Last week, we left Israel on the edge of the cliff, with no place to go – or at least that's how historian Benny Morris describes the situation in a recent piece in the Jerusalem Post. In Morris's judgment, the United States could stop Iran's nuclear program, but will not because President Bush is too weakened politically. Israel has the will to do so, but lacks the capability short of employing its own nuclear weapons – something it will never do.
According to Morris, once Iran obtains the Bomb, the mullahs will not have the patience to wait for Israelis to flee the country rather than live with the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons hovering over their head, but will use those weapons against Israel within a few years.
Happily, not everyone in Israel shares Morris's pessimism – at least not to the same extent. Professor Robert Aumann, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics for his work in game theory, told the recent Herzliya Conference: "The rulers of Iran are often called lunatics, but there is no evidence that this is the case. Iran's rulers act very rationally. They have goals that indeed oppose our goals, but these are their goals, and they advance them very effectively. The destruction of Iran's central cities is not one of their goals."
Given Mr. Aumann's eminence in the field most relevant to predicting the actions of Iran's leaders, one cannot dismiss his views out of hand. One might ask, however, whether the economists’ models of rationality predispose them to discount the possibility of behavior or even world views that defy Western notions of rationality.
Professor Bernard Lewis, perhaps the world's foremost expert on the Moslem world, does not believe that the mullahs are subject to the deterrence of mutual assured destruction (MAD) that maintained the peace during the Cold War. As he put it in a recent speech at the Hebrew University, nuclear apocalypse might be as much an incentive as a deterrent for at least some of the Iranian leadership.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is obsessed with the reappearance of the 12 th (Hidden") imam, whose advent will be heralded by a massive confrontation between the forces of good and evil. Ahmadinejad's predecessor Akbar Rafsanjani, considered the leading candidate to replace the present ailing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is on record as declaring it "not irrational" to contemplate nuclear war, and a 2006 fatwa issued by clerics in the Shiite holy city of Qom provides religious sanction for nuclear war. Altready in 1980, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, stressed that the mullahs do not worship Iran but only Al-lah, and that the destruction of Iran would not be too great a price to pay for the triumph of Islam over the infidels.
These are the words of Iranian leaders. If there is any lesson from recent history, it is that one ignores the stated aims of one’s enemies, no matter how insane those goals may appear, at one’s peril. In Mein Kampf, Hitler, ym’sh, laid out his vision of eliminating the Jewish people with great clarity. More recently, Israel could have spared itself much agony by paying attention to the speeches Yasir Arafat gave in Arabic, even after the signing of the Oslo Accords, in which he spoke of continuing to wage jihad against the Zionist entity.
Even Professor Aumann, who believes that MAD still works versus Iranian leaders, is concerned with the possibility of nuclear weapons finding their way from Iran to terrorist groups, which have no address and are therefore not subject to the restraints of MAD.
ABOUT ONE THING there is unanimous agreement: the consequences of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons would be immense. Among the immediate consequences likely to flow from Iran acquiring nuclear weapons are: (1) the end of any possibility of genuine peace negotiations, as no possible Palestinian negotiating partner will risk incurring Iranian ire or have any incentive to negotiate when they believe Israel is about to be destroyed or intimidated into massive concessions; (2) Iranian nuclear weapons will provide a much more effective shield for Hizbullah and Hamas raining conventional missiles on Israel; and (3) the likelihood of other Mideast nations rushing to acquire their own nuclear weapons, and thereby greatly destabilizing the region.
The consequences for the rest of the world are no less great. In the words of S. Enders Wimbush, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Future Security Strategies, "Iran will become a billboard advertising nuclear weapons as the logical asymmetric weapon of choice for nations that wish to confront the United States." Iranian nuclear weapons would, according to Barry Rubin, deputy director of the BESA Ceter for Strategic Studies, result in a "gigantic shift in the regional balance of power against Western interests, and toward violence and instability." Iran would become, he writes, the most attractive sponsor of political subversion and terrorism in the region.
Possession of the Bomb would give Iran great leverage over world oil prices, and the means to continue to drive those prices up to its advantage. Its control over the Straits of Hormuz, through which over one-fifth of the world’s daily oil supply passes, would increase exponentially. And it would have the power to intimidate the Saudis, whose oil fields would be highly vulnerable, into following its lead on oil pricing.
Finally, Iranian nuclear weapons would give a great boost to the Islamist narrative of Islam’s waxing power. According to that narrative, it was the Islamists who brought down the Soviet Union by forcing her to withdraw from Afghanistan. Acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran would be a powerful boost in status in the Islamic world for the country most committed to sponsoring the worldwide spread of Islam.
THE VERY MAGNITUDE OF THE IRANIAN THREAT to the West (and not just to Israel) is probably the best thing that Israel has going for it at this point. The West cannot really afford a nuclear Iran, and at least the current Bush administration recognizes that. Indeed Oren and Halevi found the Israeli defense establishment to be surprisingly sanguine about the chances of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear capacity. And many believe that military force will not be required to do so.
Though the initial Security Council sanctions, after more than three years of Iranian foot-dragging and obfuscation, are dismissed by one and all as far too weak to force Iran to rethink its nuclear ambitions, Israeli experts are convinced that efforts to focus the world’s attention on the danger of a nuclear Iran are beginning to bear fruit. The Security Council’s classification of Iran as a threat to world peace paves the way for more robust sanctions down the way.
Even the weak Security Council sanctions caused prices in Iran to skyrocket and brought down a barrage of internal criticism against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The strong reaction to even feeble sanctions suggests the vulnerability of the Iranian regime, and the awareness of that vulnerability among the Iranian leadership.
Foodstuffs on some items have soared thirteen-fold, and unemployment hovers around 22%. Candidates identified with President Ahmadinejad were routed in elections last December. Recently 150 parliamentarians – a majority of the parliament – signed a letter criticizing Ahmadinejad for failing to address inflation or unemployment, and specifically linked that failure to the recent Security Council sanctions. And a newspaper owned by Supreme Leader Khamenei criticized Ahmadinejad for personalizing the nuclear issue in such a way as to make international sanctions more likely.
Daniel Doron in the Weekly Standard notes that it was the Soviet Union’s economic weakness that ultimately caused its collapse when President Reagan engaged it in a ruinous (for the Soviets) arms race, and maintains that the Iranian economy is in even worse shape. The Achilles heel of the Iranian economy is its very limited refining capacity. Despite being the world’s fourth largest oil producer, Iran is a net importer of petroleum products. As we have previously pointed out, if the Straits of Hormuz were blocked to Iranian shipping and imported petroleum products, the country would be plunged into darkness in weeks, if not days. The United States did something of that sort in 1987, and thereby forced an end to the Iraq-Iran war.
Only Iran’s immense oil profits allow it to sustain the welfare economy, without which it would have a difficult time quelling outright rebellion by its restive population. The United States has already begun to use its vast economic power to pressure European banks to cut credit to Iran. And legislation is already in place to impose sanctions on foreign companies that provide assistance to Iran’s oil industry and help it to expand production, though they have not yet be employed. Even without securing agreement to new sanctions from the Security Council, which will inevitably be watered down by Russia and China, the United States has the economic power to bully reluctant Europeans into taking actions that could deal a very severe blow to the Iranian economy. Even a partial blow to Iranian oil income could be enough to force the mullahs to choose between nuclear weapons and survival.
THE BIG QUESTION that remains is Western will. And about that recent experience makes it hard to be confident.
One thing is for sure: If sanctions do not prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, Israeli leaders will be faced with one of the most difficult decisions ever to face the leaders of a democracy. A conventional military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, besides being unlikely to do more than delay Iran’s program and being very difficult to execute at the vast distance separating Israel from Iran, would surely trigger a massive missile barrage by Iran on Israel. Hizbullah and Hamas, and quite possibly Syria, would all join in.
Oren and Halevi report a sharp division in the Israeli military establishment about Israel’s ability to weather such a barrage, without having to bring its own nuclear weapons into the fray. One side believes that Israel’s anti-missile capabilities and civil defense could keep casualties to acceptable levels. The other side believes that the sheer numbers of missiles, possibly carrying chemical or biological weapons, would overwhelm Israel’s anti-missile defenses.
Israeli leaders will not only have to make a judgment about which side of the debate is correct – with disastrous consequences for deciding wrongly – but also to make a judgment about how likely it is that the current Iranian regime would employ its nuclear weapons against Israel. Is it nil, as Larry Derfner believes, or 5%, or 10%, or higher. And at what point does the chance become high enough to justify an Israeli action that will almost certainly result in thousands of Israeli casualties, and perhaps many more.
None of us would wish to make that decision. And unfortunately nothing about our current leadership indicates that we would want them making the decision either.