A Double-barreled Solution to Iran

Israel must bomb Iran and make peace with its neighbors – all at once, says Israeli political scientist Yehezkel Dror, in the second of a multi-part series.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Until recently, Yehezkel Dror believed the State of Israel could live with a nuclear Iran. The veteran Israeli political scientist thought the right answer to the potential nuclearization of the Shiite republic was an ultimate deterrent. If the ayatollahs knew Israel's destruction in a nuclear attack would guarantee the same fate for their country, the Middle East would remain stable, he reasoned.

Over the last year, Dror has changed his mind.

I met with him to try to understand why he wrote the dramatic analysis published last month by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

“I understood that the nuclearization of Iran would create a real risk of a nuclear war in the Middle East,” he says. “Therefore, if there is no other way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, it is imperative that Israel attack their nuclear facilities while it is still able to do so.”

Even at 84, Yehezkel Dror evinces a captivating sort of childishness. His thick Viennese accent and professorial black horn-rimmed glasses are belied by the boyish spark in his eyes.

But sitting with me over a cup of espresso and a plate of chocolate cookies at his Givat Ram office, Dror says some very frightening things. This Israeli, who has been dealing with matters of nuclear strategy since the 1960s and 1970s, is discussing, in an unusually direct and explicit way, matters that are never spoken about openly.

He is thinking aloud, in my presence, the unthinkable. In fact, this cautious professor from Jerusalem is pushing the limits of the public debate on the nuclear threat faced by the Jewish state.

Dror’s argument is simple, clear and multilayered.

“Iran is not developing nuclear weapons against Israel,” he says. “Iran is also well aware of the fact that a nuclear attack on Israel would result in a deadly Israeli counterstrike. And despite this, under unusual circumstances, Iran is liable to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon. There is a risk of an error being make, a risk of the loss of control, a risk of escalation.

"But above all there is the risk that if the rulers of Iran encounter a regime crisis, they will choose the Sampson Option: to die alongside the Israelis. The probability of such an event is not high but it is not necessarily low. It is unknown. During the missile crisis in 1962 [Cuban leader] Fidel Castro gave [Soviet Premier] Nikita Khrushchev the option of starting an apocalyptic war. He knew that it would mean suicide for his country but thought that the supreme goal of destroying capitalism would justify the price of Cuba’s destruction.

”Very fortunately, Moscow treated the revolutionary from Havana like a madman and ignored his offer. But in Iran’s case we are likely to find ourselves up against a revolutionary Cuba that is not restrained by a more mature Soviet Union. We don't know well enough who will be those making these decisions and according to what values they will be made. Therefore, there is no escaping the conclusion that, under certain circumstances that cannot be recognized ahead of time, Iran is likely to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon.”

The first cookie

I take a deep breath, sip my espresso and devour a chocolate cookie that I had resolved not to touch. But the man who helped shape Israel's most critical strategies does not flinch. He strides forwards with his own unique logic.

“The scenario I just described to you is not the main scenario that worries me," says Dror. "What led to the change in my views regarding Iran is the understanding that if it acquires a nuclear weapon, Turkey, Syria and other Arab nations will also do so. In such a case there will be – for the first time in history – a multinational nuclear network in an unstable area.

"Such a model has no solution, even in theoretical models and professional literature. It doesn't even meet the basic requirement that I know you're level-headed, you know I’m level-headed and I know you know I'm level-headed.

"For this reason, whoever makes a comparison between a Middle East, where there could be any number of nuclear powers, and the Cold War is just spouting nonsense. Anyone who thinks that after nuclearization, the relationship between us and our neighbors will be similar to the one that existed between the United States and the USSR is thinking baselessly. There are grounds for the very serious concern that a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran will usher in a nuclear Middle East where the probability of a nuclear attack on Israel will be multiplied."

Through the window is a view of the old pine trees and green lawns of the Givat Ram campus. On the table is a plate of chocolate cookies whose contents are gradually dwindling.

I must challenge Dror. I must subvert the logical structure he presents, which only leads towards the abyss. So I tell my learned companion that the international community must understand all these risks and that they will take action to curb Iran's actions. Certain sanctions have already been imposed and others will be imposed. And so the disaster will be avoided.

Dror doesn’t think twice, or even hesitate.

“The international community does have a strong interest. The world would be horrified to see an Armageddon in the Middle East," he says. "But the decision makers in the West are suffering from a severe bias. They prefer to view reality in a way that doesn't require them to take actions they don't want to take.

"Because they don’t want to get tangled up in military action against Iran, they adhere faithfully to the art of diplomacy and sanctions. But the truth is that it's difficult to find an historical example of a country that forsook a national strategic initiative because of sanctions. We wouldn’t do so either.

"The one exception is Libya. But today Libya’s example actually encourages the Iranians to try and obtain nuclear weapons quickly and with determination. It's entirely obvious that if in 2003 Gadhafi didn’t succumb to American and British pressures and give up on his nuclear project he'd be alive and well today, living a happy life surrounded by dozens of female bodyguards.

"This doesn't mean that we shouldn't try the diplomatic approach, but if diplomacy and sanctions don’t produce results within a short time, we must not let them come at us from an aggressive position while Iran’s nuclear facilities are still vulnerable to attack.”

I don't give up. If not sanctions, then America – at the last minute the Americans are the ones that will save us from a nuclear Iran. And because the operational capability of the United States is vastly superior to Israel’s operational capability, we must let them lead.

Dror is more skeptical.

“It’s obvious that an American attack on Iran is preferable to an Israeli attack. But the U.S. isn’t what it once was,” he says. “After the traumas of Afghanistan and Iraq I’m not convinced that the American public will support another war. It’s also unclear how the Russians and Chinese will react.

"There's a difference between us and the United States. Iran won’t attack America, whereas it is liable to attack Israel. Therefore, there is a significant gap between the risks perceived by the Americans and the risks posed to us. From the United States' point of view, an Iranian nuclear weapon isn’t an existential threat. So there's no way to predict the decision the American president will take, one way or the other.

"There's a real danger that he will prefer to put up with Iran’s transformation into a superpower by providing Israel with certain types of support and guarantees. But since it's impossible to maintain Israel's security against a nuclear Iran, there is a clear conclusion. Israel cannot leave the final decision to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons in the hands of the U.S. If there is no other choice, if time runs out, and if Iran stands on the verge of entering the zone of immunity, we must do all that can be done, including an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel must attack while there is a very high probability of a successful outcome.”

Don’t listen to the people

"What you are proposing is a preventative war," I say to Dror. "And a preventative war is a war of choice that the Israeli public will oppose, just as it opposed the first Lebanon war and the Second Lebanon War."

“I am not talking about a war of choice, but a preventative strike. The argument that a preventative strike is morally unacceptable is a primitive one,” says the senior strategist of the Winograd Commission, which had been established in 2006 to investigate the causes of the Second Lebanon War.

“It ignores the future and the important need to prevent future victims. It also contradicts the logic of supporting peace treaties, because every peace treaty involves definite security risks that are taken for the sake of future, uncertain chances. Therefore, the government's decision making should be guided by the need to prevent grave dangers in the future. In fact, representative democracy requires the elected government to act according to the overall best interests of the state – not to pander to public opinion. In the type of case we're up against, public opinion is of absolutely no importance. There is no room to consider public opinion with regard to the question of military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.”

"You’re sending shivers down my spine," I tell Dror. "Your logic leads to the unavoidable conclusion that an Israeli leader who knows tomorrow they are liable to lose their ability to attack Iran, must attack that day. But such an extreme action could have disastrous consequences."

The professor lets out a gentle sigh, removes his glasses and looks at me closely.

“True,” he says. “The stakes are high. But the gamble involved in abstaining from such an attack is liable to be much higher. You must understand that in this case the decision not to act is no less critical than to the decision to do so. In both cases the outlook is gloomy, but thorough analysis shows that the more dangerous option is not to attack and the right option is to act. This is because the cost of an Iranian counterattack is infinitely smaller when compared to the costs of a future nuclear attack against Israel. Therefore, the Israeli leader who knows he has the ability to carry out a good attack on Iran – because he may soon lose his chance – must act. If he doesn’t attack, he is acting irresponsibly.”

But what if Israel attacks and after some time Iran still reaches nuclearization despite this?

Now even the calm and collected Dror sounds worried.

"I estimate that the current Iranian ability to harm us is limited,” he says. “Even the dangers that are likely to be caused to Israel’s political standing are reversible. They can't be compared at all to the dangers inherent in a nuclear Iran. But the worrying scenario is one where following an attack by Israel Iran recovers and becomes a vengeful nuclear power. This scenario is a grave one. If I knew it would happen, I wouldn’t recommend an attack. But the way to prevent the danger of a nuclear Iran is to ensure that after an attack on its nuclear facilities, the United States and the international community monitor it closely and prevent it from going nuclear. In order for the U.S. and the international community to do this, Israel must complete the attack on Iran through a regional peace initiative.

"uch an initiative must be based on the Arab Peace Initiative and lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, the partition of Jerusalem and an agreed solution regarding the problem of [Palestinian] refugees. This way, through the double actions of a military attack and a state initiative we can deal with the unprecedented challenge facing us.

"My recommendation to our leaders is a two-pronged one. If it becomes apparent that there is no other way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Israel must attack its nuclear facilities in combinations with the introduction of a serious Israeli initiative for comprehensive Middle-East peace."

Dror speaking at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzlyia in 2009.Credit: Eyal Warshawski
Dror says dealing with Iran will be no picnic, no matter what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top brass decide.Credit: Avi Ohayon



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