Friday, April 8, 2011

Lybian Signalling

I have been unconfortable with the assessment that the UN intervention in Libya with US support would send a signal to other countries and powerful leaders that they should never give up their nuclear programs if they do not want to be attacked. For instance, Mark Sheetz on Stephen Walt'sblog(who both know far more about everything that I do, this must be said) argues
The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not.
The reason I don't like this argument is that I can also see the other effect: by not doing anything in Libya, we can build a story where the UN is then seen as toothless, so that Iran or North Korea do not have to fear any military intervention, or any strong sanctions, because Russia and/or China would not go along. The passing or resolution 1973 with 10 countries voting in favor and 5 abstaining meant that a sufficiently intense Western world could overcome Russia or China's reluctance to intervene in foreign countries for humanitarian reasons.

One administration official sums up the argument
“You could argue it either way,” said one official who was involved in the Libya debate and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Maybe it would encourage them to do what they have failed to do for years: come to the negotiating table. But you could also argue that it would play to the hard-liners, who say the only real protection against America and Israel is getting a bomb, and getting it fast.”

So, I welcomed with overwhelming happiness the take of Sandeep Baliga(from whom I got the paragraph above, you should read his blog), where he tried to look at what signalling would be stronger depending on different "parameters". This is a simple story: x has an effect on y through channel 1 and channel 2, when is channel 1 stronger, when is channel 2 stronger? I think everything is there(emphasis mine):
we were trying to signal “If you play ball with us, we play ball with you” (e.g. Libya) but “If you have or might have WMDs, we will get you” (e.g. Iraq).  In addition, our approach to North Korea signals “If you are actually nuclear, we pretty much leave you alone”
So, will all this information at hand, the Iranians can draw a simple graph.  On the x-axis, the mullahs can plot the level of WMD development; on the y-axis the can plot the probability of U.S. intervention.  For high level of WMD development,  the probability of intervention is low (the North Korea example); for medium, the probability of intervention is high (the Iraq example) and for low level of WMDs it is high when circumstances dictate (the Libya example).
So, for the implications on Iran, the impact of the Iranian nuclear program will actually depend on what the US, and probably France, Britain and Germany, think the level of development of the program is, but more importantly, what Iran thinks the western countries think this level is. If they believe that the US thinks their program is at a low level of development, then they can fear retaliation. Interestingly, this would mean that they have an incentive to leak some information on the fact that the program is quite developed.

On the uncertainty about both "players' belief", one can think of what happened when Iran announced in September 2009 the development of a previously unknown nuclear facility at Qum just before Barack Obama announced that their spies found it. A short piece at IntelNews sums up what happened
on the morning of September 25[2009], that is, just hours before US President Barack Obama made the revelation, Iran pre-emptied him with a formal letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, in which it volunteered the information that it has built a facility inside a mountain near the city of Qum

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