But the strategic logic of the concern is more puzzling. No one doubts (although no officials can publicly say) that Israel has a large nuclear-retaliatory force, including on submarines. Thus any leader in Iran knows that an attack on Israel would with 100-percent certainty mean devastation for Iran as well (as Thomas Friedman went into on Wednesday). So to think that Iran might actually try to “wipe Israel off the map” requires assuming either that its leadership is literally suicidal, or that, like the Nazis in Germany, Iranian leaders are so bent on destruction that nothing other than brute force can hold them back.
The problem with the suicidal martyr-state assumption is that never in its 36-plus years in office has the Iranian leadership taken a move that rashly jeopardized its own well-being or hold on power. Iran’s leadership has been theocratic but not psychopathic. A serious problem for the United States, Israel, and others: yes. A Reich-like monster-state: no. Under its Islamic leaders, Iran has been at war once—a war that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq started when it invaded Iran in 1980. So the “existential” argument would be stronger were there any evidence of Iran’s leaders ever taking suicidal risks.
As for the comparison with Nazi Germany, last week Peter Beinart carefully laid out the reasons that modern Iran and Hitler’s Reich have exactly one point in common: their anti-Semitic rhetoric. In every other strategic, political, and military dimension they are completely different.
I am sure that officials in Israel’s security and military services realize this. Perhaps even Netanyahu does as well. So what lies behind the over-the-top claims?
That is what these posts address. The first is from Samuel J. Cohen, who was born in the United States and graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies but has lived in Israel since 1977. For 20 years he was a trade negotiator for the Israeli government. He argues that the U.S. government under Obama and the Israeli government under Netanyahu may both be sanely pursuing their national interests, but that these interests may be diverging.
Could Obama and Netanyahu Both Be Right?
For Barak Obama, accepting the international agreement with Iran to limit their nuclear activities is a “no brainer”: “as President of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional obligations” to defer to Israel on the Iran Deal.
For Benjamin Netanyahu: “this is a very dangerous deal and it threatens all of us. My solemn responsibility as Prime Minister is to make sure Israel’s concerns are heard.”
From my vantage post in Herzliya, I am struck by a question that most seem to be avoiding: Could Obama and Netanyahu both be right? Could it be that this deal is very good for the US (and the world)—and not so good for Israel?
For the United States and its international partners (China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany) the deal, at best removes, and at worst delays, Iran’s development and acquisition of a nuclear weapon. A nuclear weapon capability for Iran not only insures Iran’s regional hegemony and its ability to withstand western military threats, but, in extremis, poses a direct threat to Russian and European homelands.
Moreover, the deal expresses the intention that Iran will actually set aside its plans to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran remains a non-nuclear weapon signatory of the NPT. It will be subject to the most rigorous inspection system of any NPT signatory. If Iran abides by the agreement, all is well. If it cheats, the US and its international partners have dramatically increased their ability to detect those violations, and can then either reinstate extreme sanctions or take very aggressive military action.
In order to obtain Iran’s nominal acceptance of the deal, the 5+1 are pledged to dismantle trade sanctions maintained against Iran. Actually, it’s the international partners who will dismantle almost all trade sanctions; the U.S. will maintain significant sanctions against Iran, and will withhold diplomatic recognition, because of Iran’s support of terrorism around the world.
For the Europeans, for Russia and China, and for other nations that have maintained sanctions against Iran (e.g. Japan, Korea,) the end of sanctions is a very easy concession to make. Just look at the smiles of the European trade delegations that have already gone to Teheran. Truth to tell, some US exporters and banks may also find an economic benefit in the reduction of sanctions against Iran.
Undoubtedly, this agreement will strengthen Iran’s economy and allow their extreme Islamist regime to continue supporting terrorist activities around the world, bolster their support of Bashir al Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and rebels in Yemen. It may or may not increase the repression of human rights and women’s rights in Iran. We can assume that Iran will continue to be a really bad actor all over. But this agreement will drastically reduce, and may eliminate, the possibility that this bad actor will hold a nuclear weapon in its pocket.
In the starkest context: if there were no Jewish State of Israel, and no Sunni Arabs in Jordan or Saudi Arabia, could anyone muster anything close to a majority in the U.S. Congress to oppose this deal?
From Jerusalem, the view is different. We are looking at a deal that will strengthen the Iranian economy and reduce internal pressure on the current despotic regime. We have trouble hearing the distinctions between those Iranian leaders who actively want to destroy Israel, and the students who reportedly are bussed into demonstrations and paid to shout “Death to America.” We have felt at close hand the Hezbollah missiles bought by Iran screaming into Israel in 2006. This year we can see the smoke from Assad’s army that Iran supports in Syria. We had friends and relatives in the Jewish community building in Buenos Aries that Iran blew up in 1994. Iran is the bad guy in our neighborhood.
For Israel, the possibility of a nuclear weapon in Teheran is, of course, a threat of a different magnitude. In extremis, a Persian bomb could destroy, totally, the Zionist State and the Jewish people. (It would also render the Palestinian issue moot.) But we have a very long way to go before we come to that. And as everyone keeps telling us, a nuclear armed Iran is a danger not to the Middle East, but to the whole world. So, that’s somebody else’s problem. In the meantime, we have the “conventional” conflict. This deal will strengthen Iran’s ability, and perhaps its motivation, to make trouble continually and painfully in our neighborhood. And Israel will pay the price.
And so the different conclusions in Washington and Jerusalem.
Unpleasant as it can be, the international powers can live with an Iranian hegemony bullying the Middle East. Certain US and European strategic interests may be negatively affected, human rights and civil order may be endangered, support for terrorism can increase, and oil supplies may be pressured. But the US, the Europeans, and their allies can push back. (For Russia and China, a stronger Iran is probably a net gain.) The US has and will continue to counter all these conventional threats, and deals with a regional despot can always be made. And there is a grand payoff: if this nuclear agreement works, (and the technical experts are saying there is a good chance that it will), the worst-case scenario for the international community—real radioactive fallout—is prevented. If the deal fails, the US and its +5 international partners have unlimited options and improved starting positions in the future. That is Obama’s compelling case.
In Israel, many of us are experts at cultivating the feeling that we are alone in the world, that our view is the right one, and everyone who disagrees is wrong. Sometime we put the blame on anti-Semitism and sometimes on a lack of hasbara. It is not easy for us to accept that Israel’s interests may objectively differ from the interests of the United States and other international powers. It’s probably an even more difficult call for the American Jewish community.
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