A Nuclear-Armed Iran Would Have No Hotline to Avert Catastrophe

July 17, 2012 1:07 pm 0 comments

Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev debating at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959, part of what came to be known as the Kitchen Debate. Photo: wiki commons.

In the debate about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons program, a steady stream of voices have argued that the best response would be adopt a policy of “containment,” as the United States did with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.

For example, Daniel Larison writing for the American Conservative last month, argued: “America outlasted what may have been the greatest security threat in our history partly because of a policy of containment. Iran is far weaker than any threat the USSR ever posed.”

But the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran facing a similarly-armed Israel is far more dangerous. For one thing, there would be no nuclear hotline their leaders could use to stave off a crisis or resolve a misunderstanding. Unlike the United States and the Soviet Union back then and India and Pakistan today, there are no contacts between Tehran and Jerusalem – not even people-to-people contacts. Iran’s leaders maintain a policy of boycotting the “Zionist entity” at all levels. Even North and South Korea have vastly more contacts than do Israel and Iran.

A chilling recent novel, “The Last Israelis” by Noah Beck, imagines a scenario in which Iran has launched a nuclear attack on Israel. The last Israelis of his title are a submarine crew who are cut off from their country who must decide whether or not to fire their own nuclear missiles in retaliation.

The famous Moscow-Washington hotline was set up after the superpowers came to the brink of nuclear disaster in the 1962 Cuba missile crisis. But even in the midst of that standoff, they were able to communicate. The crisis was eventually defused after President Nikita Khrushchev sent President Kennedy a 3,000-word message.

The two superpowers had many ways of communicating. They had maintained diplomatic relations since 1933 and there had been a string of visits and summits between their leaders who knew each other personally. Vice President Nixon visited Moscow in July 1959 and engaged in the famous “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev. It was heated – but at least they were talking. Khrushchev then came to the United States two months later.

In an Israeli-Iranian confrontation, who would their leaders call? How would they communicate? There may be backchannels but these are slow, cumbersome and unreliable. The danger of a catastrophe would be unacceptably high.

The Washington-Moscow hotline, once it was in place, was used several times. The first was in 1967, during the Six-Day War, when both superpowers informed each other of military moves which might have been provocative or ambiguous. They used it again in 1971 during the Indo-Pakistani War; in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War; in 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus; in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and several times during the Reagan Administration.

Since those days, the closest the world has come to a nuclear exchange was in 2002 between India and Pakistan. Two years later, those two nations established their own nuclear hotline.

Despite their hostility, the two nations have kept up a regular series of contacts. Just last April, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, visited Delhi. And of course there are regular sporting and cultural links between the nations which vie fiercely for supremacy on the cricket pitch.

Similarly, North and South Korea have repeatedly faced each other in qualifying matches for soccer’s World Cup. Their presidents last met in 2007.

Ordinary Iranians and Israelis bear no hatred toward one another. Iranian-born Israeli pop idol Rita recently released an album of songs in Farsi which became an immediate sensation in Israel and also gathered a significant underground following in Iran.

The Wall Street Journal reported: “Rita’s fans within Iran, where the government heavily filters the Internet, use tricky software to furtively download her songs online. Bootleg CD sellers in the back alley of Tehran’s old bazaar wrap her albums in unmarked packages and hush any inquiries when asked if they sell her music.

“Iranian fans responded overwhelmingly, bombarding her with emails and messages online. ‘Rita, I want one of these concerts in Iran. You have an amazing voice and you are another pride for Iran,’ wrote an Iranian fan on one of her videos on YouTube.”

But of course, Iran’s leaders want to wipe Israel off the map. The Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards Corps, wrote last July that Rita is Israel’s “latest plot in a soft war,” to gain access to the hearts and minds of Iranians.

A nuclear-armed Iran would be a deadly risk to the world. Unlike during the era of containment and even the situation between India and Pakistan today, there would be no fail safe mechanisms, no fallbacks, no circuit breakers, no safety nets.

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