Madness in the Middle East, An Iranian Nuke?

On December 11, the London Times reported that the Israelis are increasingly concerned that the Iranians will soon reach the point of no return in their effort to develop a nuclear weapons capability, and are gearing up for military action in March that will eliminate the threat for years to come. The Israeli Foreign Minister denied the report, but in my opinion the denial lacks plausibility. [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2089-1920074,00.html]

The report can be seen as another ploy to bring the Iranians in line, and no doubt that is one reason it has appeared at this time. But I think we have to assume there is more to it than bluff. The Iranians have solid reasons for wanting to develop at least a moderate nuclear weapons capability and the Israelis have sound reasons for wanting to stop them. Conventional wisdom in Washington may be that the Iranians must be stopped, but before we go too far down that road we need to consider all the relevant angles and weigh the consequences of various courses of action. And we need to do it now, if the report is right in stating that the Israelis are operating on a very short fuse.

Of course the Iranians lie when they say they only want power not nukes. Iran feels compelled to develop a nuclear weapons capability for somewhat the same reasons that impelled the USSR to do so fifty-odd years ago, and more recently propelled first India and then Pakistan into the nuclear club. Iran is doing what every Arab state would like to do if it could, react to the Israeli nuclear weapons capability by developing its own deterrent. It is MAD all over again, mutual assured destruction, equilibrium through balance of terror.

Iran has no intention of using whatever nukes it may develop to attack Israel. It would have to reckon with the possibility that even if it could survive an Israeli counterattack, the USA might react, and destroy Iran with its much larger nuclear arsenal. Whether we would respond this way or not, the mere possibility would deter Iran from initiating an attack on Israel. The familiar principle of judging by capability not stated intentions would apply. The Iranians are not suicidal.

What the Iranians want is the capability to inflict unacceptable damage on Israel in the expectation that that capability would alter Israel’s behavior. Just as the Iranians would be deterred by the possibility, not probability, of a US response, so Israel would be deterred by a possibility (not a probability) of an Iranian nuclear attack. The Iranian deterrent need be neither large nor particularly sophisticated for MAD to work, for Israel’s small size makes it inherently vulnerable.

In this sense an Iranian nuclear deterrent could end up being a stabilizing force in the troubled cauldron of Middle Eastern interstate relations. Of course the Israelis won’t see it that way, nor will many Americans. But we need to bear in mind that Iran will never in the foreseeable future be a direct threat to our own survival, and that what we are really dealing with is more a problem of a realignment of the balance of forces in the Middle East than an existential threat to Israel’s existence.

If Israel does attack next March we will be well and truly on the spot. Iran in 2006 is not Iraq in 1981. This will not be a pushover like the Osirak caper. The Iranians have been getting ready for such an attack for quite a while now, and I suspect their counterintelligence is pretty good. So what do we do if the Israeli attack bogs down, support the Israelis with our own forces? There still may be a neocon or two in high places in Washington who would favor this, but a moment’s reflection will convince the rest of us it would be lunacy. And it would be insane even if we limited our support to air power and logistics. Russia and China would each have their own reasons to extend at least diplomatic support to the Iranians and perhaps more, leading to a crisis situation that could damage our important interests in Moscow and Beijing for years and even decades to come. Which way would Musharraf jump? Or the EU? And so on. The list of migraines we would incur is almost endless.

I conclude that if our government has even a modicum of concern left for our country’s welfare it will quietly but firmly tell the Israelis, right now, to knock it off. After all, this adventure could be a disaster for Israel as well. And what are friends for?

Looking a bit farther ahead, I hope we won’t fall on our sword over this Iranian nuclear issue. It is one of many major interests we have in the region. We cannot win them all. In the long run, there has to be an international rule of law that governs nukes everywhere. Pending that, MADness is likely to reign, in the Middle East as elsewhere.

Carl Coon 12/12/05

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