Comment: Israel is on its own vis-à-vis Iran

For 60 years, America has rejected military action against nuclear programs. Iran won’t be the exception.

October 10, 2012 15:37
2 minute read.
Gen. Martin Dempsey meets PM Netanyahu

Us army chief Dempsey meets Netanyahu. (photo credit: GPO)


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If I could ask every cabinet minister to read one thing now that the holidays are over and they are getting back to business, it wouldn’t be a great classic or a scholarly tome. It would be an 800-word journal article by a PhD student arguing that regardless of who wins November’s US presidential election, there’s no chance America will ever take military action against Iran’s nuclear program.

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Other pundits have advanced this claim before, often persuasively. But what makes Gabriel Scheinmann’s piece in The National Interest unique is that he doesn’t ground it in either domestic or foreign-policy considerations, which could theoretically change. Rather, he points to a consistent, half-century-old policy tradition in which successive US governments, both Democratic and Republican, have repeatedly considered preemptive military action against nuclear programs, and always decided against it – from the Soviet Union in the 1950s through China in the 1960s all the way to Syria in 2007.

Scheinmann doesn’t detail why successive governments rejected military action, but the reasons are fairly obvious: Most of the same arguments – from reluctance to be seen as the aggressor through belief in the feasibility of containment to fear of sparking a war – are made today by opponents of military action against Iran. But there’s another, even more important reason that often goes unspoken: America is a superpower. Hence even another nuclear superpower like the USSR doesn’t necessarily pose an existential threat to it. And a mere regional power like Iran certainly doesn’t.

This doesn’t mean a nuclear-armed Iran couldn’t cause America plenty of pain; it could. But pain isn’t an existential threat. The USSR also caused America plenty of pain, including hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed or wounded in several conventional wars against Soviet-backed forces. Yet overall, America still flourished during that half-century of conflict.

For a tiny country like Israel, in contrast, a nuclear Iran is an existential threat. This isn’t merely because a single nuclear bomb could wipe out much of the country; it’s also because Israel is so badly outnumbered by hostile neighbors’ conventional forces.

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