Israel and the Iranian Bomb

Iran Nukes Israel

The September 2010 edition of The Atlantic features a story on what it represents as Israel’s plan to attack and try to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities before Iran can get to the point of producing a nuclear weapon–a prospect the Israelis argue is quite imminent, meaning the attack could come quite soon.

The article, by Jeffrey Goldberg, is titled “The Point of No Return,” and it is decidedly more sanguine about these prospects than one would assume from the normally fairly restrained Goldberg. Indeed, Goldberg seems at least receptive to, if not enthusiastic about, the purported Israeli plan, whereas his colleague Robert D. Kaplan, usually more hawkish on such matters, counsels Kissingerian restraint (deterrence) in his companion article, “Living with Nuclear Iran.”

The possibility that Israel would entertain and possibly even commit to an attack aimed at destroying the Iranian nuclear program is certainly nothing new, although it has been a prospect that most of us have set aside as sufficiently lunatic or far enough in the future to be intellectually avoidable. The Atlantic article strips away both of these veils, showing that the intent to attack permeates a great deal of the Israeli decision process (notably the top) and that the prospects are upon us. Goldberg indeed hints that he believes such an action is probably inevitable.

At the risk of distorting Goldberg’s argument, it strikes me that it has three basic parts. The first, and most familiar, is that the Iranian nuclear program represents an intolerable existential threat to Israel. In one sense, this is entirely true: Iran in control of a few deliverable nuclear weapons that the Israelis could not intercept (which may be the real meaning of the Iranian drone aircraft announced this week) could indeed destroy so much of Israel as to threaten its existence. The nature of that threat, however, needs qualification the Israelis rarely add.

First, Israel has arguably become ”the state that cries existential threat” in much the same way as the little boy cried wolf. It seems that every threat the Israelis face is labeled existential, and that Israel responds militarily with actions/provocations that either make the threat worse or produce new threats. Israeli policy in Gaza is a poster child for this problem. Second, the Israelis act as if they were alone in all this. Not so. The United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have posed physical existential threats to one another since the perfection of the ICBM, and we have learned to adapt to and deflect the problem. Our mechanism (which is the Kissimgerian solution) is deterrence, an approach the Israelis reject because they Iranians are allegedly crazy, meaning they cannot be deterred. Third, the Israelis have posed an existential threat to Iran (and the rest of the Muslim Middle East) for over 40 years. The Israelis say that situation is different, because they would not attack anyone. If you were the head of an Islamic government in the area, would you accept that argument?

Second, the Israelis apparently think there is agood chance they can get away with an attack, because they have done so in the past with attacks against Iraq and Syria. Maybe so, but maybe not. Syria and Iraq were much more defenseless than Iran and were considered far less important than the Iranians. Iran is, after all, a very large, populous country with a wealth of natural resources that much of the world covets. Syria, in particular, is none of those things. Will the world sit so idly by in Iran is attacked? I, for one, do not want to find out.

Third, the Israelis are counting on American support for this endeavor–or at least that the U.S. will dampen opposition to the action. One Israeli air force officer even suggests it would be better if the U.S. did the bombing for the Israelis, since we have superior assets for such an attack. President Obama has, quite predictably, declared that no options are off the table in this situation, but a U.S. surrogate attack on the Israelis’ behalf is presumably right at the edge of the table, ready to be pushed off.

If any other country in the world proposed anything like what is discussed in this article, the international condemnation would be thunderous; even in the deeply divided partisanship of current American politics, if it was not Israel making the threat, both sides might suspend their guerrilla political war long enough to issue a condemnation. If the Israelis go ahead and make the attack (which, by the way, will almost certainly fail to destroy the Iranian program) the only places there will be rejoice will be in Jerusalem and the Republican National Committee.

This whole idea is ludicrous beyond description, and needs to be treated as such. If the United States government has not already done so, it should issue a private warning to the Israelis that they are strictly on their own and that their action will be condemned by Washington as quickly and as resolutely as was the joint British-French-Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956. If Israel unleashes these dogs of war, let it deal with the consequences alone. We have and should continue to support and protect Israel; we should not suborn Israeli aggression.

Donald M. Snow,Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. This essay first appeared at his blog What After Iraq? Photo credit:

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