By Bernard Avishai and Reza Aslan
Sunday, August 10, 2008
The Bush administration seems less and less likely to launch a parting strike on Iran's nuclear installations -- but Israel isn't sounding nearly so tranquil. The talk from Jerusalem will almost certainly grow more strident as the competition to replace the country's scandal-plagued prime minister, Ehud Olmert, intensifies. Former Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz is running hard against the less hawkish Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to succeed Olmert as leader of the governing Kadima Party; he recently told Israel's dominant daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, that an attack on Iran was "unavoidable." And Binyamin Netanyahu, the right-wing opposition leader who might well beat either Livni or Mofaz in a general election, is also likely to think seriously about a preventive Israeli raid.
Meanwhile, prominent Israeli military analysts, officials and writers are insisting that Iran constitutes a mounting "existential threat." Take one of the country's most important historians, the erstwhile dove Benny Morris, who recently predicted in the New York Times that "Israel will almost surely attack Iran's nuclear sites in the next four to seven months" -- roughly (and not inconveniently) the period between the U.S. presidential election and the departure of the Bush administration. Morris claimed that his view that Israel's existence was on the line is shared "across the political spectrum." In Israel today, anyone who resists such talk risks becoming an appeaser amid a chorus of Churchills.
Leave aside the possibility that the threat of an Israeli attack may be designed to give leverage to U.S. and European diplomats pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear efforts. Leave aside the question of whether, if you believed that such a strike was truly imminent, you'd predict it in a major newspaper. Leave aside the fact that no Israeli strike could happen without a U.S. green light and permission to fly over Iraq. And leave aside the perennial suspicions that Israel's military elite, which sees the Jewish state as the West's foremost strategic asset in the region, also tends to see the Middle East through the prism of the "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West. Could Israeli threats be serious?
We hope not, because we don't buy the underlying premises. Here's the argument one hears almost daily in Israel: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a jihadist fanatic; he is bent on (as he put it) wiping Israel "off the map," and his insistence on denying the Holocaust shows that he may be vile enough to perpetrate another one; the Iranian regime is on the fast track to developing a nuclear weapon. So the West -- and if not the West, then Israel alone -- must treat Iran as though it were the national equivalent of a suicide bomber. It must strike now, without hesitation, before it's too late.
Moreover, the argument continues, even if a nuclear-armed Iran didn't attack Israel first, it would still spur an arms race that would turn the region into a nest of mutually assured destroyers that would include Egypt and Saudi Arabia. An Iranian bomb would also curtail Israel's freedom of action if it has to strike against the tens of thousands of missiles now in the hands of Hezbollah, Iran's fearsome proxy in southern Lebanon. So why should Israel not (we need George C. Scott here) just go for broke?
Here's why not: because Iran presents the West with a kind of real-life chess game, and the advocates of a preemptive Israeli attack only understand checkers. Intelligence experts insist that we examine both the intentions and the capabilities of an opponent. Let's do that.
The president of Iran is not the regime. Ahmadinejad has almost no control over Iran's nuclear program; that power rests in the hands of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei alone commands Iran's military and dictates its foreign policy. Through intermediaries such as Vice President Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Khamenei has adopted a much softer tone than Ahmadinejad on nuclear negotiations with the West. As Rahim-Mashaei recently put it, according to Iranian news agencies, "Iran wants no war with any country, and today Iran is a friend of the United States and even Israel."
The Iranian regime is not a suicide bomber. The idea that one fine morning Iran will incinerate Tel Aviv is madness; Morris's description of the mullahs' "fundamentalist, self-sacrificial mindset," echoed by others, is a caricature. The Iranian regime knows full well that Israel has an arsenal widely thought to include as many as 200 nuclear warheads as well as missiles, submarines, strategic bombers and enough apocalyptic psyches to retaliate. Do Israelis seriously believe that Iranians hate them (on behalf of the Palestinians, who would be poisoned by the fallout) more than they love their children -- or, for that matter, the historic cities of Tehran, Qom and Esfahan?
The regime wants to survive. The mullahs, let us remember, have managed to remain in power for three decades, despite international isolation, a devastating eight-year war with Iraq and the loathing of the vast majority of the country's citizens. In times of economic frustration, they rely on anti-Israeli and anti-American gambits to distract attention from domestic hardship; we should view their nuclear program in this context. This is a country that sits atop the world's third-largest proven reserves of oil, according to the CIA, yet imports about 40 percent of its gasoline -- simply because it doesn't have the resources or the know-how to update its refineries to pump more. We have greater reason to assume that, in time, the mullahs will bow to internal pressure and open their country to global intellectual capital than to think that they will engage in an ecstasy of suicidal mass murder.
The Iranian nuclear program is daring but not crazy. Consider the view from Tehran. The United States overthrew Iran's government in 1953 to obtain Iranian oil, and the country is now surrounded by U.S. troops -- in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. This surely argues for prudence from Tehran. Besides, the regime has probably learned a valuable lesson from another member of the "axis of evil": Nuclear North Korea was never attacked; it was offered hundreds of millions of dollars to give up its bombs. Nuclear diplomacy, the mullahs have probably concluded, enhances the international prestige of what would otherwise be a Third World country.
An Iranian bomb need not precipitate a regional nuclear arms race. Israel's bomb -- developed by the Middle Eastern power most hated and feared by its neighbors -- hasn't.
Even if Tehran were determined to get the bomb, there's no guarantee that it could pull it off. Iran's nuclear program is far more modest than its leaders like to admit. As Undersecretary of State William Burns testified before Congress last month, "It is apparent that Iran has not yet perfected [uranium] enrichment, and as a direct result of U.N. sanctions, Iran's ability to procure technology or items of significance to its missile programs . . . is being impaired."
An Iranian bomb will not "degrade Israel's deterrence." Tens of thousands of conventional missiles in southern Lebanon, Syria, Gaza -- and Iran -- have already done that. Hezbollah knows that it can bombard Israel and survive, as it did during its summer 2006 war with Israel. If an Iranian bomb would provide cover for Hezbollah, Hamas and their state sponsors to launch these missiles at some indefinite point in the future, but a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran would make Iran's proxies launch them now (as Hezbollah did two years ago), how exactly does the logic of regaining Israeli "deterrence" work?
None of these points mean that Ahmadinejad will stop blustering; he is a two-bit politician playing to his base. Nor does it mean that the Western powers should stop planning a long-term strategy of containing Iran. But Western powers should now focus not only on their power to deter but on their power to attract; we should push for new collective-security agreements that would benefit everyone in the region. Israeli threats to attack Iran produce only paranoia and solidarity inside Iran. And after 40 years of Israeli occupation in Palestine, Israel's threats also have the handy effect of changing the subject.
Bernard Avishai is the author, most recently, of "The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last." Reza Aslan is the author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam" and the forthcoming "How to Win a Cosmic War."