Tragedy And Ashes

When it comes to the matter of an Iranian bomb, Israeli citizens feel both utterly threatened and mostly silenced. What can ordinary voters and critics usefully say about this? Think of America in the 1950s, in the depth of the Cold War. There was no other form of military power that depended so much on expert engineers, policy strategists, and high military officers—and on revolving political leaders who were hostages to secret recommendations. When Israeli professionals say, “We need to preempt their first-strike capability” (as in Iraq or, more recently, in Syria), who dares to contradict them?

Reticence will not end here. Let's imagine the unimaginable: Iran gets the bomb. If the ultimate goal is deterrence—as it must be—ordinary Israelis will all have a stake in a perfected, secret infrastructure they have no part in designing; an infrastructure that can both survive a first-strike and retaliate against the attacking state; a piece of the state apparatus just unsecret enough to make any potential attacker believe it exists. (Presumably, this is what Israelis already have.)

Whatever else they feel, therefore, how can Israelis not feel a kind of silent gratitude for the highly skilled people who do this work? And let's return to the current situation. How—when Israeli intelligence professionals now tell us that an Iranian bomb must be preempted, by military attack if necessary—can ordinary Israelis object? Do not even disarmament advocates like Jonathan Schell insist that Iran’s trajectory to getting a bomb is clear and imminent, whatever the US “intelligence estimate”? How could Israelis not wish for some partnership of Israeli and US forces to just get on with a strike if current diplomacy fails?

THE PROBLEM COMES when other considerations assert themselves. We presume, and intelligence reports confirm, that a) no military attack can be really effective against Iran’s widely dispersed, underground facilities, b) the Iranian government has the petro-dollars to replace what might be destroyed, with even greater secrecy and determination, and c) the immediate consequence of a presumably insufficient attack would be to unite virtually all Iranians behind an otherwise unpopular regime, and unleash revenge attacks by Iranian proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf and around the world.

So it is impossible not to feel deeply anxious and seriously thwarted. Words like holocaust roll of the tongues of military strategists, but intuitively we know that they are playing a three-dimensional chess game and an attack feels like checkers. What, if not attack, should our leaders be doing? What are ordinary citizens supposed to think?

THERE IS ONE thing you can count on certifiably tough leaders to deliver in a situation like this, and that is a tough speech. From Bush, Rudy and Bibi (increasingly also from McCain), we will hear much about Munich, the dangers of appeasement, and the need get them before they get us. Harvard's Law Review, we will be assured, is no place to learn life's hard truths.

Mind you, these leaders are not actually advocating an attack. They are insisting that anybody who really cares about Israel will entertain an attack—that anybody who, on the contrary, speaks about engaging with Iran is selling Israel out. It is not their strategy that we are supposed to flock to. That brought us Iraq. It’s their (what do American pundits call it?) values: the idea that they care enough to imply a bond of blood; the insinuation that they hate their enemies subtly.

Read my lips, “Never again.”

OK, THERE IS a vague strategic argument behind the aggressive posturing. The attacks from Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Gaza and Syria are bound to come in any case, they tell us, and they will come more certainly and more recklessly behind an Iranian nuclear umbrella. Recently, Haaretz’s Shmuel Rosner dutifully reproduced this argument (without much examining it) in his blog,

One knowledgeable observer was using this baseball metaphor yesterday. The Iranians have players waiting on all three bases. Hamas on first, Syria on second and Hezbollah on third. All they need now is the grand slam homerun - a nuclear bomb in the hands of Iran that will send them running around the bases for home.

But none of these base-runners have hesitated to act against Israel or Israeli interests in the past, and with no nuclear umbrella. And it is hard to see how one could threaten to incinerate Tel-Aviv and not threaten to irradiate Gaza. When you look at the history of the Cold War, it seems that the opposite argument can be inferred: that once you have nuclear powers facing off against one another, as in Berlin or in Cuba, they tend to restrain their proxies for fear of being dragged into a nuclear exchange.

Of course there is another, even weirder claim lurking behind this one, which is that Iranian leaders would actually welcome a nuclear exchange. They are fanatics, bent on world conquest. They have sacrificed so many young people in the war against Iraq, that they would willingly accept losing, say, Teheran and Qom just to get rid of Israel. To believe that you have to believe what Richard Pipes argued about the Soviets in the 1970s, when he was plumping for the MX missile: that Russians lost so many people in World War II that cities (human life, etc.) meant less to them than they typically meant to us. (Come to think of it, to believe about Muslims what we used to believe about Commies you ought listen to Richard Pipes’s son.)

But what, as MIT's Barry Posen asks, could Iran really expect from a nuclear exchange? What other than "tragedy and ashes?"

ANYWAY, EXPOSING THE fatuity of hawkish rhetoric does not solve the underlying problem. The prospect of a nuclear Iran in a Middle East that seems headed to Bosnian-style violence is not a happy one. How long before Egypt and Saudi Arabia insist on becoming nuclear powers, too? How long before one suicide bomber, or one missile around Ben-Gurion Airport, ignites the kind of tit-for-tat that will bring apocalyptic results?

Which brings me to two points, humble citizens' points, not fully developed here, but worth considering in light of the lessons of the Cold War. The first is that the only way we can hope to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb is to get them to agree to international inspections and rigorous nonproliferation agreements. And the only way we can hope to move them to cooperation of this kind is to put Israel’s own nuclear program on the agenda.

I do not doubt that Israel pursued nuclear military technology in the 1950s and 60s in order to preclude a real threat to its very existence from the Arab world. The question is, are there now no ways to guarantee Israel’s existence in an overall peace process (say, by inclusion in NATO) other than an independent nuclear capacity? Why not rededicate ourselves to comprehensive, regional non-proliferation?

Second, even if Iran moves toward a bomb, even if the peace process continues to stall, we should hold our fire and revisit the logic of containment and détente: wed patient diplomacy to compelling economic forces. President Shimon Peres held a conference on “facing tomorrow” in Jerusalem this past week, in which he declared that Iran is the past, while Israel is the future. Let us think more along these lines.

Peres meant by this, and he was right, that the capacity to survive the forces of globalization, oil or no oil, means learning to interact with the science and management that one finds in the West and in the global economy more generally. Libya is now learning this lesson. So is North Korea. As long as we keep the peace in the region, we are in a game Islamists cannot win. When we are dragged into asymmetrical wars, with terrorists and terror regimes, we are in a game we cannot win.

Iran, too, has a middle class that wants to rise. Why should not President Obama shake the Iranian president's hand, if only with the same tactical vision with which Nixon shook Mao's? Why not rob Iranian leaders of their chance to claim Muslim humiliation and victimhood? Why not, in any case, raise our sights?