By REZA ASLAN and BERNARD AVISHAI
Published: September 1, 2010 in the New York Times
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington, purportedly to be part of the Obama administration’s relaunch of peace negotiations. But the urgent talk is of war, thanks to Jeffrey Goldberg’s much-discussed Atlantic Monthly cover article, which faithfully reproduced the logic of Israeli military and political leaders.
According to this, even Israelis who doubt that a nuclear Iran would immediately attack Tel Aviv argue that the threat is “existential.” An Iranian bomb would provide a “nuclear umbrella” for Hezbollah missiles and Hamas terrorism. It would force the Gulf states to ally with Iran against the United States and its cornered ally. Israel’s only option is a pre-emptive strike, like the ones it carried out against nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria. It is only a matter of time.
The logic seems to be pushing on an open door. In the United States, an impressive 65 percent of Americans would support military action, according to a recent FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll. Indeed — so the logic continues — the U.S. military would do a better job against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the United States would surely be blamed for, and suffer the consequences of, any pre-emptive attack by Israel. So shouldn’t the U.S. carry out the strike itself? Shouldn’t Israel’s friends in America prepare the ground?
This drumbeat must be silenced, and only President Obama can silence it.
An Israeli attack on Iran would almost certainly precipitate a devastating regional war with unforeseeable global consequences.
Iran is not Syria, with no immediate capacity to retaliate against a surprise attack on its nuclear sites. Iran is a country of 70 million people, and its commanders, battle-hardened by a brutal eight-year stand-off with Iraq, have the ability and will to engage in a long, protracted war against Israel and American interests. Iran maintains a large military equipped with Russian-made weapons systems, surface-to-surface missiles, combat aircraft, unmanned drones and high-speed torpedo boats capable of destroying large warships.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard has extended its reach from southern Lebanon to South America and maintains proxy forces — again, Hezbollah and Hamas — positioned in Israel’s back yard. They’ll force Israel to fight a war of attrition on multiple fronts.
Israel would likely be compelled to extend its military operations to include Lebanon. That would instantly plunge the entire region into war, likely bring a new intifada onto Jerusalem’s streets and place enormous pressure on leaders in Cairo and Amman to renounce their peace treaties with Israel. If Israeli planes use Saudi airspace, Iran has threatened to attack the kingdom, too.
The United States, for its part, could forget about the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq and the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. There are up to 30,000 Iranian operatives in Iraq ready to do Iran’s bidding. And Iran enjoys significant loyalty from Afghan officials and warlords, particularly those in the trouble-prone region of Herat.
Iran has repeatedly said that it would, in the case of an attack, shut down the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly 17 million barrels of oil pass every day, spiking oil prices and devastating America’s financial recovery.
All of this could engender a serious diplomatic crisis between the United States and Russia — respectively Israel’s and Iran’s patrons — at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are improving.
Netanyahu says Iran is led by “a messianic apocalyptic cult” and that failure to attack is appeasement. But surely not every year is 1938, not every statesman who fears the nemesis of war is Chamberlain.
Iran’s leaders, ruthless as they clearly are, are not crazed men looking for a 10-megaton exploding belt. They know that Israel has up to 200 warheads and a second-strike capacity in missile-carrying submarines. They also know that incinerating Tel Aviv means irradiating all of Palestine — that destroying Israel means the destruction of Tehran, Qum and their other great cities. They have repeatedly and formally declared they would make peace with Israel along any lines acceptable to the Palestinians. Nothing will reinforce their hold on power like a surprise attack in which hundreds, if not thousands, are killed.
And exactly what is a “nuclear umbrella”? Did the absence of a nuclear Iran stop Hezbollah from attacking Israel in 2006? If war resumes, God forbid, would a nuclear Iran keep Israel from attacking Hezbollah missile sites in Lebanon any more than, say, the images of bombed out Beirut apartment buildings on CNN?
Most plausibly, Iran wants a nuclear weapon for much the same reason Israel developed one: as an ultimate hedge against invasion by superior conventional forces.
In the Atlantic Monthly article, Goldberg — stretching the words of one ambassador from the Emirates — argues that if Iran becomes a nuclear power, “the small Arab countries of the Gulf would have no choice but to leave the American orbit and ally themselves with Iran.” But to suppose that the Gulf states — utterly dependent on the West culturally, technologically and militarily — would ally with Iran because of a bomb is fatuous.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and an Egyptian, has called a strike “completely insane,” arguing that it would “turn the region into one big fireball” and that the Iranians “would immediately start building the bomb — and they could count on the support of the entire Islamic world.”
A former Israeli intelligence boss, Ephraim Halevy, and a former military chief of Staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, have issued similar warnings.
Clearly, an Iranian bomb would cause irreparable damage to the global anti-proliferation regime, add a threat to Israel and complicate American foreign policy. All nonviolent diplomatic means should be used to prevent this.
But if a year from now we are confronted by an Iran crossing the nuclear threshold, that would be a lesser evil than what we will confront in the wake of an attack to prevent this.
If President Obama has the nerves for risk, he should rather gamble on rallying the international community to force through an Israeli-Palestinian deal within a year. That would not mean an end to the anti-Western leaders clinging to power in Tehran, but it would certainly do more to reduce their motivation to attack Israel than a temporary setback to their nuclear program would.
Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer, is a member of the faculty at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of “Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World.” Bernard Avishai is adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University and the author, most recently, of “The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last.”