'No Country Which Threatens Israel Can Be Permitted To Have Nuclear Weapons'

A reader in Israel strongly disagrees with my argument that there is a "contradiction" in the current Israeli government view of Iran. On the one hand, the Iranian regime is (said to be) irrational and undeterrable -- and therefore might launch a suicidal nuclear attack on Israel. On the other hand, the Iranian regime is (thought to be) cautious and survival-minded, and therefore would not respond to a preemptive Israeli strike with broad retaliation against US or Israeli people and assets. When these views are combined, they mean that an Israeli attack on Iran can seem to be (a) necessary and (b) workable.

The reader writes (emphasis added):

As an Israeli, let me just make it clear to you.  At the moment, it may be possible to strike Iran, and that it is possible that the Iranian response to the strike is rational (ie minimal, based on previous experience with Iraq and Syria) or not -- it really doesn't matter.  The issue is that the future action of the Iranians cannot be predicted, and add that to the possibility of a future Iranian government having nuclear weapons, and the safety of Israel is certainly unclear.  Add to that the possibility of a future Iran proliferating nuclear weapons to terrorist groups and the situation becomes even worse.  Thus, in the future, it will be impossible to strike Iran (due to nuclear deterrence) and the possibility exists that the Iranian government in the future may not be rational. 

There is no 'contradiction'. The bottom line is that no country which threatens Israel can be permitted to have nuclear weapons.  This is a basic, red line, no negotiation concept and is clearly understood by every nearly Israeli and every Jew who supports Israel.  If you don't understand this, then it is unfortunate, but there really is no amount of argument or discussions about how 'rational' or 'irrational' an actor or state is that can change this concept. 

The bottom line is that nobody who goes on the world stage claiming that Israel is a 'cancer' can be allowed by Israel to have nuclear weapons.  And this is why, at base, every Israeli knows that Iran will have to be prevented from doing this.

I make no claims for this being a representative view. But it does certainly support Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting (and this in Haaretz) suggesting that "rational" talk about consequences really "doesn't matter."

As I said the last time, no outsider can tell Israelis or their government what they need to do to feel "safe." But outsiders can point out that by this same logic, India should have bombed its enemy Pakistan to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, South Korea should have bombed its enemy North Korea, and of course the United States should have bombed its enemies the Soviet Union and China -- as some hotheads proposed in the early nuclear age but as presidents Truman and Eisenhower declined to do.

The half-century-plus of the nuclear-deterrence era is chilling in its fundamental logic: that the only thing that keeps us from being destroyed is the threat of reciprocal destruction. Because some day that logic might fail, I support the "Global Zero" goal and oppose Iranian nukes, on anti-proliferation grounds.

But the implication of the current Israeli position is that any country can be deterred, except Iran -- and any country can rely on deterrence, except Israel. I understand the argument that the unique experience of the Holocaust translates into a unique inability to rely on deterrence, even for an Israel that is already nuclear-armed. I recognize that this belief may lead Israel's government to attack. I am stating my position, which I think is also the American-interest position, that this would be a reckless and, yes, "irrational" thing to do.

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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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