The Telegraph (UK) published an astonishing bit of news over the weekend. Actually, it’s not quite “news,” as the story has been bouncing around for some years. But the Telegraph cites an article sanctioned by the highest authorities in Beijing, which gives the story a fresh imprimatur of credibility.
In 1969, when Sino-Soviet relations were at their worst, the Russians contemplated destroying Chinese nuclear sites with a first strike. They had the presence of mind to realize that letting nukes fly might have unintended consequences. So Moscow gingerly approached Washington with the news. The reaction was surprising. American officials told the Soviets that if they struck first, we would hit Russia with a nuclear strike of our own. Needless to say, nothing happened.
The reason this episode is significant—aside from its intrinsic interest—is that it illustrates an important feature of what has been called the “Second Nuclear Age” (i.e., now, with the Cold War being the first).
Millions of pages were written about nuclear strategy throughout the Cold War, but nearly all of them presumed a binary nuclear standoff: two nuclear powers facing off over the fate of the rest of the world but in almost total isolation from the influence of any other powers. The French and especially the Chinese bombs complicated that picture slightly but did not much change formal strategy or academic thinking.
Now, however, the nuclear world is far from binary. There are nine nuclear powers and may soon be ten. None of those countries exist in isolation. They have enemies as well as allies, friends, fellow travelers, supporters of convenience, and enemies of their enemies. The webs of interconnection are complex and impossible to map, especially because not all of the relationships are fully known.
What can be known is this. If, say, Iran gets the bomb and decides to use it as a shield behind which to become more belligerent—or worse, decides to use one—the fight won’t necessarily be solely between Iran and its intended victim. Others may step in.
They might do so for a variety of reasons. To take only the two most likely suspects, Russia has been supplying Iran with nuclear material and know-how (to say nothing of conventional arms) for years while—according to Tom Reed and Danny Stillman in The Nuclear Express—“China apparently decided to actively promote nuclear proliferation within the Third world.” The Chinese have “trained scientists, transferred technology, and built infrastructure in furtherance of that policy.” Iran has of course been a prime beneficiary, in part through China’s number one client, Pakistan.
Supposing some conflict in which Iran is a central player goes nuclear or threatens to—will nuclear-armed Russia and China just stand by and do nothing? Or will they act to defend the interests of their client? They haven’t spent all this time, money and effort arming Iran just to let it all come to naught. The whole point is to enable Iran to further threaten American interests. They want to see some return on that investment. That will probably entail standing up for Iran in a crisis.
Two recent war games came to a similar conclusion. The first, in December, took place at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The second, concluded this weekend, was run at Herzliya University in Israel. In both instances, the Russian and Chinese players rushed to Iran’s defense. The aid was only diplomatic—neither game ventured very far into the murky contingencies of possible nuclear use.
But there’s no reason to believe that any aid would necessarily end with diplomacy. After all, the United States had lacked diplomatic relations with China for 20 years when we made the threat to defend China with our own nuclear weapons. How much more likely, then, are states with close ties to the threatened country to rush to its aid? In 1969, Moscow presumably assumed that United States would welcome a disarmed China. As indeed—abstracting from all other factors—we would have. In the mid-1960s American officials had considered a strike of our own against Chinese nuclear sites. Not that Moscow knew that. But our answer must nonetheless have come as a surprise.
More such surprises will be a hallmark of the Second Nuclear Age. It is taken for granted that Iran won’t be able to use its bomb because of the certainty of swift and devastating retaliation. But that presumes a binary relationship between deterrer and deterred. How do we know that will be the case? A whole host of factors suggest that it won’t be.
Once a conflict goes nuclear, or threatens to, suddenly all of the world’s nuclear powers—or at least those with interests in the region in question and the ability to strike targets there—will consider themselves central players. Rather than a classic cinematic standoff, with only two shooters, the situation will look more like the final scene in Reservoir Dogs with three or four or more.
This is the future we are hurtling toward when we persuade ourselves that we can “contain” and “deter” Iran. Maybe. Can we contain and deter all of Iran’s powerful friends as well?
Michael Anton is policy director of Keep America Safe.