'De Facto State of War' between Israel and Iran

OK, I will ease off this theme soon, and return to more varied topics, after dealing probably tomorrow with some of the more interesting mail that has arrived in response to this and preceding items. To summarize the inflow:

- From people in places other than Israel, the increasing theme is: "Why do you keep talking about a fantasized Israeli raid on Iran that no sane government would consider?" Or, "Aren't you just shifting the 'Overton window' and making a strike more conceivable, by talking about it so much?"

- From people in Israel and a few other places, the increasing theme is: "Why do you keep dismissing the existential threat from a regime sworn to remove the 'cancer' of Israel's existence and that could carry out that threat with one or two bombs?"

I'll go into these issues at least once more -- including with some informed military analysis of worst-case scenarios of an Iranian attack on Israel.

(Also, to answer a question from many people in Israel and a few elsewhere: Yes, I have been there, and I understand how small, exposed, and vulnerable Israel can seem and feel. I was in fact in Israel during the 2003 Iraq war, in Tel Aviv and Haifa, staying for some time near where Iraqi Scud missiles had hit during the 1991 Gulf War. My hotel in the incredibly beautiful town of Haifa was equipped with gas masks and had mandatory drills on use of the bomb shelters. I wrote this article after that stay.)

For now, a long message from a reader in Austin, Texas, who makes a point different from those I have quoted before. He also is a big fan of Jeffrey Goldberg!

Your latest reader responses, about the apparent logical contradictions in Israel's analysis of an Iran strike, illustrate for me a fundamental problem in how this debate is unfolding among commentators.  The trend seems to be to frame it as a war-gaming exercise, where tactical military decisions are made logically and sequentially, and in a very short time frame.  And typically in these commentaries, the danger of Iran attaining nuclear weapons is defined solely by its use of those weapons, as if that is their only possible value.

Let's put aside for a moment other (legitimate) reasons for preventing Iran from going nuclear, such as the detrimental effect to global non-proliferation, a new Middle East arms race, etc. -- and focus just on the Israeli perspective:

It doesn't seem to factor for most people that Iran and Israel have been in a de facto state of war for decades now; the latest tensions did not begin with the election of Netanyahu, as is often lazily implied.  The fact of the matter is that Iran has been fighting Israel through its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza for many years, and it is a conflict that is sustained mostly by Iran's choosing. 

My fear for Israel's long-term survival has less to do with a nuclear strike on Israel, and more to do with Iran enhancing its immunity from reprisal.  With such immunity, Iran can choose to significantly heat up those proxy conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah.  And there is every reason to believe they will choose this route -- proxy wars against the Jewish state are an invaluable tool for cementing Iran's place as the dominant power broker of the Muslim world.  It is just like Meir Dagan said in his 60 Minutes interview: the Iranians are rational.....just not our kind of rational.

This brings us to the subject of containment.  From the US and European perspective, containment seems like a workable solution.  And they are correct in reaching this conclusion.  It works in North Korea, after all -- a seemingly stable "balance of terror" exists between North and South, and aside from the rare skirmish, the war between them is entirely a cold one.  Wouldn't containment work just as well with Iran?  After all, Iran is utterly outmatched by the US militarily, and is utterly dependent on Europe for trade.  Logic dictates that Iran would never dare flex its nuclear muscle against the West.

Speaking as an American living comfortably in distant Austin, Texas, it appears to be sound policy.  And yet it completely misses the big, ugly picture. 

North Korea is anything but an example of containment at work.  In my view, the continued existence of the North Korean regime -- with the starvation, subjugation, cruelty, murder, and brainwashing of its entire populace, numbering almost 25 million -- represents one of the greatest moral failures in global affairs since probably World War II.  And yet the stalemate there is somehow acceptable, so long as North Korea refrains from selling nuclear know-how or overtly attacks its neighbors.  Any serious observer has to acknowledge that the possession of nuclear weapons has made it infinitely easier for North Korea to maintain the horrific status quo within its borders.

It is in this context that the promise of containment becomes unconvincing to many Israelis.  It also allows the concept of preemption to be seen for once as something other than a product of extreme Israeli paranoia. 

I'm not suggesting that a nuclear Iran could make life in Israel a hell on earth like anything approaching North Korea.  Nor am I advocating preemption as the best course of action.  But it should be noted that Iran's attainment of nuclear weapons would enable it to engage in a long-term war of attrition against Israel with much greater ferocity than it employs today.  Through perpetual nuclear threats and occasional proxy wars, Iran will have immeasurably greater power to disrupt Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, arm fundamentalist allies, induce emigration and "brain drain" from Israel, and generally prevent Israel from normalizing its relations and place among nations -- all tools Iran will use to serve its eliminationist goals.  And this is just the best case scenario, when you consider that outright war is yet another plausible scenario.

Israel's survival in the Middle East powder keg already requires constant vigilance and has clearly engendered a bunker mentality.  The volatile Arab uprisings have so far proven to be a major strategic setback for Israel in terms of basic national security -- and have even had the lamentable effect of de-prioritizing negotiations with Palestinians, and the West Bank settlement issue, from Israeli consciousness in a significant way.  Adding a nuclear Iran to the calculus brings a very real and very rational fear to the fore among Israelis: that Israel will be the victim of another global moral failing of existential proportions, whether it takes 50 days or 50 years to come to fruition.

There are many other complexities of statecraft and psychology at play here, and I don't presume to come even close to conveying them all.  But it is important to study and acknowledge them when constructing policy generally, and when analyzing Israel's threats of preemption specifically.  Because very little of this debate is conducive to game theory, and logical contradictions are bound to surface.

I, for one, think Jeffrey Goldberg has set the bar for outstanding reporting on this debate.  Those who see his writings as "alarmist" or as "cheer-leading for war", in my view, are either blinded by ideology (after all, he has repeatedly rejected preemption as a good idea) or simply do not possess the knowledge and historical context necessary to add value to the debate.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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