woensdag 27 oktober 2010

Is a nuclear Iran an existential threat to Israel?

A nuclear Iran is facing heavy odds. The arrival of Iran as a nuclear power does not lead to a crisis, but can be useful for all concerned. The recently intensified power game will have only losers, the Iranian people in the first place. The world must learn to live with an Iranian nuclear bomb.

In taking office, Obama said there is no greater threat to Israel and peace and stability in the Middle East than ... Iran. As a nuclear power, that country would operate even more aggressively in its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, interfere more in Iraq and give rise to a regional nuclear arms race. "The president of Iran denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Iran is a serious, real risk, and I set myself the aim to eliminate that threat," said Obama.

A sober analysis shows that a nuclear Iran faces heavy odds. In the area of launching missiles, Iran carries little weight: it has no long-range missiles that could reach the U.S. And the medium-range missiles at its disposal - which theoretically could reach Israel - are unreliable. Israel has around 200 warheads, plus an extensive arsenal of ultra modern missiles and fighter aircraft that could launch them. Moreover, Israel's ally the U.S. is of course supreme in terms of nuclear capability. So why the strong language of Obama?

What is missing in the debate is the question what Iran will gain by aiming to become a nuclear power. One can advance convincing reasons why the entry of Iran to the club of nuclear powers will not lead to a crisis, but be useful for all concerned. An argument based on the famous Adelphi Paper "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better" by the prominent American political scientist Kenneth Waltz. This discourse, published in 1981 by Britain's prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies, argues that the proliferation of nuclear weapons decreases the settlement of conflicts by force of arms. Proliferation of different (offensive) weapons has the opposite effect.

History shows that nuclear powers act more prudently in their mutual relations. During the Cold War not a single crisis escalated to outright use of arms, let alone to the use of nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan apparently followed the same logic. In the Kargil (Kashmir) conflict of 1999 the parties kept a lid on the clashes to avoid a disastrous deployment of nuclear weapons. Reflecting on the Cuban missile crisis, for Robert McNamara, then U.S. Secretary of Defense, the lesson was that nuclear weapons are only useful for deterrence. In the debate over Iran's nuclear program, history is utterly ignored. The regime of the Mullahs would be fundamentally different from that of the nuclear powers of the Cold War. It is argued that Iran strategically does not think rationally - a vital principle in the theory of Waltz - and is not afraid of a nuclear war. It would be insensitive to issues of life and death and be prepared to sacrifice millions of its own people for a better afterlife.

But the first two nuclear adversaries of the U.S., the Soviet Union and China, were neither democratic regimes. Though these countries amounted to the most totalitarian political systems in history, neither of them risked a nuclear war. The fact that Iran in the eight year war with Iraq had to mourn for nearly one million victims does not yet prove a martyrs complex. After the American cruiser USS Vincennes downed an Iranian airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, the then Iranian leader Ruhollah Khomeini wanted a quick end to the conflict with Iraq to avoid open hostilities with the U.S. An attitude that does not exactly indicate an irrational intention to fight to the last man.

The rhetoric of the Iranian President has certainly not helped the perception of that country. The statement that Israel "must be wiped off the map" did not sit well with many. But reliable sources indicate that Ahmadinejad's statement was translated incorrectly. The correct translation is: "The Imam [Khomeini] said that the occupiers of Jerusalem must disappear from the pages of time." With which he quoted Khomeini still incorrectly. Khomeini said "the scene of the time", not "the pages of time". Meanwhile, the Zionist propaganda machine made sure that Ahmadinejad's wrongly represented statement has started a life of its own, just like the story launched by neoconservatives that Iraqi soldiers would have thrown Kuwaiti babies from their incubators. This way Washington is trying to manufacture a casus belli for the third war in the Middle East: an attack on Iran.

It is criminal to misrepresent a statement by the Iranian President, thereby justifying a war of aggression. The political system in Iran is far more complex than the Western media make their public to believe. The president does not represent the supreme authority. In recent history, both before and after the Islamic Revolution, Iran has been remarkably steadfast in its relationship with the U.S. and Israel. This continuity is due to a realpolitik that is little different from that of the superpowers of the Cold War. If in that era we could live with rogue states equipped with nuclear weapons, which sacrificed millions of their own people to their ideology, why should today’s Iran pose a greater threat?

One could even argue that a nuclear Iran can be useful for the U.S. The nuclear stalemate enabled the U.S. to keep the Soviet Union in check, which led to moderation of the regime’s attitude. Why would one not expect a similar effect in a stalemate between the U.S., Israel and Iran? This would also strengthen territorial integrity of each nation. In that scenario none of the parties has the means to overpower the other. Undeniably, a nuclear Iran changes the political dynamic in the Persian Gulf. Fearful of a nuclear Iran, whether Islamic or not, most Arab countries would soon find a nuclear ally. Apart from the U.S., only Israel would be eligible. A nuclear Iran could therefore improve the relations between Israel and moderate Arab countries. And that is profit for Israel.

Meanwhile, the West holds on to a Middle East where Israel holds the exclusive right to nuclear weapons. Even nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is taboo for a nuclear Israel that does not tolerate similarly powerful rivals. The recently tightened sanctions - for which in particular expatriate Iranians pressed - will not allow the West to get Tehran to its knees. Iran instead threatens to "destroy" Israel if it "acts irresponsibly". It gave Europe a serious warning about new sanctions, while Russia announced that it will continue to provide Iran with refined oil products. This is how the power game between Iran and the West continues, a game with only losers, the Iranian people in the first place. An Iranian nuclear deterrence will not reshape the Middle East immediately. The Cold War taught us so. In an ideal world, nuclear weapons are unnecessary, but we do not live in such a world. Therefore, the most plausible theories on international relations and the lessons of the Cold War must teach us that an Iranian nuclear deterrent solves more problems than it creates. The world must learn to live with an Iranian nuclear bomb.

This article was first published July 27, 2010 in Dutch as ”Betekent een nucleair Iran een existentiële bedreiging voor Israel?”. Links are provided there.

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