In his May 10 column, “All things not considered,” Barry Rubin argues that even if Iran doesn’t fire nuclear weapons at anyone, and even if it doesn’t intend to, just its having nukes is enough reason for the world to stop it from getting them. Rubin describes some of the horrific scenarios that could arise from Iran’s going nuclear, insisting that the “complacent, conventional wisdom, containment-is-no-problem mainstream” has never come to grips with them.
Alright. First of all, in Israel and the US, at least, the argument for containment – that it’s safer and saner to deter Iran’s prospective nukes than to start a war to pre-empt their manufacture – is anything but conventional wisdom.
Furthermore, it’s not a complacent approach; complacency implies doing nothing, and containment means the nuclear powers have to make sure their arsenals stay prohibitively superior to Iran’s. We’re talking eternal vigilance here. But Rubin raises some interesting questions, and maybe he’s right that nobody in the containment camp has ever answered them; I know I haven’t in writing, so now I’m going to try.
I THINK the arguments he makes don’t hold up, and I still think the risks of attacking Iran, which has long-range missiles, chemical weapons, very possibly biological weapons and many other ways to devastate Israel, and not just Israel, far outweigh the risks of an Iran with nukes.
Rubin doesn’t think Iran intends to fire nuclear weapons or even give them to a terrorist group, but asks: What about an Iranian loose cannon? “The chance of an Iranian Dr. Strangelove pushing a button, a mad ideologist rather than a mad scientist, is higher than that for the weapons held by the US, USSR/Russia, Britain, France or Israel over many decades.”
But he leaves out Pakistan. And North Korea. They already have nukes, and aren’t they as likely to have mad ideologists with access to the button as Iran? I’m afraid it’s too late to worry about Dr. Strangelove; he’s already in the building. He’s been here at least since Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union got the bomb, maybe since Truman’s America dropped it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Then Rubin warns that Iranian nukes would provide a “defensive umbrella for aggression” – that its allies, such as Hizbullah and Hamas, might be tempted to start wars in the belief that their enemies, including Israel, would be deterred by Iranian nuclear power from fighting back.
I think he’s vastly underestimating the intelligence, knowledge of history and survival instincts of Hizbullah, Hamas and other radical Islamist groups. The US, USSR and China fought each other’s proxies all over the world for decades without being deterred by the other side’s nuclear weapons. Fear of Soviet nukes didn’t stop JFK from trying to knock over Castro in Cuba, just as fear of US nukes didn’t stop Soviet-backed Castro from fighting back. Likewise, the threat of Soviet nuclear power didn’t stop the US from arming the anti-Soviet mujahedeen
in Afghanistan, just as fear of US nukes didn’t stop the Soviets from fighting them.
THE LIST goes on and on. Nuclear weapons have never been a defensive umbrella for aggression by anyone. It’s fair to assume Hizbullah and Hamas understand this. Despite Rubin’s contention, I think it is far-fetched that if and when Iran goes nuclear, Hizbullah or Hamas might attack this country in the belief that we would do nothing, that we would be afraid to defend ourselves because of what their big brother could do.
Finally, he argues that the Arab world would be even more intimidated by Iranian nuclear weapons than Israel because, unlike Israel, the Arab countries have no nuclear deterrent of their own and must depend on America’s, which, in the Obama era, can’t be too reassuring. “They would still be afraid to do anything Iran didn’t like, not only because they didn’t have full trust in the Obama administration but also because by the time the US kept its pledge and retaliated they would all be dead.”
I understand that the Arab countries don’t want Iran to get nuclear weapons, and will become very edgy if it happens – but I don’t see their leaders bowing down to the mullahs and Ahmadinejad. I don’t see them handing over their power, or their land, or their oil, or becoming Shi’ites because Iran will nuke them if they don’t and Obama can’t or won’t save them. That’s also far-fetched.
What I do think, though, is that nuclear proliferation is going to come to the Middle East – but I think it’s going to come to the Middle East and beyond whether Iran gets the bomb or not.
In late 2007, Amos Oz told Haaretz
: “In another 15 years everyone will have nuclear arms, and the balance of terror will remove the threat of nuclear attack.”
I think Oz might have been exaggerating for effect – it’s going to take more than 15 years, and the threat of nuclear attack will not be altogether removed. But I agree with his basic point – that it’s futile to try to stop nuclear proliferation, and that no matter how far it spreads, the balance of terror – MAD – will continue to be an awesome deterrent.
How long will it last? Who knows? But I think it’s the only military approach to nuclear proliferation we’ve got, because you can’t stop technological advancement with bombs, you can’t stop nations from wanting as good or better weapons than their enemies have, and you can’t stop second- or third-tier powers from wanting to join the first tier. That’s the way the world is.
And for those who say the answer is to get rid of all nuclear weapons,
I’m afraid that even if you could, you can’t get rid of the knowledge of
how to make them – and someone will always want to make them, if only
out of fear that his enemy is thinking the same thing.
If I could wave a wand and keep Iran from going nuclear, I would of
course do so. But looking back on nuclear history and looking forward at
the unimaginable future, I think Iranian nukes don’t amount to much
more than coals to Newcastle. Especially when you think of all the other
catastrophic WMDs in Iran’s hands right now.
Do we want to start a war against that? After the dust clears and the
casualties are counted, will we be safe? To paraphrase Churchill on
democracy, containment is the worst policy there is, except all the
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