Game Over

“The Not-So-Great Game”

John Feffer

Foreign Policy in Focus

February 2012

The Great Game of the 19th century involved the British, French, Chinese, Ottoman, and Russian empires. It was centered around preventing Russia from expanding south. The game was played at high costs to all parties, and what they all failed to realize was that there was little for them to win. The game played today between the US, Israel, and Iran is much the same, argues John Fetter in his analysis for Foreign Policy in Focus.

The stakes of today’s Great Game are in many ways much higher, as it involves nuclear weapons. Yet, a game it is, and “unfortunately, at least one team is seriously considering the Hail Mary play – a long bomb deep into enemy territory.” Whereas the Game of the 19th century went on for decades, this one could escalate in a matter of hours through a preemptive strike and subsequent retaliation, presumably through proxies in various locations.

One very interesting observation Feffer makes about the game as it is currently played there is an overwhelming consensus, at least in the US, about what is at stake and which solutions are available. Among policy makers, one need not have listened to many Republican primary debates to determine the mood. The candidates Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich are battling over who can seem more determined in their quest for stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, they accuse President Obama—who has repeatedly insisted that ‘no options are off the table’—of being an appeaser.

Among scholars, we have so-called nuclear security fellows like Matthew Kroenig, who argues that current strategies clearly are not working. Therefore, the Pentagon might as well go ahead and get rid of the uranium-conversion plant at Isfahan, the reactor at Arak, and the centrifuge manufacturing sites around Natanz and Tehran. Our only options at this point are conventional conflict and nuclear war, and we should opt for the former. Niall Ferguson echoes this sentiment in his assertion that “sometimes a preventive war can be a lesser evil than a policy of appeasement. The people who don’t yet know that are the ones still in denial about what a nuclear-armed Iran would end up costing us all.” Feffer, like many others, highlights how reminiscent this rhetoric is of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Now, one would be justified in asking what Iran is actually doing. Different indicators point in different directions. It is well known that the Iranian government claims it is enriching uranium for its civilian purposes, but the Israeli government argues that Iran is on the fast track to joining the nuclear club. Feffer adds, “It takes one to know one.” The US stands somewhere between these two positions. According to the last two National Intelligence Estimates, Iran hasn’t made any effort to build a nuclear weapon since 2003. An International Atomic Energy Agency report in November 2011 argued otherwise. Navigating between these various indications seems impossible.

However, Feffer convincingly argues that what Iran may or may not be doing is not the real issue here. The problem rather lies in the perceptions of Iran, much like the mistaken 19th century perception that Russia would inevitably push south. The perception of Iran, of course, is that it is on an unalterable path toward the bomb, and that the United States and Israel heading irreversibly toward regime change in Tehran. This dichotomy has created a precarious middle position of applying economic sanctions, not as a means toward negotiations but as a substitute for them.

These rules of the game leave little space for a real understanding of motivations, interests and real-world outcomes. According to this report, the international community assumes that Iran will pursue a nuclear weapon as if this “quest is somehow encoded in the Islamic Republic’s DNA,” when in fact there are very good reasons for Iran not to pursue the bomb. Similarly, it makes very little sense for Israel to attack Iran. As Steve Coll recently wrote in The New Yorker, “Those costs would certainly include heavy retaliatory rocket and missile strikes by Hezbollah and Hamas against Israeli civilians, a wave of popular anti-Israeli upheaval in Egypt, and the prolonged inflammation of Iran’s nuclear nationalism. A regional war involving Lebanon, Syria, and oil-producing Gulf emirates would also be a possibility.”

Finally, the game does not allow the players to consider what the worst-case scenario would actually be if Iran got the bomb. Feffer argues that we should look to North Korea for an indication that getting the bomb has not substantially altered the security situation in northeast Asia. Japan and South Korea have not subsequently pursued nuclear weapons, and North Korea remains as isolated as before, showing that “an actual nuclear device is no more powerful than the much-feared aspirational one.” Feffer thus encourages us to consider that Iran acquiring a minimal nuclear deterrent would not make it significantly more powerful, because if it ever used such a weapon it would incur massive retaliation. Hence, according to the rules of the game, “Officially testing a nuclear device, Iran might find itself ahead after the first half only to collapse in the quagmire of the second.”

This analysis would certainly not be accepted by those who consider Iran an existential threat. Nor is it likely to be accepted by those who wish to abolish nuclear weapons altogether, for whom anyone joining the nuclear club brings us one step farther from abolishing the club altogether. However, the costs of not considering Feffer’s argument may be beyond what the term ‘game over’ allows us to imagine.

You can read John Feffer's article here.

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