Sleepwalking Into Catastrophe

I accept that Israel must make the final decision about its security. Yet nothing, and I mean nothing, is worth the mass extinction of possible nuclear war.

James R. Russell
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James R. Russell

There is a little clump of soggy tents in Harvard Yard outside University Hall - the administration building. We now show IDs to enter the campus, and if Occupy Harvard achieves nothing else, it will at least have impeded the everyday flow of movement.

I am troubled by the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel undertones of the "Occupy" movement. But it is a legitimate protest against the gulf in America between obscene wealth and abject poverty, and the malign neglect of the country's government and major institutions. Over recent decades we've become afraid to exercise our rights to free speech and assembly. The powers-that-be stigmatize the latter as disruptive or offensive, and the former as seditious. Threats whose very danger lies in their vagueness frighten and censor people who ought to speak their mind. Causing offense may be bad manners in some contexts, but it is not a crime and real differences of opinion can and do offend.

There are some issues that are so important that one must insist upon exercising one's civil rights and academic and intellectual freedom, even at the risk of causing offense. Nuclear war is one of these. A general war in the Middle East started by a preemptive Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear program might spiral into a nuclear exchange involving Pakistan's arsenal, maybe India's too. Yet the world seems to be sleepwalking into such a situation: Sanctions against the Iranian regime are inadequate and ineffective and the free world, led by the United States and the United Kingdom, is allowing Russia and China to maintain the status quo. But the Russian and Chinese governments are infested by parasitical, criminal cliques driven by short-term financial interest. And they, too, are somnambulists if they really believe that this Iranian regime, armed with nuclear weapons, can be trusted to keep the peace. It is important for America and Britain to establish firm lines of communication with responsible leaders, in Russia especially.

President Obama has a hard job to do at a very bad time. He may be as gifted a man as his supporters think, but it is also true that his political foes in Congress could do more to achieve consensus and solve vital problems than engage in sterile ideological warfare. Simply cheering on Israel to blow up the mullahs' reactors, as the Republican side seems to be doing, does not work either. Unless somebody behind the scenes is working very hard and intelligently to solve this mess, we are in a countdown to disaster.

And it will be an unimaginable disaster. Iran is much larger and more powerful than Iraq or Syria. Across Israel's northern border is the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist state-within-a-state. Israel cannot neutralize its arsenal, which has tens of thousands of missiles, without flattening half of Lebanon. We do not know how Turkey, which has rediscovered its imperial Ottoman identity, will act. And Pakistan - an enemy of the United States with a substantial nuclear arsenal and a commitment to Islamic extremism - cannot be counted on to stay out of a conflict. Pit them all against Israel in retaliation and Israel will have to use its nuclear option, and if it faces annihilation, it will take down the whole Middle East with it.

And then what? At the very least, the world economy will crash in ruins, immediately. But one thing we can predict about war is that we can predict nothing about war.

If you are young and did not live through the Cold War, or if you've been carried away by life recently and have forgotten what nuclear war is, refresh your memory. Read Strieber and Kunetka's 1984 novel "Warday," or Jonathan Schell's book-length essay "The Fate of the Earth" (1982 ). Watch the film "The Day After," from 1983. These works paint a picture of a very dire future that scientists agree probably falls short of the reality. That is what is at stake. So, what is to be done to avert a disaster that, were it to spiral out of control, would definitely kill hundreds of thousands of people, maybe billions, and possibly destroy life itself?

I suggest that the United States, United Kingdom and Russia hold a secret peace conference, and demand that both Iran and Israel attend. The Iranian regime would be given an ultimatum to dismantle all nuclear facilities, renounce all terrorism, and hold free and fair, internationally monitored elections. In return, Iran's territorial integrity and security will be guaranteed. If Iran accepts, Israel will undertake not to attack it. Should Iran fail to agree fully with these conditions, Allied forces will then enter and occupy the country as in World War II, and supervise its transition to a peaceful form of government. At the same time, the Allies must disable Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, again guaranteeing that country's territorial integrity as a reward for compliance.

As for China, I believe all recognize that the country, for all its repression, corruption and instability, is the economic powerhouse of the world. None of the moves to prevent nuclear war should be construed as an attempt to weaken China, bypass its influence, or cut off its fuel supply. One has to work, with guarantees, with the Chinese, though I do not see them as military players here.

I hope responsible people will consider some of these suggestions. Maybe America is already acting begind the scenes, but I see no sign of efficacy so far. I'm a middle-aged Jewish man who teaches Armenian, and thus I remember two holocausts. I accept that Israel must make the final decision about its security. Yet nothing, and I mean nothing, is worth the mass extinction of possible nuclear war. Look at trees, grass, a horse running in a field, children playing, people eating with each other at a restaurant, the monuments of culture and labor of centuries. I have been to Iran and consider Israel home. I know that Persians love picnics and Israelis love to drink coffee at cafes. I want a future for us all.

I offer these thoughts to remind everybody of the sweetness of everyday life, even with its normal miseries. As we approach the brink of a monstrous and evil extinction. There is still time, but maybe not very much.

James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University and has taught at various times at the Hebrew University as visiting professor and as a Lady Davis Fellow.

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