Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 December 2006

Kim's Gambit and Iran

Kim’s Gambit
Kim’s Gambit and Iran
A New Global Threat More Fearsome than Terrorism
A Deterrent Policy

As we review our global military posture after the disaster that was Donald Rumsfeld, one persistent problem demands attention. It is the risk of Iran following in North Korea’s footsteps.

Iran seems to want nuclear weapons because it sees how gingerly we have treated North Korea, which has them. Iran seems to think that North Korea’s crude nuclear devices immunize it from American and international pressure and military power.

In truth, however, North Korea has had a kind of immunity for a long time, and it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Its early immunity is the reason attempts to stop it from developing nuclear weapons have failed. To understand the source of this immunity, one must visit the South Korean capital, Seoul.

Kim’s Gambit

Seoul is in many ways the Gem of Asia. Ringed by mountains, with an ultramodern downtown overlooking a magnificent ancient gate (Gwang Hwa Moon), it is a classic blend of old and new. From downtown high rises you can still see the old medieval castle and varied structures with soaring Asian tile roofs.

Seoul’s newest quadrant is called “Tehran Alley,” for a mighty boulevard of the same name. (Ironically, Seoul and Tehran are “sister cities.”) Along Tehran Alley, as far as the eye can see, stretch massive high-rise buildings bearing logos of well-known Korean chaebol and virtually every multinational corporation. Clothed in elegant marble or polished steel, with modern, tinted windows of different hues, these buildings flaunt the most elegant design and construction. Between them runs Tehran Alley—five lanes in each direction, filled with sparkling, freshly waxed cars, nearly all of recent vintage and mostly of South Korean manufacture.

One small part of this amazing place—all built in the last ten years—is a development known as “Coex.” It has two world-class hotels, a huge convention center, and a gargantuan shopping mall offering food and merchandise from every corner of the globe. It is so big you need a map to get around it. Go there on any weekday and you will find huge crowds of well-dressed and well-mannered people. Men in business suits hail from all over Asia and from the West. Korean women stroll by in elegant Western dresses, with white lace hats and gloves, holding the hands of well-dressed and well-behaved children. The Tehran Alley section of Seoul is the type of place that makes Westerners feel Asia’s coming predominance in their guts.

Fifty years ago, bent old women in tattered kimonos scratched through the rubble of the Korean War. Today elegantly dressed, prosperous couples drive gleaming autos to places of work and rest that are pinnacles of modernity. South Koreans speak reverently of this transformation that good government, their own hard work, and American protection made possible. They call it their “economic miracle.”

Yet while Seoul is wealthy and beautiful, she is not entirely free. She has a gun to her head.

A few short miles away, across the Demilitarized Zone, sit 10,000 conventional rockets, and row upon row of conventional artillery, poised to strike. There is nothing nuclear about these weapons. Yet they could reduce Seoul, or most of it, to rubble in a few hours.

The situation is tragic. The Grand Lady of the East faces destruction at Kim Jong Il’s command. She pleads tearfully with us and with the world, “Please don’t let them pull the trigger!” But there is little that we or anyone can do.

We might hit all those conventional weapons with a pre-emptive strike. Yet to destroy all of them quickly and thoroughly enough would require nuclear weapons. Fallout would only threaten Seoul with a slower form of destruction, and total war would seize the Korean Peninsula.

We might seek to cut the chain of command by a preemptive thermonuclear strike on Pyongyang. But such a strike could not guarantee killing Kim in his bunker, far less severing the chain of command. In any event, neither China nor Russia would tolerate, let alone approve, such a strike. Our military options for keeping the gun at Seoul’s head from firing are limited, to say the least.

As if all this were not bad enough, North Korea has 4 million lean, half-starved and highly disciplined soldiers, most stationed within easy striking distance of Seoul. As far anyone can tell, they are just as fanatically devoted to their “Dear Leader” as Japanese troops were to their Emperor in World War II. The recent sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II occasioned much rethinking of that conflict. Yet in 60 years no one has devised any easy answer to that many misguided, fanatically loyal troops short of our own first use of nuclear weapons.

This tragic circumstance is a conscious result of what I call Kim’s Gambit. Push him too far, commit what he unilaterally designates an “act of war,” and you condemn beautiful, delicate Seoul to likely destruction.

Perhaps the threat is only a bluff. Perhaps the commander on the spot would reject Kim’s order to destroy Seoul, just as the retreating Nazi general refused Hitler’s order to burn Paris in World War II. The fervent hope of such an outcome is reason enough for cultural and other exchanges between South and North, if only to let highly placed Northern generals know what a thing of beauty their weapons threaten. But can anyone be sure? Can we risk a beautiful lady on a hope and a prayer?

Kim’s Gambit has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. A vicious tyrant, having cultivated an image of recklessness, threatens destruction of something that others rightly value highly. There is no way to get a “clear shot” at him to remove the threat. And so the world must tolerate his bullying. With such a hostage in his grasp, the world has little leverage even to prevent him from acquiring the greater menace of nuclear weapons.

Of course the Chinese have some leverage. They provide the oil and much of the food that keep Kim’s bankrupt and dysfunctional regime afloat. But they are only just beginning to get fed up enough to use their leverage, and their economic power is limited.

What makes Kim sufficiently tolerable to discourage risky countermeasures is his forbearance. He does not threaten a first strike. He threatens Seoul, but apparently only in response to what he defines as an act of war. He knows that any actual adventurism on his part would encounter massive retaliation—perhaps from all directions—that would mean the end of his regime and likely of him personally. And so we have a standoff liable to persist for the foreseeable future, until time removes Kim from the stage as it did Stalin and is doing with Castro.

Kim’s Gambit and Iran

What lesson does Kim’s Gambit offer for Iran? It suggests that Iran may seek to achieve similar military immunity long before it can build nuclear weapons. An Iranian version of Kim’s Gambit would proceed in three steps, as follows:

Step one: develop reliable, medium-range weapons. In the first step, Iran would develop medium-range weapons. Their precise technology and mode of operation would not matter. Their only requirements would be sufficient reliability, accuracy and destructive capacity—plus sufficient immunity from countermeasures—to destroy or substantially damage selected targets. A massive array of smaller conventional weapons, like Kim’s 10,000 rockets aimed at Seoul, could provide the military equivalent of a nuclear weapon without either radioactive fallout or (initially) international opprobrium.

Step two: aim the weapons at a target about which Iran’s enemies (and the world) care greatly. Two such targets come easily to mind. The first is Israel. America and the West care a great deal about Israel. They care even more about keeping Israel from being dragged into a war in which it might be tempted or forced to use the nuclear weapons that everyone presumes it has. A second possible target is the oil fields of Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Merely by credibly threatening them, Iran could raise the worldwide price of oil and put the world’s economy in a tailspin. Actually destroying or damaging them would create a worldwide economic disaster. With aid from the rising tide of Islamist extremism among its neighbors, Iran might use proxies to make this type of threat, rather than doing so directly.

Step three: announce the weapons’ existence and their target(s), provide credible evidence of the threat, and cultivate an image of recklessness. While such a threat would not preclude a response to invading others’ territory or similar direct aggression, it would likely provide substantial immunity from others’ first strikes, including legitimate pre-emptive action. At the very least, it would severely limit any attempt to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction while Iran was otherwise at “peace.” Thus would Kim’s Gambit work to the benefit of Iran’s dictatorial regime, just as it has with Kim’s.

If Iranian weapons could be placed in the hands of a proxy, perhaps with plausible deniability, so much the better for Iran. In fact, it is difficult to understand Hezbollah’s use of Iranian missiles against Israel last summer as anything less than a trial run for Kim’s Gambit. The political outcome was not particularly good for Iran: ultimately it pushed Lebanon more firmly into the hands of Syria, Iran’s erstwhile and long-time enemy. It did, however, demonstrate the possible utility of Kim’s Gambit, if only Iran can develop accurate, reliable and longer-range weapons.

A New Global Threat More Fearsome than Terrorism

Just as much as terrorism, Kim’s Gambit is a new feature of war and politics in the twenty-first century. The civilized world must learn to deal with it. In the long run it may be even more dangerous than terrorism, for it is a game of bluff that both nation-states and stateless persons can play. By threatening a city (Seoul), a country or region (Israel or the states affected by an all-out Arab-Israeli war) or the world’s economy (through the Saudi or Iraqi oil fields), a reckless regime can achieve political or military advantage. Or it can at least achieve sufficient immunity from legitimate pressure to grow even more dangerous while the world temporizes. Kim’s Gambit is thus a highly effective and infinitely more dangerous twenty-first century form of hostage-taking.

Short of massive pre-emption (a ground invasion or thermonuclear strike), only a policy of firm deterrence and (where necessary) limited pre-emption can counter Kim’s Gambit. It is now far too late for that policy to work in North Korea. But what about Iran?

Unlike North Korea, Iran has not yet sprung the trap. It is not close enough geographically to its likely targets. Nor does it yet have advanced enough weaponry to pose the kind of unanswerable threat of a sneak attack that North Korea poses to Seoul, with or without nuclear weapons. The thousands of rockets that Iran supplied to Hezbollah during last summer’s inconclusive war did little damage to Haifa, although they provoked a lot of fear. Jerusalem seemed almost immune.

Yet time is not on our side. Simply by building a credible threat to Israel’s major cities or the big oil fields—and without nuclear weapons—Iran can use Kim’s Gambit to immunize from international pressure both its development of longer-range weapons and its further development of weapons of mass destruction.

For four reasons, stopping Iran from completing Kim’s Gambit should be a pillar of American and international policy. First, while it is too late to stop Kim, it is not too late to stop Iran. Second, if North Korea and Iran both get away with Kim’s Gambit, others will follow. Why not Sudan? Why not Venezuela? Why not Byelorussia? Why not Syria or Libya? Third, Kim’s Gambit is as fundamental a threat to world order as were medieval hostage taking, the execution of emissaries, and piracy in their day. It therefore deserves a concerted and vigorous worldwide response.

Finally, Iran’s pretensions are more dangerous than North Korea’s. While Kim’s primary goal appears to be keeping his power and privileges until he dies, Iran has wider goals: regional hegemony and the destruction of Israel. Last summer it took the first steps toward its second goal. If the world does not stop it now, a bloody regional conflict, if not a new world war, is a likely outcome.

Iran is thus the main event, and Iraq the sideshow. Iran’s population, estimated at 70 million, is about the same as Egypt’s, nearly three times Iraq’s, and nearly double the combined populations of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Iran’s people outnumber Israel’s by more than ten to one. Iran has huge and thriving economy, a modern and healthy infrastructure, and a more educated and technically advanced population than Iraq. It also has a credible air force—which Iraq has lacked since 1991—and a huge army with modern weapons.

Although Iran was not the aggressor, it fought an eight year war with Iraq, ending less than two decades ago. As a result, it has a huge cadre of battled-hardened and experienced soldiers, many in positions of leadership. With the possible exception of Turkey, and but for Israel’s nuclear weapons, Iran is undoubtedly the strongest indigenous military power in the Middle East. If the world allows Iran to get away with Kim’s Gambit, the Middle East, and likely the world, will be a very different place in a decade or two.

A Deterrent Policy

Iran is now at a crossroads. It suffered terribly in its eight-year war with Iraq, and it was peaceful for a long time before. Yet it appears to be adventurist and ready to risk war, both with its neighbors and with us. We don’t know whether Ahmadinejad is really calling the shots in Iran, and we don’t know how close Iran’s Islamist regime is to democratic reform. We don’t know how much its adventurism is real and how much is bluster. In all these respects Iran is similar to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Just as in the Cold War, we cannot take chances. Appeasement of Hitler wrought worldwide devastation in World War II, while credible deterrence of Soviet aggression won the Cold War peaceably. There should be a lesson in that. Firm, determined and credible military deterrence is the only sensible policy toward Iran.

This author has argued that thermonuclear-armed submarines provide sufficient deterrence by themselves but now has doubts. By means of Kim’s Gambit, Ahmadinejad could wreak such economic and political havoc—let alone military havoc—as to require a finer-grained, less apocalyptic form of deterrence. Until Iran unequivocally renounces designs on its neighbors, including Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran must be deterred from developing the missile technology and any other technology that would allow it to take Kim’s Gambit.

Could we provide finer-grained, credible deterrence that did not rely on pressing the nuclear button? We could, but we would have to embark on a concerted campaign of diplomacy and limited military action, in four steps.

Step one: forming a global coalition. First, the United States could make a full-court diplomatic press to enlist governments around the world in a common goal: preventing Iran from developing either nuclear weapons or other peace-threatening technology until it credibly renounces aggressive intentions. (Experts would define what technology is “peace-threatening,” i.e., capable of making Kim’s Gambit.) This coalition could involve the United Nations, the existing “Quartet” (the UN, United States, EU, and Russia), NATO, or an ad-hoc group like the alliance assembled by Bush the Elder in Gulf I.

Step two: announcing the policy. Second, the diplomatic coalition so formed could announce a policy of seeking that goal by diplomatic action, including economic sanctions, and by military action if necessary. The coalition’s members could increase the credibility of the coalition’s deterrence by pledging or donating military assets to enforce the policy.

Step three: authorizing limited pre-emptive military action. Third, the coalition could authorize limited military action. In the absence of escalation by Iran, action would be authorized solely for the purpose of destroying plants and facilities useful for weapons to exploit Kim’s Gambit, while limiting civilian casualties and collateral damage to the extent possible.

Step four: building up regional force to make deterrence credible. Fourth, the coalition could tailor and (if necessary) build up its forces near Iran to make the threat of military action credible. The focus of this buildup would be air power, with only such ground forces as are needed to protect the air capability. The buildup would require more than a few stealth bombers flying missions from bases in the United States. Real deterrence of Kim’s Gambit would require massive conventional air power, in local venues, as close to Iran as possible. Subject to the need for force protection and military secrecy as to precise location, the buildup should be well publicized, or at least made known to Iran.

Of course these forces might be useless if the military assets to be used in Kim’s Gambit were hidden, dispersed, or buried deep under ground. But Iran would never know how much the coalition knew about where the assets are and how to destroy them. Kim’s Gambit is mostly a deadly game of bluff, and the bluff of a massive, local deterrent force would work against Iran. Iran would never know how easy or hard it might be for the coalition to destroy its Kim’s Gambit assets and, in the process, perhaps wreak havoc on Iran itself or begin a ground invasion. While Iran is hardly a democracy, its rulers are not immune from public opinion, and the threat of immediate deterrent military action might chill their more dangerous adventurism.

This last point is the reason why the United States should seek soon to wind down its commitment in Iraq, while keeping a significant expeditionary force in the region. As long as Iran has reason to believe that our forces are “tied down” in Iraq, our deterrence of Iran’s Kim’s Gambit lacks credibility.

Yet the risks posed by Iran are orders of magnitude greater than anything that might happen in Iraq, even in a worst-case scenario. The worst that can happen in Iraq is Somalia or Afghanistan redux. That outcome certainly would not be pleasant. But Iran, by design or miscalculation, could start World War III.

If Iran begins to use Kim’s Gambit on Israel, Israel will have to act. It will have no other choice. Imagine what havoc even a limited air war between Iran and Israel would cause. Then consider how easily a limited air war might escalate into an attempt by Iran and/or its proxies to invade Israel, perhaps with the help of sympathetic neighbors fed up with the slow pace of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Think about Israel using the nuclear weapons it is presumed to have, which it would do if its survival appeared to be at stake. Then think again about Iran’s population, industrial and technological capacity, battle-hardened army, and the credible threat they would pose to Israel in any direct conflict.

Fortunately, we still have time before Iran can spring Kim’s Gambit on unsuspecting neighbors. We have time to mount a sustained and patient diplomatic effort to attract as many allies to our cause as possible. We have time to redeploy our ground forces out of Iraq. We have time to build up the type of massive, regional air power that would provide a credible deterrent and have some ability to keep Kim’s Gambit weapons (including nukes) out of Iran’s hands, by military means if necessary.

If Ahmadinejad means what he says, and if Iran’s progress toward Kim’s Gambit continues, there will be war among nations in the Middle East, and it will involve Israel. The only questions will be when, how wide and bloody it will be, how many Arab nations or Islamist groups (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) will join Iran, and whether Israel or another nation will go nuclear.

Of course we should redouble our efforts to seek a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That is the linchpin for any effort to save the whole region. But as Iran moves closer and closer to Kim’s Gambit, we ignore Ahmadinejad’s ravings at our peril. We must have firm and credible deterrence in place, and be prepared to use it, long before credible weapons for Kim’s Gambit are in his hands. The mere threat of nuclear annihilation is no longer a sufficiently well-calibrated deterrent to step-by-step Iranian tactics that ultimately might bring on World War III.

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