Iran's Potentially Fatal Temptation

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Hirsh Goodman has an excellent summary of the existential problem faced by Israel -- the actual existential problem faced by Israel, not the political problem faced by its prime minister when he bucks his coalition and reverses settlement growth on the West Bank (if only). This is an excerpt from Goodman's forthcoming book, "An Anatomy of Israel's Survival";


Of all the existential threats Israel faces, other than civil war, common wisdom has it that Iran is at the top of the list. Iran is maniacally dedicated to Israel's destruction, and says so on every occasion, in every language, and at every opportunity. By now even the parrots in the Tehran zoo can repeat the mantras of hatred calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, its people sent back to Poland, Palestine liberated, for the cancer to be removed from Arabia, and the West's agent of evil, Israel, crushed and expelled.

Not since Hitler have the Jewish people theoretically faced such a threat. Half of the world's Jewish population currently lives in Israel. Now, like then, the Jews actually have very little to do with the problem, but provide a convenient whipping boy for the Iranian regime and its aspirations of regional hegemony and control of the Gulf. Israel has no unavoidable disputes with Iran once you get past its right to exist -- no common borders or contested resources. The two countries' armies have never clashed. Yet it is ostensibly because of Israel that Iran is rushing to attain nuclear weapons and expending considerable amounts on missile and satellite programs, among the other weapons it is amassing for its day in the field with the Jewish state. Or so Tehran says.

A nuclear Iran, it is now recognized, is not Israel's problem alone. It possesses missiles that bring the Gulf states, Egypt, Turkey, Europe and Russia all within reach. A nuclear Iran would be transformative, a country not easily gone to war against, and one that will have considerably more power on the regional stage. And if Iran goes nuclear, it is almost certain that Turkey and Egypt will accelerate their own programs and Saudi Arabia would buy an off-the-shelf bomb from Pakistan. Libya agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in December 2003. The international crisis that broke out with Colonel Gaddafi's regime in March 2011 would have looked very different had Gaddafi had the bomb.

A nuclear Middle East is in no one's interest; therefore, opposition to the prospect is wide. The United States, China and Russia have imposed sanctions on Iran in the hope of impeding the bomb. Israel and Saudi Arabia find themselves on the same side of the fence.

But Iran is Israel's problem most of all. No other country is existentially threatened by Iran, in a position to suffer irreparable damage if attacked with nuclear weapons. Those imposing sanctions and locked in diplomacy to try to resolve the problem are involved in global power play, not a life-and-death situation. Iran is not calling for the destruction of Turkey or Saudi Arabia, and if America, China or Russia loses the game, as they indeed might, it is not their heads that will be on the chopping block.

For Israel, there is no margin for error. Over 70% of Israel's population, one-third of all the Jews in the world, and its ports, airports, refining capacities and industry are located along the coastal plain, 161 miles long from north to south and some 10 miles deep, about the size of an average game park in Africa. I took a helicopter ride recently, taking off from the Herzliah airfield just north of Tel Aviv. Hardly 600 feet in the air and you see it all in the palm of your hand, from Ashkelon shimmering in the south to the Haifa bay and Acre in the north, the cities of Holon, Rehovot, Nes Tsiona, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Ramat Gan, Kfar Saba, all packed together like eggs in one basket. Along the coast are the chimneys of power stations and desalination plants, ports and tourist areas. The highways to either side are packed with afternoon traffic and the new office and residential towers that have sprouted up between Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan, glowing in the sunset. In one glance you can see five of the country's major universities, all of its ports, its major international airport, highways, railways, and the centre of its business life. I remember the pictures from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and think of what happened there. Imagine the devastation of a bomb five, 10, 100 times more powerful in an area as dense as this one, humming with traffic and life underneath. If attacked with nuclear weapons it would be, to use a phrase attributed to Moshe Dayan, "the destruction of the Third Temple." Everything would be lost. There would be no second chance.

The Iranians know this; hence the temptation, the dream, that it could be done, even knowing that Iran would suffer terribly as a result. But with a population 10 times that of Israel and a country 75 times as large, Iran reckons that no matter how harsh the punishment meted out in return for attacking Israel, it would be mauled, not killed. In this context, none of the symmetry and deterrence that kept the Cold War cold applies, and there is none of the diplomatic pragmatism that even the most repressive Soviet leaders possessed. Iran's regime is based on brute power; its calculations cannot be put into a rational context. From Israel's point of view, they must be taken at their word. To do otherwise would be to invite catastrophe.


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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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