Oh no, not again: We’re back under the shadow of a nuclear cloud

While Israel’s strike in Isfahan was limited, the US, UK and other Western powers are said to be readying a new round of sanctions.
While Israel’s strike in Isfahan was limited, the US, UK and other Western powers are said to be readying a new round of sanctions.


  • First came the Ukraine war and then Gaza. Conflicts with geopolitical dimensions spell a danger unseen since the 1960s.

Suddenly, a mushroom cloud of nuclear risk is upon the world. It is 80 years since the Manhattan project and the US’s deployment of two nuclear bombs in Japan. That horrific event marked the end of World War II. World War III could quite plausibly start with a tactical nuclear strike or a mistake. A nuclear war scenario has not really threatened the world for the last eight decades, except briefly during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960s. A global nuclear deterrent has held the line until now, even as nine countries have become declared nuclear powers with a stockpile of some 13,000 weapons and a dizzying array of delivery methods.

Beginning in 2022 with the Ukraine war, followed last year by hostilities erupting in West Asia, opposing sides have been trying to poke each other’s eyes out, resulting in a general blindness to the unimaginable consequences of a nuclear war. The proximate cause of the so-far-conventional escalation in West Asia was Israel’s attack on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria that killed several people, including two Iranian Quds Force Generals. Until then, Iran was waging a covert war through proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and Israel was striking back at those militia groups. With Israel’s attack on a diplomatic facility in Syria, Iran’s retaliation with directly targeted missiles and drones, and then what may have been a small Israeli strike on targets in the Iranian city of Isfahan on Friday, Israel and Iran are already in a form of unstated war. Israel had obliterated the Damascus facility with an airstrike, whereas Iran responded with a barrage of 130 drones, 30 cruise missiles and 110 ballistic missiles. Both these countries are widely believed to be nuclear powers, even if they have not declared themselves to be so.

An awkward coalition of Arab countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE helped the US, France and UK defend Israel against the aerial barrage from Iran. Beyond supplying munitions and materiel, this has already drawn this uneasy coalition into direct combat. Several countries, including Jordan, are against Israel’s war in Gaza, but extended support to mitigate the impact on Israel so that Tel Aviv did not feel the need to respond forcefully. The ‘fog of war’ is only going to escalate if, for instance, direct Israeli action in Iranian territory causes damage that Tehran decides it must hit back for. The escalation up to this point has been the result of a strategic misjudgement by Israel in attacking a diplomatic facility. Prima facie, it appears that Israel’s action was in breach of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Even though Iran’s use of proxies has been abetting war for quite some time, in this instance, it appears that its direct response was both telegraphed and calibrated with an intention to mitigate further escalation.

We are now poised at a knife’s edge (a quaint metaphor in a nuclear age). While Israel’s strike in Isfahan was limited, the US, UK and other Western powers are said to be readying a new round of sanctions. Beyond this, if Israel uses covert and other quiet methods of response, or exercises strategic restraint, the immediate nuclear threat may well pass. A senior Revolutionary Guard Commander has already said that Iran could review its “nuclear doctrine" if Israel responds in a damaging way. Iran’s actions could then take the form of an attack on Israel’s nuclear facilities and/or include a tactical nuclear strike. After that, all hell could break loose.

In the Ukrainian theatre of war, President Vladimir Putin of Russia threatens a tactical nuclear strike every time he has some war stress. A revanchist Russia’s attempt to integrate its ‘Little Rus’ already appears a failure and more aid from the US is coming Kyiv’s way. A desperate Putin may resort to tactical nuclear weapons to realize his Tzarist ambitions. The US and China have an outsized role to play in de-escalating the nuclear risk in both locations. The US has a responsibility with its ally Israel, and China has a similar one with Russia and Iran. What both superpowers need to come to grips with is that an escalation in conventional war from here on risks a nuclear mistake that may be beyond their control.

For India, self-absorbed with its massive multi-phase election, nuclear war seems to be a far-off concern. And yet, India has no choice but to plan for a variety of scenarios where its diplomatic positions and ‘no first use’ nuclear doctrine might be tested.

India has begun to establish a broad air-defence system. Five S-400 air defence systems were acquired from Russia at a cost of nearly 39,000 crore in 2018. This system comes with a mix of missiles and radar defences that lets it knock down threats at various heights and ranges. Other weapons in India’s arsenal include the SpyDer, an Israeli short and medium range system (one critical component of Israel’s own Iron Dome defence), as well as the Indian made MRSAM system. India has also put in place the Akashteer system, which is an automated control-and-reporting system for all air defences. While India has made significant progress in air defence capabilities, it is an enormous challenge to protect such a large area with a ‘dome’ equivalent comprehensive system. This should be an area of focus in an increasingly belligerent world that appears to be on a nuclear hair-trigger.

P.S: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones," said Albert Einstein in a chilling forecast of what might lie ahead.

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