For the more than four decades of Cold War, the human race was not destroyed due to mutual deterrence between the two superpowers. The strategic stability was based on a balance of fear and on what was called MAD - mutual assured destruction. It was clear to both sides that even if one managed to surprise its rival and strike it with all the nuclear weapons in its arsenal, the victim would still have enough bombs to wreak total destruction on the attacker.
The theory of nuclear deterrence, which was developed mainly by American academics, underwent quite a few changes from the mid-1940s until MAD was formulated in the mid-1960s, mainly by then-U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara. However, from the moment McNamara convinced the Soviet leadership that the willingness of both sides to expose themselves to total destruction was the only way to achieve stability, this viewpoint became the bedrock of nuclear deterrence - and the principle that ensured the survival of the world.
The addition of other countries to the nuclear club did not lead to a change in the theory. Britain, France and China did not challenge this viewpoint, and it was clear that fear of total destruction by the Soviet Union (in the case of Britain and France) or by the United States (in the case of China) deterred them from using nuclear weapons.
The nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan in May 1998 gave rise to a fear that the theory would fail. There was talk about the two countries' cultural differences, the religious element of the conflict and the extremism of the Pakistanis. And in fact a year later the Kargil crisis erupted between India and Pakistan, and threatened to lead to war. As it turned out, it was actually the two countries' nuclear capabilities that caused their leaders to exercise restraint. The fear that the crisis would deteriorate into nuclear war prevented an escalation.
This belief that nuclear weapons were the ultimate deterrent also led David Ben-Gurion to become the architect of the Israeli nuclear program. Even the most radical Arab leaders who aspired to destroy Israel would be deterred if they knew it possessed nuclear weapons. The lessons of the Cold War only confirmed Ben-Gurion's thesis, and made it clear that at the moment of truth, Israel's nuclear capability would deter anyone aspiring to destroy the country.
Good against evil
And now comes Prof. Bernard Lewis, one of the world's foremost authorities on the Middle East, who rejects this thesis' validity for the region. What was true during the Cold War does not apply to Iran, says Lewis.
"There is a radical difference between the Islamic Republic of Iran and other governments with nuclear weapons," wrote Lewis in The Wall Street Journal on August 8. "This difference is expressed in what can only be described as the apocalyptic worldview of Iran's present rulers. This worldview and expectation, vividly expressed in speeches, articles and even schoolbooks, clearly shape the perception and therefore the policies of Ahmadinejad and his disciples ... School textbooks tell young Iranians to be ready for a final global struggle against an evil enemy, named as the U.S., and to prepare themselves for the privileges of martyrdom."
He concludes that if Iran has nuclear weapons, its leaders will not adopt the restrictions accepted by the heads of the other nuclear states. There is great concern, he writes, that after arming themselves with nuclear bombs, the ayatollahs will launch them at Israel.
"A direct attack on the U.S., though possible, is less likely in the immediate future. Israel is a nearer and easier target, and Mr. Ahmadinejad has given indication of thinking along these lines."
Lewis discusses two possible deterrent factors against Iranian use of nuclear weapons: "The first is that an attack that wipes out Israel would almost certainly wipe out the Palestinians too. The second is that such an attack would evoke a devastating reprisal from Israel against Iran, since one may surely assume that the Israelis have made the necessary arrangements for a counterstrike even after a nuclear holocaust in Israel."
In referring to the certainty that the destruction of Israel would also result in the deaths of millions of Palestinians, Lewis uses the example of Al-Qaida's 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. These attacks killed a few American diplomats and hundreds of Muslims. Lewis writes: "Even in the past it was clear that terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam had no compunction in slaughtering large numbers of fellow Muslims."
"The second deterrent - the threat of direct retaliation on Iran - is, as noted, already weakened by the suicide or martyrdom complex that plagues parts of the Islamic world today .... This complex has become even more important at the present day, because of this new apocalyptic vision ... for Shi'ite Muslims [this means] the long-awaited return of the Hidden Imam, ending in the final victory of the forces of good over evil, however these may be defined. Mr. Ahmadinejad and his followers clearly believe that this time is now, and that the terminal struggle has already begun and is indeed well advanced," writes Lewis.
"In this context, mutual assured destruction, the deterrent that worked so well during the Cold War, would have no meaning. At the end of time, there will be general destruction anyway. What will matter will be the final destination of the dead - hell for the infidels, and heaven for the believers. For people with this mindset, MAD is not a constraint; it is an inducement."
A rational leadership
This is Lewis' apocalyptic theory. Frightening, but not necessarily valid. Lewis' thesis is based on generalizations and projections - from individual cases of suicide bombers to the national level - and it ignores our historical experience regarding the behavior of the Iranian leadership in previous conflicts.
Up until a few years ago, Lewis' theories were accepted as valid and as a basis for American policy in the Middle East. However, after he "abandoned academic caution" following September 11, in the words of his critics, his opinions have become very controversial among Middle East scholars.
Lewis was one of the first to pressure the U.S. administration into embarking on a post-September 11 armed conflict against Saddam Hussein. Lewis was also an important player in the theory that after the war, it would be possible to establish a democratic regime in Iraq.
Without getting into the debates between Lewis and his critics, it is clear his view and analysis of our region largely suffers from obsolete thinking. In light of that we should examine the thesis of the Iranian apocalypse. Lewis states that just as Muslim terrorists were willing to strike Western targets even though they knew many Muslims would be killed, the Iranian leaders would not hesitate to strike at Israel and kill millions of Muslims. That is a projection from the individual to the national level, and is not necessarily valid. What a single suicide bomber is willing to do does not prove anything about the decisions of a national leadership.
Past experience shows that the radical Iranian regime, headed by the most extreme of them all, Ayatollah Khomeini, behaved with absolute rationality at the moment of truth. That was the case during the Iran-Iraq war. Khomeini declared he would never sign a cease-fire agreement with Iraq until it surrendered. However, after dozens of Iraqi missiles began striking Tehran and thousands of residents were harmed, Khomeini changed his position and signed a cease-fire agreement with Saddam Hussein.
In that case, the missiles were conventional. It is almost certain that when the threat of Israeli reprisal involves nuclear missiles, the Iranian leaders will refrain from using nuclear weapons.
There is no Iranian national interest that could justify the country's total destruction. Lewis' claim, that the destruction of Iran could be justified by an apocalyptic worldview, does not accord completely with the assumption that the Iranians, in spite of being Muslims, are not fundamentally different from other people in the world.
We can assume that as opposed to Lewis' assertions, it is possible to build a stable system of future nuclear deterrence between Israel and Iran. This will of course require changes in Israel's nuclear policy and a transition to open nuclear deterrence. In addition, Israel will have to build a reliable second-strike capability, which has to a great extent been completed with the acquisition of the Dolphin submarine.
Mutual deterrence will be based on new rules of the game, with Israel making its red lines clear to Iran. For example, Iran will be made aware that the moment a missile is detected heading westward from its territory, the Israeli nuclear response will be automatically activated - without waiting for the missile to land, and without examining whether it is nuclear. Moreover, it will be clear to Iran that even if it were to surprise Israel and strike it without being detected in advance, Israel would still have enough nuclear missiles to destroy all of Iran.
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