|Attacking – and being attacked by – Iran|
Many voices that earlier touted diplomacy as the only way to halt Iran’s nuclear march are now telling Israel in effect to take a chill-pill: a nuclear Iran would behave as a rational state which could be deterred from using such weapons by Israel’s own nuclear arsenal. It might even follow the examples of the Soviet Union and Communist China and moderate its behavior once it acquires the bomb. Therefore, Israel would do well to abandon its dangerous propaganda hype.
However, the placaters’ argument is misleading and wrong. It is misleading because aside from the supposed improbability of Iran nuking Israel there are numerous other nightmarish scenarios tied to Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons.
For example, it is generally accepted that Iran has had an interest in restraining Hezbollah from unleashing terror attacks and/or its vast rocket arsenal against Israel for fear the latter’s response would wipe out a key element in Iran’s strategic deterrence visà- vis an Israeli preemptive attack. However, once Iran goes nuclear, its need for the Hezbollah deterrent would lessen, which would free the organization’s long-range arsenal to constantly harass Israel, possibly with Tehran’s encouragement.
Further, even if Iran were a rational nuclear player, an Iranian nuclear shield would make a conventional attack on Israel more likely. Under these circumstances an Israeli defeat on the battlefield could not be thwarted via an Israeli nuclear threat. In other words Israel’s last-resort option would be nullified.
Indeed, the strongest argument against Iran attacking Israel with nuclear weapons (one unlikely to be made by placaters) is that Iranian leaders seem convinced that the task of destroying the “Zionist entity” could be accomplished by lesser means.
For example, on November 10, 2011, Reuters quoted Ali Baqeri, deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as saying Israel “is in the worst condition since its creation... in political, economic and social terms and in terms of security issues... the people of these countries [in the Middle East] want to chase Israel from the region. And so now the Zionist regime has very many weak points.” Naturally, in this scenario Iran’s nukes would provide an indispensable strategic umbrella.
While Iran could follow the Soviet and Chinese models and curb its belligerency once it gets the bomb, it could in contrast adopt the North Korean line. The acquisition of atomic arms by North Korea has led to an appreciable escalation in its aggressiveness toward the South. For example, in March 2010, a DPRK submarine sank a 1,200-ton South Korean warship, the Cheonan, near the two Koreas’ disputed western sea border in one of the deadliest provocations since the two countries ended the Korean War in a truce in 1953. The attack killed 46 sailors.
On November 23, 2010, Pyongyang suddenly launched a massive artillery barrage on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island, which lies in the Yellow Sea about 155 km. west of Seoul and 11 km. off the North Korean mainland. An estimated 200 artillery shells were fired, killing and wounding South Korean marines and civilians and setting more than 60 buildings ablaze.
The placaters’ argument is wrong because Iran’s record does not support an unequivocal assurance that it is deterrable. Iran retaliated with chemical weapons late in the Iran- Iraq war although it was all but certain the action would invite more devastating Iraqi chemical attacks given that the latter possessed deadlier agents, a larger arsenal of toxic weapons and according to the CIA was by then “the world’s most experienced in the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield.”
More recently Iran’s conduct exemplifies continually its growing disregard for the risks of painful retaliations by its enemies. It sponsored a brazen plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to Washington; engaged in harassment of US warships in the Persian Gulf; continued arming, training, funding and in some cases directing attacks on American soldiers in Iraq (prior to the US troop withdrawal) and Afghanistan; and, of course, persists in its nuclear weapons program despite repeated exposures of its secret uranium enrichment-related activities, the imposition of economic sanctions, a covert “war” against its scientists and sensitive installations and growing warnings from Washington that an Iranian bomb was “unacceptable” and a “red line.”
Indeed, instead of being deterred by Israel’s might, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei informed Iran’s enemies last November that “The Iranian nation is not a nation that only sits and watches threats coming from straw powers [like Israel], which are internally eaten by worms.” Judging by Iranian statements, Israeli nuclear deterrence is ineffective already.
Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi was quoted by the Iranian state news agency IRNA on December 26, 2011, as stating “The Zionist regime” cannot attack Iran “unless it wants to commit a suicide.” He added, “It is due to the fact that it will receive deadly strikes from Iran which will make it unstable.”
Thus the Iranian minister was threatening to destroy Israel even if it launches a conventional preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. He was not impressed by the Israeli capacity to resort to judgement- day weapons if its survival was imperiled.
Placaters claim that Iran wants nuclear weapons to protect the regime given the experience of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, who were ousted from power because they lacked such arms. Thus, it is unlikely to engage in any activity that will threaten the mullahs’ hold on power, let alone attack Israel with nuclear weapons.
But Iran’s current nuclear gambit has already put the stability of its regime in question considering the tough economic sanctions imposed on it. Yet, if anything, some Iran experts now predict the nuclear program will be accelerated the antsier Tehran becomes.
Finally, the placaters are wrong with regard to dismissing the threat of Iran launching a nuclear attack on Israel. It is reminiscent of the drivel on the eve of the first Gulf War that ridiculed Saddam’s promise to target Israel because, it was confidently announced, the Iraqi leader would not risk a devastating (possibly unconventional) Israeli response if he hit an Israeli city. Today the consequences of this episode is that firing on Israeli population centers has become the norm rather than an absolute taboo.
In general, a regime ready to systematically slaughter its own people (for example to quell the civil unrest which erupted following the rigged Iranian presidential elections of 2009) would have little compunction about annihilating its foreign enemies. It could view weapons of mass destruction as tailor-made for the task.
Some Iranian leaders have even gone as far as to question the real impact of an Israeli nuclear retaliation. Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president and chairman of the “Expediency Council” (an advisory body to the country’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), stated during the Al-Quds Day sermon on December 14, 2001: “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in [its] possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.”
Given the so-called Arab Spring, where hordes of unarmed Arab protesters daily put their lives on the line confronting government troops and the increasing centrality of martyrdom in Arab/Islamic political life, the basis for stable strategic deterrence in the area seems shaky at best. In this environment it would be a grave mistake to dismiss Iran’s threat to “wipe Israel off the map” [or block the Straits of Hormuz] as “suicidal” and thus of little credibility. After all, two Shi’ite organizations closely linked to Iran were responsible for the introduction of suicide bombings into the Middle East.
The Iraqi al-Da’wa party, headquartered in Tehran at the time, claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in December 1981. Subsequently, the terrorist organization Hezbollah embarked on a suicide bombing campaign against US, French and Israeli forces in Lebanon soon after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps formed it in the early 80s.
Moreover, during the Iran-Iraq war the ayatollahs resorted to human wave attacks where tens of thousand of children, some as young as 12 and 13, ran into the Iraqi firing line and into minefields with the word Karbala on their lips and flags – which one theological scholar described as “the most disturbing and gruesome parade of mass selfsacrifice in living memory.”
Nor should it be forgotten that on August 2, 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a communiqué to the Islamic nation stating: “There is no way to confront the barbaric Z ionist wolves and the aggression of the ‘Great Satan’ [the US] except through martyrdom.”
The logical outcome of the placaters’ position would be to argue that the billions of dollars the US and Israel are investing in developing missile defenses are a “waste” given that one could rely on Tehran’s rationality.
Likewise the agreement by Turkey Portugal, Poland, Romania and Spain to host parts of the US AN/TPY-2 mobile X-band radar – a system designed to “provide the optimal protection against ballistic missile threats from the Middle East, from Iran in particular,” as one Obama administration official has told The New York Times, was uncalled for and will only aggravate their relations with Tehran. But such objections have been rare.
One can conclude therefore that even placaters see erecting missile defenses as a sane “better safe than sorry” policy. Yet for some reason sanity eludes them when it comes to assuring that the Iranian nuclear threat does not materialize in the first place. Even the European Union would not partake in the placaters’ “Happily Ever After” fantasy. Why else would it enact sweeping economic sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear drive and/or destabilizing its extremist regime? Would such steps be warranted if the world of stable nuclear deterrence were about to dawn in the Middle East? The bottom line is this – assuming it is not too late, were the argument to stop Iran (militarily if needed) implemented the worst that could happen is a conflict which may cause hundreds, possibly thousands, of casualties, untold economic losses and some political turmoil. However, if the placaters’ argument is embraced, the worst that could occur is an Iranian-Israeli nuclear exchange. ’Nuff said.
Avigdor Haselkorn is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iran, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (Yale University Press)