As unlikely as it once seemed, by the turn of the century it felt like the age of nuclear weapons was quietly coming to an end. The nuclear genie seemed to be sliding back in the bottle. Then the pendulum began to change direction with Iran’s determined efforts to join the nuclear club. The Supreme Leader and fellow Ayatollahs who led the Islamic Republic concluded that it was in their nation’s best interest to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them to enemies near and far. Suddenly, the nuclear genie was
back in business and this time in one of the most historically violent, yet economically important regions of the world.
There are various schools of thought on the implications of a nuclear Iran. Some experts assert that it represents an existential threat to Israel, American interests and regional Arab allies. Iran, therefore, must never be allowed to become a nuclear power. Most of the foreign policy establishment in the U.S., Israel, and Sunni Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, subscribe to this view.
Others see a nuclear standoff between Israel and Iran as akin to the Cold War. They point out that, while the Cold War was confrontational, it also brought decades of peace and improved stability to what had been a bloody and violent European continent. The U.S. and Soviet Union competed indirectly through proxies and other means, but a hot nuclear war was never a practical option.
An influential supporter of this view was the late Kenneth N. Waltz, senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and adjunct professor of political science at Columbia University. He wrote in Foreign Affairs that “If Iran goes nuclear, Israel and Iran will deter each other, as nuclear powers always have. There has never been a full-scale war between two nuclear-armed states…. [we] should take comfort from the fact that history has shown that where nuclear capabilities emerge, so, too, does stability.”
Despite their differences, most policy experts generally assume rational decision-making by the leadership of both nations. Israel and Iran may threaten each other and there are always risks of miscalculations, but a nuclear exchange would require a military execution of a political decision. This is a common frame of reference among historians, political scientists, politicians, and diplomats. While valid, rational decision-making doesn’t account for technology glitches, operational risks, and reckless decisions that on multiple instances almost lead to nuclear conflict during the Cold War
Engineers and operators of complex systems know that many human decisions are not rational (systematic, fact-based and analytical), and actions are not always preceded by well thought out decisions. We’ve learned through painful experience that even in well-designed and professionally operated systems, poor decisions, unexpected events and changing conditions can lead to tragedy. In addition, design errors and technical glitches not identified during system validation and testing can cause problems that confuse and confound operators and decision-makers.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that there were multiple instances during the long history of the Cold War when technical failures, unexpected conditions, operational mishaps, and poor decision-making nearly lead to nuclear conflict. The ‘Training tape incidence’ and ‘Soviet satellite glitch,’ are just two examples that brought the world closer to nuclear Armageddon than most people realize.
The Training Tape Incident
On November 9, 1979, a training tape was mistakenly loaded onto the North American early-warning computer systems. The software displayed a realistic scenario of a massive Soviet nuclear first strike at the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs, the Pentagon National Military Command Center in Washington, and the Alternate National Military Command Center in Fort Ritchie, Maryland. The imaginary Soviet nuclear attack triggered alerts to Minuteman ICBM missile silos and the continental air defense system. Fighters were launched and even the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (the “doomsday plane”) was sent up, without President Carter, who was asleep at the White House.
The event also triggered attack warning verification processes that immediately convened a threat assessment team of senior officers from the three command centers. They received independent early warning satellite and radar data, which showed no signs of incoming missiles. The team concluded that the event was a false alarm and canceled the alert. The verification process, which had been developed, tested and improved with experience, made it possible for the team to complete their assessment in a fraction of the time Soviet missiles would have taken to reach American land-based ICBMs.
The Soviet Satellite Glitch
Four years later, on September 26, 1983, a glitch in a new family of early warning satellites nearly triggered a Soviet nuclear retaliation against a phantom American first strike. This was a time of high tensions between a resurgent America and its new leader, Ronald Reagan, and a Soviet system in economic and social decline. Unbeknownst to American officials and the President, the Soviet leadership was very concerned that the US was planning a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union.
On that sunny, warm afternoon in Northern Colorado where I lived, while kids played and parents headed home from work, lighting conditions reflecting off America’s missile fields triggered multiple missile launch detections. Over the next ten minutes, Soviet satellites transmitted a series of American missile launch warnings to a Soviet bunker operating in the middle of the night on the other side of the world.
One man, Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov stood between the false alarms and a report to senior military officers that could have triggered a Soviet nuclear retaliation. Petrov reportedly violated protocols by waiting for secondary verification of incoming American missiles, which never came. We’ll never know, of course, what the Soviet nuclear command authorities would have done, but a reported threat that validates existing paranoia are lousy prescriptions for thoughtful decision-making. Colonel Petrov’s actions that night, made while his wife was dying of cancer, later brought him world-wide praise and acclaim as ‘the man who saved the world.’
These and other events of the Cold War challenge the notion that the period was a stable, peaceful time in human history. The operational record shows that the world was fortunate to have survived without reaping the nuclear whirlwind. In this context, an important consideration for policymakers today is how operational risks and uncertainties in the Middle East’s operational environment compare to those of the Cold War.
One distinguishing factor between the two is the distances between adversaries. Distances are important because they affect how much time each side has available to verify attack warnings and make retaliatory strike decisions. We can estimate the impacts of distance on the Cold War and Middle East operational environments by using straight line distances between the adversaries’ respective capitals to calculate missile flight times to their targets. The distance between Moscow and Washington is approximately 4,900 miles, which results in missile flight times of thirty to thirty-five minutes. The same calculations between Tel Aviv and Teheran result in 1,000 miles and missile flight times of six to eight minutes.
Thirty to thirty-five minutes missile flight times gave American and Soviet authorities the opportunity to verify attack warnings and make rational, informed decisions on launching (or not launching) retaliatory strikes. By comparison, the six to eight-minute timeframe available to Iranian and Israeli decision-makers is not long enough to support similar verification procedures and rational decision-making. That’s critical because the practical response in an actual nuclear first-strike attack is to launch a retaliatory strike before incoming missiles reach their targets.
The short distances and timeframe of the Middle East’s operational environment leave adversaries with launch on warning decision protocols that don't include secondary attack verifications. The operational history of the Cold War offers compelling evidence that this is a recklessly dangerous way to manage a nuclear standoff.
Arguments promoting the benefits of a hypothetical Middle East nuclear standoff don’t take operational risks and Cold War experience into account. The six to eight minutes missile flight times in the Middle East’s operational environment limit the use of verification processes that likely prevented multiple nuclear exchanges during the Cold War. This leaves decision-makers with a recklessly risky launch on warning decision model.
The investigation into the operational history of the Cold War also revealed that it was not as safe and stable as some experts have claimed. Unexpected glitches and conditions, and flawed human judgment repeatedly brought the world close to nuclear conflict. A sober look at the Cold War will show that nuclear war was averted in part because ‘we got lucky.’ Nuclear Armageddon was never far away.
Interestingly, disagreements over whether Iranian nuclear capabilities would represent an existential threat to Israel, often ignore that they also put Iran’s population at risk. Even if the Ayatollahs who sit atop Iran’s power structure sincerely believe that their country could survive a nuclear exchange, the costs in millions of Iranian lives make the risks morally untenable. The tragedy of Iranian nukes is that they make the horrors of nuclear conflict recklessly probable for both sides. Israel’s leadership is keenly aware of these risks and probabilities. Thus, the specter of a nuclear standoff in the Middle East is a prescription for preemptive conflict in the years ahead, not greater long-term stability and peace in the region.
Background image courtesy of Ozzie Paez
 Ozzie Paez, Decision Making in a Nuclear Middle East: Lessons from the Cold War, pages 5, 6, Amazon, 2016.
 Kenneth N. Waltz, Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear balancing would mean stability, July-August 2012, Foreign Affairs, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2012-06-15/why-iran-should-get-bomb
 Paez, Decision Making, pages 58–60.
 Benjamin B. Fischer, A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet Ware Scare, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, July 7, 2008, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/a-cold-war-conundrum/source.htm
 Pavel Aksenov, Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who May Have Saved the World, BBC, September 26, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24280831
 Paez, Decision Making, pages 67, 68.