report, Groupe d’Étude sur le Nucléaire et les Relations Internationales et Stratégiques, September 2000. Last accessed 10 September 2015. The other quote is from Chirac (2001), op cit.

[54] The author credits the thorough discussion of this topic in Robert Farley (2014). “Nukes on he High Seas: Israel’s Underwater Atomic Arsenal.” The National Interest [published online 9 October 2014]. Last accessed 15 September 2015.

[55] “DIA chief: Iraq and Syria May Not Survive as States.” Real Clear Defense [published online 13 September 2015]. Last accessed 14 September 2015.

[56] Robert C. Rubel (2013). “National Policy and the Post-Systemic Navy.” Naval War College Review. 66:4, 21. Last accessed 15 September 2015.