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Crisis Stability and Nuclear Exchange Risks on the Subcontinent: Major Trends and the Iran Factor

By Dr. Thomas F. Lynch III | Strategic Perspectives 14 | November 01, 2013

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Executive Summary

Crisis stability—the probability that political tensions and low-level conflict will not erupt into a major war between India and Pakistan—is less certain in 2013 than at any time since their sequential nuclear weapons tests of 1998. India’s vast and growing spending on large conventional military forces, at least in part as a means to dissuade Pakistan’s tolerance of (or support for) insurgent and terrorist activity against India, coupled with Pakistan’s post- 2006 accelerated pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons as a means to offset this Indian initiative, have greatly increased the risk of a future Indo-Pakistani military clash or terrorist incident escalating to nuclear exchange. America’s limited abilities to prevent the escalation of an Indo-Pakistani crisis toward major war are best served by continuing a significant military and political presence in Afghanistan and diplomatic and military-to-military dialogue with Pakistan well beyond 2014.

Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability will not directly affect the ongoing erosion of crisis stability in South Asian. However, a declared or a declared and tested nuclear Iranian weapons capability almost certainly will inspire Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of its own nuclear deterrent and involve Pakistan. If American efforts to halt Iran or to extend acceptable deterrence to Riyadh fail, then Washington must accept that Islamabad will transfer some form of nuclear weapons capability to Saudi Arabia as part of the Kingdom’s pursuit of an autonomous nuclear deterrent versus Tehran. Washington’s best policy option is to maintain sufficient diplomatic and military relevance in Islamabad and Riyadh to limit transfer impact upon Israel’s threat calculus and to constrain Gulf-wide proliferation that could excite Indian fears for its nuclear deterrent in a manner that stokes a presently dormant nuclear arms race between India and China.

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