Unthinkable, not inevitable
Last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened a special meeting of security chiefs to discuss Israeli strategy toward the Iranian threat, amid concerns that Western responses to it are inadequate. These concerns have grown with the expectation that any sanctions imposed on North Korea after it claimed to have exploded a nuclear weapon will amount to little more than a slap on the wrist.
The prime minister’s meeting reportedly concluded that Israel would continue to support the diplomatic approach toward the Iranian challenge, as led by the United States and Europe. In other words, Israel will continue to attempt to walk the fine line between encouraging the international community to take the lead on this global threat, and insisting that failure is not an option.
It is natural that the current situation would be compared to that which Israel faced in 1981, when it became clear that the world was doing nothing about Iraq’s nuclear bid. Then, Menachem Begin ordered the strike on the Osirak reactor, which did set Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program back about a decade. In 1991, the US discovered and destroyed Saddam’s rebuilt program when it evicted the Iraqi army from Kuwait. When Saddam was removed in 2003, it seems he was further from developing a bomb than he had been decades earlier.
Iran, presumably, has learned from Saddam’s experience and has hidden, hardened, dispersed and defended its nuclear program to a degree that it would stretch Israel’s military capabilities to unilaterally incapacitate it. But Iran, unlike Iraq seemed in 1981, is not just Israel’s problem.
By stepping back, Israel is trying to accentuate the global nature of the Iranian challenge, but Israel can and should be doing more to explain this. As a small country that the Iranian leadership openly says should be destroyed, Israel obviously has the most direct interest in preventing Iran from ever achieving such a capability. But the consequences for other nations of an Iranian nuke seem less obvious and need to be constantly reiterated.
Increasingly, as the world’s feckless response adds to the impression that Iran will succeed in its nuclear quest, claims begin to mount that this is something that the world can live with. Not all Iranian leaders are as crazy as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and he may not control the weapons, we are assured. Besides, why would Iran risk the nuclear retaliation that any use of its weapons would assuredly bring?
As comforting as this line of thinking may be to some, it fails to address several critical aspects of the Iranian challenge. First, it ignores the apocalyptic and martyrdom-lionizing ideology of the Iranian leadership, under which the deaths of millions of Iranians could be justified as ushering in the return of the “hidden imam” and the triumph of Islam.
Second, even if the Iranian leadership is more like the Soviet politburo in its latter days than Adolf Hitler with respect to its belief in its own declared ideology, the dangers of an Iranian nuke are not limited to suicidal scenarios.
Even if the mullahs are intent on preserving their lives and their power, and therefore would never openly initiate a nuclear attack, this logic can hardly guarantee that they would not either transfer such a weapon to a terrorist group, or create a supposedly independent group for that purpose.
Iran specializes in proxy warfare. It is currently backing Hizbullah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and assorted terrorist militias in Iraq. Is it really feasible for Israel or the US to automatically retaliate against Iran for a nuclear explosion of unknown origin? Finally, even if Iran neither explodes nor farms out a nuclear bomb, simply possessing one would greatly increase that regime’s ability to foment “militia mayhem” – in Mideast expert David Makovsky’s phrase – throughout the region and beyond.
The mullahs fervently believe that nuclear weapons will not only protect their regime, but allow them to expand their power and the grip of their own militant brand of Islam throughout the world. Israel cannot accept such a genocidal threat, but neither can other free nations accept such a blatant attempt to hijack the world order. Our government, crucially, should not allow the understandable desire to encourage a global response to be misinterpreted as a sign that even Israel is beginning to treat the unthinkable as inevitable.