After Iran Joins the Club

Since the moment when the nuclear genie left the bottle, mankind has been destined to live beneath the sword of Damocles.

It took a mere 43 seconds - from the moment that "Little Boy" was released by a B-29 bomber until the gigantic explosion that changed the face of human history. August 6 marked the 60th anniversary of the day on which the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the day on which man acquired the ability to destroy the earth for the first time in human history. Since the moment when the nuclear genie left the bottle, mankind has been destined to live beneath the sword of Damocles.

During the Cold War, it transpired that it is possible to live with a nuclear threat and that leaders' behavior is tempered by the realization that their decisions could lead to the total destruction of their country. From time to time, the two superpowers did indeed get close to the brink of a nuclear confrontation but, in all circumstances, their leaders were wise enough not to press the button. Now, in the wake of the bomb and the expansion of the nuclear club, which today comprises nine members, it is worth examining whether the Cold War's heritage, which prevented the dropping of additional bombs, is endangered.

This question is particularly pertinent in Israel's case because of the fear that Iran could become the 10th member of the nuclear club. The chances of this increased this week after Iran defiantly rejected the European compromise proposal on Monday and announced that it was resuming uranium enrichment. If this happens, the future of the Middle East will be dependent to a large extent on the way in which the leaders of Iran and Israel internalize the lessons of Hiroshima and the Cold War.

Mutual nuclear deterrence formed the basis of strategic stability between the superpowers. It was clear that it was unimportant who would be the first to press the nuclear button since the destruction brought upon both sides would be total. The key to strategic stability in a nuclear Middle East lies in the realization and acceptance by decision-makers in Jerusalem and Tehran that there is no point to using nuclear power - if both sides have it.

There are many in Israel who claim that, unlike the superpowers' decision-makers, the ayatollahs are not rational and therefore one cannot rely on the possibility of deterring them from using the bomb. From there it is a short distance to promoting the idea of attacking Iran's nuclear facilities. More than a handful of those in the security and political establishment are convinced that if Iran does not agree to halt its nuclear program, there will be no escape from activating the Israel Defense Forces and attacking them.

The problem is that it is doubtful whether it would be possible to destroy Iran's nuclear plan by military means. That is why it is necessary to be prepared for a situation in which Tehran has nuclear weapons. If those who doubt that it is possible to deter the Iranian leadership are correct, Israel will indeed find itself in existential danger.

However, it is more reasonable to assume that if the ayatollahs control nuclear weapons, they will arrive at a "rational" conclusion. That is what happened in the case of India and Pakistan, which joined the nuclear club in 1998, much later than many other nations. Since then, the leaders of both countries - whose prolonged dispute has already led to three wars - have behaved extremely cautiously with regard to any use of military power.

It is reasonable to assume that, at the moment of nuclear truth, Iran's considerations will be identical. Even Ayatollah Khomeini turned out to be rational and level-headed in 1988 when he agreed to a cease-fire with Iraq after the latter attacked Tehran with (conventional) ballistic missiles. Even Khomeini was not prepared to pay with the lives of his citizens that were being taken by the Iraqi missiles. The price that nuclear weapons could exact from the Iranians is, of course, infinitely steeper and it can be assumed that no Iranian leader would be prepared to pay it simply in order to kill "Zionist infidels."

In a speech he delivered at Hiroshima 24 years ago, Pope John Paul II said, referring to the deep shadow cast on the world by the nuclear menace, that from now on the human race could survive only through a conscious choice and level-headed policies. Today, 60 years after Hiroshima, it is worth reiterating these words also for the sake of the Middle Eastern leaders who, in the not-too-distant future will be forced to make tough decisions in the nuclear sphere.