Israel's Iran Dilemma

Not only is Barak's vision unlikely to be realized, but in fact a military attack is probably what would make nuclear Iran and regional proliferation real. What an irony.

Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen
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Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen

Recent statements by Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the Iranian nuclear issue only drove home the need for a real public debate on the subject. Like Balaam in the biblical story, Barak set out to condemn the chatter, but his own chatter wound up manifesting the need - indeed the duty - to hold a real public discussion on this existential matter.

First there was a radio interview, in which Barak decided to "reveal" that in the case of a war with Iran, he doesn't expect the number of Israeli fatalities to exceed 500. Those who spread irresponsible and defeatist estimates about thousands of Israeli fatalities and more, Barak averred, do not know what they are talking about. Israel is the most powerful country in the region, he continued, and as such it is inexcusable for former senior security officials to scare its public with numbers of fatalities that have no connection with reality.

Barak's authoritative-sounding statement about the expected "low" fatalities in an all-out conflict with Iran was made just minutes after he bitterly complained about the shallowness of Israeli public discourse about the Iranian issue. In truth, it is hard to think of a remark that is more shallow, more irresponsible and more groundless than his own assertion.

Anyone who understands something about operations research knows that its results are necessarily derived from the very empirical assumptions that feed the research. Even the most brilliant operations researcher cannot know, in the case of Iran, the actual quality and precision of Israel's intelligence, how successful an attack might be, what the reaction of other regional players might be, how long the Iranians and their proxies (Hezbollah, Hamas or Syria ) will be capable of and willing to fight, what will be the Israeli public's reaction to missiles falling on it, and so on and so forth.

These are all unknowns about which no one can have accurate advance knowledge. One can initiate a war, but it is not possible to know how and when the fire will be put out. World War I, which Germany initiated, did not last a few weeks, as the Germans had anticipated, but more than four years, with more than nine million dead. The Iran-Iraq War was started by Saddam Hussein, who had expected a quick victory. It lasted eight years, and ended with his defeat.

The second occasion on which that Barak's statements demonstrated the need for a real debate on the Iranian issue was the interview he gave several days later to Charlie Rose on PBS, the American public television channel. In that interview, which got attention in Israel for piquant reasons (when Israel's "Mr. Security" referred to the "alleged" Israeli bomb, making the country's policy of nuclear ambiguity even more grotesque than it already is ), he ran down the reasons why the State of Israel could not live with a nuclear Iran: First, a nuclear Iran would necessarily create a new Middle East, one dramatically more dangerous than that we have known to date. Second, he predicted that a nuclear Iran would necessarily invoke a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the region, starting in Saudi Arabia, continuing with Egypt, and ending with Turkey.

It may well be that Barak's vision of doom, if it is indeed rooted in reality, requires extraordinary national resolve, even the willingness to go to war. However, not only is Barak's vision unlikely to be realized in the current circumstances - because sanctions, isolation, military preparedness, an American deterrence umbrella, dirty tricks, etc., would not allow Iran to adapt to becoming a declared nuclear power - but in fact a military attack on Iran is probably what would make nuclear Iran and regional proliferation real. What an irony.

Such action would obligate Iran to abandon the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT ), heighten its determination to pursue accelerated nuclear weapons development, and most important, would create a situation of a declared and deployed nuclear Iran, in the Pakistani style. If today Tehran is still steering its nuclear course with a great deal of caution and ambiguity, without openly crossing the nuclear weapons threshold, an Israeli military attack would fundamentally change the nature of Iranian nuclear activity. An Israeli action there would make Barak's dark vision a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The idea of an independent Israeli attack at this time on the nuclear facilities in Iran is both irrational and megalomaniacal. If somebody thinks that Israeli military might can in itself put an end to the ayatollahs' nuclear ambitions, he is daydreaming. Just as the destruction of Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 only bolstered Saddam's desire for the bomb, so a military operation against Iran would only strengthen the rule of the ayatollahs and their desire for nuclear weapons.

In the final analysis, only a renewed peace process, on both bilateral (Israeli-Palestinian ) and multilateral (Israeli-Arab ) tracks, a process that would include also delegitimization of nuclear weapons, all nuclear weapons, can ultimately remove the nuclear threat from the Middle East.

Avner Cohen is a professor of nonproliferation studies and senior fellow with the Monterey Institute of International Studies. This article is a synopsis of a lecture under this title he gave two weeks ago which was posted on the institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies webpage:



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