Special Report

Cuba 1962 and Iran 2010: Will There Be a Mideast Nuclear Castro?

A hothead like Fidel was controlled by his Moscow handlers. But who will restrain the Mullahs when they decide to act?

By 6.15.10

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In the euphoria the Obama administration feels upon attaining final agreement with Russia on the New START Treaty, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of how American and Russian strategic arms reductions have set an example for others to follow. Yet shortly after that announcement, Iran aired one of its own: The regime plans to build additional nuclear plants. Our latest national intelligence adjustment anticipates that with "sufficient foreign assistance" Iran could field an ICBM by 2015. Iran's rocketry program is quite sophisticated, and the regime may not even need assistance. Finally, a UN report concludes that Iran already has enough enriched uranium to make two atomic bombs. Iran it seems, is responding to the example we have set by running all nuclear engines full speed ahead.

Team Obama has jettisoned sanctions against Iran that would prevent the regime, a crude oil producer with a shortage of refinery capacity, from importing refined oil, as part of American concessions to win passage of a fourth weak UN sanctions resolution. In testimony to Congress, Secretary of State Clinton likened the confrontation with Iran to diplomacy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis:

[We] are engaged in very intensive diplomacy. My reading of what happened with President Kennedy is that it's exactly what he did. It was high-stakes diplomacy. It was pushing hard to get the world community to understand, going to the UN, making a presentation, getting international opinion against the placement of Russian weapons in Cuba, making a deal eventually with the Russians that led to the removal of the weapons. That is the kind of high-stakes diplomacy that I'm engaged in, that other members of this administration are, because we take very seriously the potential threat from Iran.

As to high stakes, Secretary Clinton has a point indeed. But her analogy applies beyond diplomacy. Other factors played a huge role in 1962, and bid fair to play an even bigger role in possible future confrontations in a nuclear Mideast. Specifically, consider four: (1) vulnerability to nuclear first-strike; (2) short warning times; (3) lack of communication channels; (4) lack of leader impulse control.

Vulnerability to Nuclear First-Strike. In the 1950s and early 1960s the two superpowers faced each other with strategic forces that were primarily above ground and small in number. As Peter Huessy, president of the defense consulting firm GeoStrategic Analysis notes, Iran's nuclear forces may not be readily identifiable as such; conversely the Gulf States, lacking nuclear missile capability, must use readily identifiable aircraft as their delivery systems, making them vulnerable to a nuclear first-strike. Given far fewer military installations and few cities with populations above 100,000 in tiny countries of the Gulf (plus Israel), countries could face, if not national extinction, devastation beyond recovery if caught in a surprise salvo of Hiroshima-size bombs.

Short Warning Times. A Russian ICBM launched from the Ural Mountains will travel the roughly 6,000 miles to America's Atlantic coast in about thirty minutes. With flight distances between potential targets in the Mideast often less than 1,000 miles, a high-speed jet can cover the distance in little more time than an ICBM can traverse oceans. Factor in missiles that fly several times the speed of sound. While far slower than ICBMs hurtling through space at twenty times the speed of sound, they are fast enough over short ranges; in some cases times from launch to impact will be less than ten minutes. Also, Iran's solid-fuel models can be rapidly launched.

Lack of Communication Channels. Start with numbers. Between Washington and Moscow the only functioning channel was commercial telegraphy in 1962. Imagine a Mideast with a nuclear Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey and Egypt and Israel. With six nations there are 64 possible two-way interactions, with all the attendant prospects for misunderstandings during a crisis. Israel has used hot-line telephonic communications with adversaries, including the Palestinians, with mixed results. If with a single channel results are mixed, how will the result be with many diplomatic channels, and hours -- perhaps minutes -- to Mideast Armageddon? Add in that these countries do not trust each other, making communication problematic at best. Assurance that a single unintended missile launch was in fact accidental may easily fail to convince a nervous target.

Leader Impulse Control. Which brings us to perhaps the most important personality of the 1962 crisis, one whose impulse control was, to put it charitably, weak: Fidel Castro, flush with his improbable revolutionary triumph and seething with rage at the United States, partly borne of ideological Marxist fervor and partly due to the efforts of the Kennedy administration to get rid of him. Fidel wanted the Russians to incinerate the United States and was willing, even eager, to sacrifice his six million subjects in a nuclear holocaust.

It is today's Islamic Castro who should worry us the most. Religious messianism and secular militarism can be as lethal as romantic revolutionary fervor. Compound this with several new Mideast nuclear powers and the recipe for accidental nuclear war is cooking in the regional pot. Fidel's reckless abandon may well be the future augury of nuclear wars to come. It should be noted that although Israel has been a nuclear power (albeit undeclared) for over forty years, its status has not ignited a Mideast arms race. And when Israel took out Iran-backed Syria's North Korea-supplied nuclear plant in September 2007, the silence in the Mideast was deafening.

A Mideast arms race can rapidly be ignited if Iran crosses the nuclear weapons threshold. The Gulf States will not start a 25-year development program. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar can simply call Pakistan and ask how many atomic bombs the Pakistanis will part with for how many petrodollars. With dozens of nuclear weapons plus in-place weapons production capability, cash-strapped Pakistan can easily afford to sell part of its arsenal or make A-bombs to order. The current Pakistani government might decline, but this could change should a militant Islamic government seize power.

The advanced jets that the Gulf States purchased from the United States can carry nuclear bombs. Then parties would be armed fully, without the extended learning curve that enabled America and the former Soviet Union to learn how to safeguard their weapons from accidental or unauthorized use, and to base forces securely protected from surprise attack. In the face of an apparent surprise attack indicator -- which could be a flock of geese on a radar screen -- countries with a "use or lose" launch alert posture (known in the strategic community as "launch on warning") could feel compelled to launch. Even a small-scale attack can extinguish tiny states, unlike the United States and Russia, whose huge territories and vast, dispersed populations make only a large-area attack capable of ending national life.

Put simply, an arms race in the Mideast will be a collection of nuclear accidents waiting for places to happen. Just as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was then the lesser danger, so today Russia's leaders, though dangerous adversaries, pose less of an immediate nuclear first-strike threat than do Iran's leaders. The 21st century Castro most likely to unleash a nuclear war likely lives in the Mideast, not Moscow. Setting an example by reducing our nuclear arsenal further than the vast reductions we have already made will only embolden the world's most dangerous leaders.

Mention should also be made of Iran's other delivery mode: terror proxy Hezbollah. Hezbollah has implanted several dozen terror cells within the United States. The group was nicknamed by Colin Powell's State Department deputy, Richard Armitage, "terrorism's A-Team" -- this coming after 9/11. If Iran gives Hezbollah nukes to set off in one or more American cities, tracing the devices definitively back to Iran could prove beyond the current state of nuclear forensics.

Nuclear crises arise suddenly, take novel forms and impose immense stress on leaders, with little margin for error. With survival at stake, the temptation to strike first could well prove irresistible. The result would be global catastrophe.

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About the Author

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.