The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

How to make an unconvincing argument on ‘containing’ Iran

February 25, 2006

Yesterdays Washington Post ran a guest column by Ron Asmus in which he lays out an argument for using NATO to contain Iran if it develops nuclear weapons. The plan calls for bringing Israel formally within NATO as a way of making the implicit defensive commitments the West shares with Israel more formal and therefore more credible.

The column is less than impressive. The greatest problem with the piece is that Asmus manages to go the entire column without discussing the fissile elephant in the room: Israel’s nuclear capability. Why is this a problem? Because his argument makes no sense once this critical piece of information is brought into the fold.

Asmus argues that to deter the Iranians–specifically regarding attacks against Israel–NATO should extend membership to Israel. This way, the US as well as France and Britain would be formally required to respond to an attack on Israel per the organization’s collective defense provisions. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons.

First, by formalizing Israel’s relationship with NATO, member states would be faced with the delicate situation of possibly having to respond to low-level terrorist attacks–not only nuclear threats/strikes. Let us forget for the moment that the logic of such a commitment would be to deter such an attack in the first place–what if it doesn’t deter the attack (which it probably won’t)? Would NATO be willing to take collective action against the Palestinian Authority? If it didn’t it might damage the future credibility of the very deterrent threat Asmus seeks to take advantage of. NATO might be forced to act in an instance where it has little interest in doing so for fear of damaging the reputation of the organization.

Second, I find it hard to comprehend how putting Israel under the NATO/US nuclear umbrella would provide it with any more security than its own nuclear arsenal already does. Asmus manages to go the entire piece without mentioning this little factoid. Whether or not Israel’s nuclear deterrent has been vocalized or not it is taken as fact by most states in the region [and it certainly plays a central role in Iran’s decision to go nuclear]. Not to mention the fact that Israel has been improving its delivery capabilities so that it could strike Tehran [both the Jericho II and submarine-launched ‘Popeye’ Cruise missile give Israel the ability to strike most if not all of Iran in theory]. The willingness of Israel to retaliate would certainly be less questionable than the US [extended deterrence is certainly problematic when dealing with nukes]. Asmus does not make a convincing case that adding Israel to NATO would increase that state’s security one iota.

Third, although the title of the op/ed uses the word ‘contain’ there is nothing in the piece itself about containing Iran. Containment is not synonymous with deterrence. Containment refers to curbing the territorial expansion or the political influence of a state through economic, political, and military means. Admitting Israel to NATO will not stem Iran’s political influence in the region and will not do anything more to stem any potential territorial ambitions the country may harbor.

This was an utterly unconvincing piece. If anything, one could argue the true purpose of the column was to the case for a post-Cold War mission for NATO. That’s fine, but to tie it Israeli security and the delicate case of Iranian proliferation–and to do so in such a sloppy way–is unhelpful and potentially dangerous if policy makers decide to take heed. But that is just my opinion, go and read it for yourself.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.