The Patients Have The Floor

Given how famous the “madman theory” of international affairs has become, it is increasingly hard to know whether people calling for an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear installations really mean it or just think they are doing diplomats a favor. In any case, a growing number of Israeli military analysts, officials, and political writers have declared the Iranian regime an “existential threat” and its nuclear program fair game for the Israeli Air Force. Resist such talk, and you become an appeaser in a chorus of Churchills. The patients have the floor.

One particularly brazen voice, the historian Benny Morris, predicts a strike “within 4-7 months,” roughly (and not inconveniently) the period after the American election but before the Bush Administration leaves office. In fact, Morris writes, if you scope out the choices left to Israel as Iran enriches uranium, an Israeli preemptive nuclear strike might be, if not inevitable, then prudential.

You see, any Israeli conventional strike will necessarily be partial and guarantee a retaliatory missile barrage from Iran and Hezbollah—missiles that (or so Israelis will have to assume) could be tipped with chemical or biological warheads. But an Israeli strike will also guarantee that Iran develops a bomb. It will greatly enhance its determination to use it. Why not--so Morris concludes--cut out the intermediate stage, which sets up the terrible endgame? Why not (we need George C. Scott here) just go for broke?

LEAVE ASIDE THE question of whether, if you believed a strike were just and imminent, you’d be wise to publish a column about it in the New York Times. Leave aside suspicions that Israeli military professionals who've comported themselves as America’s foremost regional asset—who, according to official commissions of inquiry, have cowed senior Israeli ministers with secret intelligence and contingency plans—naturally incline to a clash of civilizations.

The substantive problem for which a preemptive strike is the presumed solution boils down to something like the following argument: Iran’s president, hence its regime, is jihadist and fanatic; he considers Israel illegitimate, is bent on its annihilation, and his denial of the holocaust means he is capable of perpetrating one. The regime, meanwhile, is on a fast track to a nuclear weapon; the West, and if not the West, Israel standing alone, must treat the Iranian nuclear program something like a suicide bomber’s exploding belt.

Besides—so the argument continues—even if Iran does not actually attack Israel first, its acquisition of a nuclear weapon would change “geopolitical” dynamics in insufferable ways. Egypt and the Saudis will think themselves required to get one; the region will become a nest of mutually assured destroyers. An Iranian bomb will serve as an added deterrent to Israel, should that country have to strike against the tens of thousands of missiles now in the hands of Hezbollah, Iran’s client. It will curtail Israeli freedom of action.

I (WITH) OTHERS will have much more to say about this in the days ahead. But, meanwhile, it may be worth revisiting this post from May. Also, if you find yourself in a conversation with someone who argues, like Morris, in favor of a strike, insist on answers to the following questions, which cover what intelligence officers would call Iran's "motivation" and "capabilities":

  • Is the Iranian president the entire regime?
  • If not, what valence does hatred of Israel have in the Iranian government as a whole?
  • If we assume (as Jonathan Schell does) that an Iranian bomb is not ultimately stoppable, would a jihadist president, or any Iranian leader, fire-off a first strike, or give a bomb to a terrorist?
  • Would such a strike not incinerate or poison Palestinians and Hezbollah's Shi'a?
  • Would Iranian leaders really be willing to sacrifice Teheran, Qom, and other population centers to an Israeli retaliatory strike just for the ecstasy of ending Israel?
  • Then again, is the regime really capable of getting a weapon?
  • If so, what intervening economic or popular pressures will, over the years, make any plans for deployment moot?
  • Why have Egypt and the Saudis not gone for a bomb to compete with, well, Israel's?
  • Finally, if Iranian mullahs do not intend to use the bomb, and have such difficulty making it, what regional fears and grudges might explain why they are so apparently intent on getting one?
  • Can those be allayed by persistent diplomacy over time?
These are a lot of questions. The thing is, an attack on Iran would kill a lot of people.