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In Around the World in Eighty Days, one of the great yarns of all time, Jules Verne's hero Phileas Fogg is portrayed as a most unlikely gambler. A rich gentleman, he is eccentrically predictable, arriving at his club each day at the same minute, eating the same meal, and playing whist with the same group of gentlemen - until one day he decides on the spur of the moment to bet his entire fortune that he can circumnavigate the globe in record time.
The improbability of this staid character heading off on such a risky adventure is astounding, capturing the imagination of countless readers for over a century.
Fogg is a fictional character. What is more breathtaking, however, is that diplomats and analysts of the supposedly buttoned-down variety call themselves "realists" while advocating a gamble that makes Fogg's pale in comparison.
The "bet" is a simple one: allow a brutal regime that spouts an apocalyptic ideology, denies the Holocaust, and advocates that another country be "wiped" off the map nuclear weapons - on the assumption that they are not serious.
One would like to take the American and European insistence that an Iranian nuke is unacceptable at face value. But not so deep in the bowels of the State Department, the Foreign Office and other thoughtful places, strange, inarticulate notions circulate. And now, a commentator from Israel, of all places, has boldly unveiled the great "realist" plan for all to see.
According to Tel Aviv University academic Reuven Pedatzur, writing in Haaretz where he is a frequent contributor, "It is possible to build a stable system of future nuclear deterrence between Israel and Iran."
Thus, he rejects the thesis of Princeton's Bernard Lewis, who argues that it is impossible to deter a regime that adheres to a "suicide martyrdom complex... For people with this mind-set, MAD [the Cold War theory of Mutual Assured Destruction] is not a constraint, it is an inducement."
"What a single suicide bomber is willing to do does not prove anything about the decisions of a national leadership," Pedatzur retorts. "There is no Iranian national interest that could justify the country's total destruction.... It is almost certain that when the threat of Israeli reprisal involves nuclear missiles, the Iranian leader will refrain from using nuclear weapons" [emphasis added].
The problem is that, when it comes to existential threats, almost is not good enough. How can Israel bet its fate and the world its freedom and security on the assumption that Iran's leaders will not do what they say should be done, and do not believe what they say they believe? Such a reckless bet might be understandable coming from bungee jumpers, motorcycle stuntmen and other such daredevils. But how can it be proffered as a path of prudence and "realism"?
THE PROBLEMS with Pedatzur's bet just begin, however, with the odds in favor of a Cold War-style "balance of terror" not being good enough. What happens, for instance, if a nuclear weapon blows up in Tel Aviv, New York or London and no one knows where it came from? Would the victim nation really destroy Teheran and ask questions later?
Regardless of its habit of displaying long-range missiles, it is much more likely that Iran would portray a nuclear attack as coming through a terrorist group rather than directly from its soil.
And that's not all: what the realists don't seem to realize is that the impact of an Iranian nuke does not just emerge if it is used. Even if the chance of Iran actually exploding a nuke, either directly or by proxy, is low, the chance of its employing its newfound ability for nuclear blackmail is 100 percent.
Let's assume for the moment, like Pedatzur, that the mullahs are closet realists. In this case, they are racing to obtain nuclear weapons not to use them, but to protect their regime. But even when considered through such "realist" eyes, an Iranian nuke would be intolerable, since it would provide the mullahs with the ultimate regime insurance, under which it could step up its support for "militia mayhem" (in David Makovsky's phrase) in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq.
At the same time, Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia have made it clear that they would consider pursuing nuclear programs if Iran obtained the Bomb. Indeed, the entire edifice of non-proliferation, by which Western nations have painstakingly attempted to bully and persuade nations from Argentina to South Africa not to join the nuclear club, will be out the window. After all, if Iran can have the Bomb, who can't?
If this were not enough, with terror on the rise in the West in general and against Israel in particular, any hopes for a Mideast peace process can be kissed goodbye. Israeli politics would naturally move rightward, but even if they did not, radical forces on the Arab side would be strengthened, ensuring that the idea of making peace with Israel would recede further than ever.
In the past, proponents of MAD generally were also great believers in the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the Mideast peace process. Even if MAD were applicable to Iran, which it is not, how can the "realists" so blithely toss the causes of non-proliferation and the peace process out the window?
The "realist" attempt to cobble MAD onto Iran is not a strategy, but a thinly disguised declaration of desperation and surrender. Letting Iran obtain nukes so contradicts every principle that liberals - we have not even mentioned human rights - and realists claim to uphold that the only explanation for it is an elaborate rationalization for the belief that Iran cannot be stopped, or that the price of stopping it is too high.
Phileas Fogg won his wager, but we cannot afford to take the "realists" bet on the mullahs' good sense. The analogy for the threat from Iran is not the Cold War but the challenge from Nazi Germany.
There is still a chance that genocidal Islamo-fascism can be beaten without firing a shot. "Realist" defeatism, however, will guarantee the very war it seeks to avoid. The price of victory rises every day that the West signals it would rather abandon all its declared principles than lift a finger to defend itself.
- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11