The Real Conflict With Iran

Game theory developers prepare for the likely scenario in which Iran will have nuclear weapons.

Iran was the first country in the world to bomb a nuclear reactor. In October 1980, Iranian Air Force Phantoms sent on a mission by Ayatollah Khomeini attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

The attack, which took place a month after the Iraqi invasion of Iran, failed, but set a precedent that could be used against those who set it. As far as Israel is concerned, a country whose rulers openly aspire to destroy it is no less legitimate a target than Iraq was for Iran.

There is an asymmetry between Israel and Iran. The Iranians have a strong desire to attain nuclear weapons, but lack the capability. Israel, according to military experts, has the ability to harm vital links in the Iranian chain, but has no desire to do so.

The Israeli assessment repeatedly heard in recent weeks, and once again in the remarks made by Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, is as follows: The Iranian threat is existential, but not urgent, nor will it be so in 2006; fears of renewed hostilities coming from the Palestinians or the Lebanese border are far more immediate, even if their implications are less serious.

The declarations coming from politicians in the defense ministry and from the prime minister are more belligerent. Unlike what might be expected on the eve of elections, they are intended for external consumption, in discreet coordination with the American administration - to demonstrate to Europe, the members of the United Nations Security Council and the international community that the potential crisis is serious. If, out of its eagerness not to be leading the struggle, Israel makes the mistake of dwarfing the Iranian danger, it will provide Europe with a convenient excuse to avoid taking any preventive political steps.

As expected, the threats voiced by Ehud Olmert and Shaul Mofaz reverberated in Washington. Senator John McCain, the leading aspirant for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, favorably mentioned the Israeli warnings the day before yesterday, viewing them as a reflection of genuine concern. McCain feared not only for Israel: An Iranian nuclear program could lead to other Mideast nuclear programs in its wake - to say nothing of how it might affect the price of oil.

The most difficult dimension for Israel in this matter is not the Iranian nuclear program, but rather the Israeli one - the claim that Washington is biased in this matter, and that after it pressured Israel in the 1960s to limit its nuclear program, it discontinued this pressure and has accepted the circumspect situation in Dimona. While there are counterarguments (Israel did not deceive the authorities, because it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; it has not called for the destruction of Iran or any other country), they will not suffice should the political prevention plans fail and if Bush is faced with a cruel choice - to wage an expensive war on Iran or to do away with the affirmative action toward Israel's nuclear situation, at the cost of stopping Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons.

In order to escape having to pay this price, it would appear that the Israelis and Americans would reluctantly accept a nuclear Iran, should a secular regime take power in Tehran, one that supports the West and abjures terrorism.

A hint in this vein was recently given in remarks made by Nobel Prize Laureate Thomas Schelling, one of the developers of game theory and an internationally renowned philosopher of strategy. In a written interview, Schelling praised the restraint shown by the government of Golda Meir, who even in the extreme circumstances of the Yom Kippur War refrained from using nuclear weapons, and called on Iran to imitate the Israeli model as well as those of India and Pakistan, who pledged to maintain nuclear arms only for "defense and deterrent" needs and not to use them.

For Schelling, the Iranian nuclear program is on the verge of becoming a fact, so much so that he proposes allowing Iran access to the most sophisticated technologies of nuclear pins and safety catches, so that a fanatic ayatollah would not accidentally discharge a Shihab 3 rocket to destroy Israel, triggering a second-strike destruction of Iran.