"Israel Not to Blame for Iran's Nuclear Blackmail"
Op-Ed, The Irish Times
February 14, 2006
Author: Thomas J. Wright, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2004-2007
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Iran's regime is extreme and has made repeated threats against Israel; there are good reasons to be concerned about its nuclear programme, writes Tom Wright.
Over the past couple of weeks The Irish Times has published a number of opinion articles that directly link the problem of Iran's nuclear programme to the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons.
Vincent Browne (February 1st) wrote, "So what do we expect? If Israel, a declared enemy of Iran, has nuclear weapons, the only effective deterrent against Israel using such weapons against Iran and its allies is to acquire nuclear weapons itself." For Browne, the West should keep its "hands off Iran" until Israel, which he continues to see as an illegitimate state, is dealt with first.
Similarly, according to Tariq Ali (February 3rd), "The Iranian 'crisis' of today has been carefully manufactured. Iran has as much right to nuclear weapons as any of the existing nuclear states. Why is Israel's 200-bomb arsenal acceptable? India and Pakistan are also fine. What all three states share in common is loyalty to the (American) empire."
Even the eminently more reasonable Garret FitzGerald (January 28th) suggested the roots of the Iranian problem lie in the failure of the US to prevent Israel going nuclear in the 1960s.
Linking Iran and Israel sounds sophisticated because it places the Iranian problem in a larger context. It appears honest because it rails against a double standard. And, for some, it has the added advantage of placing the blame on those short-sighted, pesky Americans. However, in reality, it is a substitute for thinking rather than a means of advancing it.
The first thing that needs to be said is that Iran's decision to acquire a nuclear capability has nothing to do with the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons. Israel became a nuclear power over 30 years ago. Immediate neighbours —including, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — have not felt sufficiently threatened by its arsenal to reciprocate.
Not even Israel's most ardent critics, and there are plenty of them, can point to a single instance where it has brandished these weapons, as some have done — North Korea springs to mind — to bully, cajole, or blackmail others. Instead, Israel has quietly held a minimal deterrent in reserve as a guarantor of last resort against being completely overrun. This posture has actually had a pacifying effect, convincing most of its adversaries to give up their ambition of driving Israelis into the sea. In fact, one could reasonably claim that no nuclear power has been more restrained or responsible in its doctrine and behaviour.
It is simply fanciful to suggest that if it wasn't for Israel's programme Iran would not be seeking nuclear weapons. To say that we cannot put pressure on Iran unless we also put pressure on Israel — as if Israel is the root cause of the problem — is ignorant of history and circumstance.
However, the more substantive point is that in international politics consistency is often a false virtue; there are good reasons why it is acceptable for Israel to have nuclear weapons but not for Iran.
First, Israel is a stable democracy. It is not likely to collapse from internal revolution. Iran, on the other hand, is an unstable autocratic state. It could collapse at any stage, as it did in 1979. What would happen to its nuclear weapons in an internal revolution? Would they fall into the hands of terrorists? The nightmare of a collapse of a nuclear-armed state already looms large in Pakistan and North Korea. A nuclear Iran would only increase this risk. It could also place the West in a grotesque position where we would have to support dictators and oppose democratic reformers simply to prevent instability.
Second, if Iran goes nuclear, other states may follow suit. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey all feel threatened by a powerful Iran that could make a bid for hegemony in the Gulf. Western security guarantees may help keep them from responding in kind but there is a real risk that the situation may deteriorate and lead to a new round of proliferation.
Underpinning much of the nuclear optimism about Iran is that the world would not change much if it had nuclear weapons. After all, mutually assured destruction worked during the Cold War and can do so again. Right? Dead wrong.
The Cold War was not pleasant, nor was it safe. The world came close on a couple of occasions to nuclear war, which, we now know from archival material, was avoided as much out of luck as design. We should not be selective in our memory. An arms race unprecedented in history, half the world enslaved behind the Soviet deterrent, and multiple crises; this is not an experience we should willingly recreate.
Unfortunately, life in a nuclear crowd could make the Cold War look easy. For starters, it would not be clear who was deterring whom. The short distances between adversaries mean the margin for error is smaller and the risks of miscalculation exponentially higher.
Finally, there is the inescapable reality that Iran's regime is extreme and has made repeated threats against Israel. As is well known, Iranian president Ahmadinejad has denied the holocaust and called for Israel to be wiped off the map. The genocidal rhetoric is not confined to Ahmadenijad. Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, now seen as a moderate by comparison, stated in October 2000 that "in a nuclear duel in the region, Israel may kill 100 million Muslims. Muslims can sustain such casualties knowing that in exchange there would be no Israel left on the map". Maybe Rafsanjani was bluffing. Maybe Ahmadenijad is too. But, if you were Israeli, would you bet everything on it?
Europeans have an obligation, given our history, to give Israel the benefit of the doubt and to have zero tolerance for those who threaten to finish Hitler's work.
Serious people disagree about how best to respond to Iran's provocations. It is unfortunate we are not having that important debate. It is time to stop blaming Israel and start recognising the problem.
Tom Wright is a research fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and senior researcher for the Princeton Project in National Security
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