Analyze This: It's time to think, and speak, the unthinkable about Teheran

Int'l community must think hard about world with a nuclear Iran.

ahmadinejad nuclear 224 (photo credit: AP [file])
ahmadinejad nuclear 224
(photo credit: AP [file])
Last week in The Washington Post, columnist Charles Krauthammer declared: "It is time to admit the truth: The Bush administration's attempt to halt Iran's nuclear program has failed. Utterly." As a consequence, the passionately pro-Israel pundit suggested it is time to think ahead and plan a deterrence strategy for a nuclear-armed Iran. He proposed the US make a pledge he dubbed the "Holocaust declaration," which would consist of Washington issuing a formal statement along the lines of the words John F. Kennedy used during the Cuban missile crisis: "It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear attack upon Israel by Iran, or originating in Iran, as an attack by Iran on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon Iran." Though Krauthammer puts it more dramatically than most, this is hardly a new thought, simply a variation of the idea that at some future date the US (and/or NATO) agree to put Israel under the same sort of "nuclear umbrella" that shielded Western Europe during the Cold War. It is a strategic concept received coolly at best by most Israeli officials and strategic thinkers. As Prof. Gerald Steinberg put it several years ago in his paper "Walking the Tightrope: Israeli Options in Response to Iranian Nuclear Developments," "After almost four decades of close security cooperation, a formal treaty [between the US and Israel] may not provide much more in terms of deterrence or security assurances. It may also reduce Israeli freedom of action and have other costs, particularly if a less supportive US government is elected in the future." What is interesting, then, about Krauthammer's article is less the substance of his suggestion, but that this fierce public advocate of preventing Teheran from reaching nuclear capability is now apparently conceding the likelihood of this happening, and discussing the deterrent policies that will have to be formulated in response. It is one thing for a columnist to make such speculations - and another for an Israeli official. Yet in remarks that were surely less carefully considered than those of Krauthammer, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer publicly speculated last week that "the Iranians won't rush to attack Israel, because they understand the significance such action would have and are well aware of our strength... an Iranian attack on Israel will lead to a harsh response by Israel that will cause the destruction of the Iranian nation." Ben-Eliezer was widely criticized for his comments, not only because he was accused of unnecessarily raising tensions with Teheran by stating the obvious. His statements, by focusing the discussion of Iranian nuclear intentions on Israel as its target, runs counter to Jerusalem's public diplomacy policy which aimed at convincing the international community of the greater regional, and even global, threat this situation poses. Yet while Fuad's timing may be off, the comments of the former defense minister are not without their own strategic value when viewed in a broader context - one in which the reality of a possible nuclear Iran cannot be simply dismissed as unthinkable, and living with it means devising the necessary policies of deterrence. Part of that is not only developing a nuclear "second-strike" capability, but also making sure the enemy completely understands and believes we have the capability and will to respond in this manner. Though it may be premature for Ben-Eliezer to be making this point for Teheran's benefit, the day may soon come when even such words are not enough. As Steinberg speculates in his paper: "In the context of a multi-polar nuclear Middle East and the need for a credible second-strike capability, maintenance of Israel's policy of deliberate ambiguity would become increasingly difficult. In terms of capabilities, the movements of a submarine force, and the dispersal of aircraft and ballistic missiles in hardened structures, would be more visible than the current requirements. Smaller and more advanced warheads required for these advanced delivery systems may also need testing, thereby changing the Israeli policy in a fundamental manner. Credibility and communications are also central components of stable deterrence, and a more overt and visible nuclear weapons capability may be seen as necessary to avoid Iranian (and wider regional) misperceptions, particularly given the isolation of decision-makers in Iran. An Israeli decision to disclose its nuclear capabilities, or to test a weapon (or long-range ballistic missile) in public might be viewed as necessary to highlight the ability to inflict massive destruction in response to a first strike." The prospect of Israel conducting open nuclear testing in the region can provide little comfort for the rest of the world - never mind the question of whether such deterrent strategies can even prove effective in dealing with apocalyptic-minded mullahs who might see MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) as another variation of Islamic martyrdom. Nuclear umbrellas, second-strikes, atomic testing, perhaps even the need for a massive US or NATO military force stationed full-time in the region - why even openly discuss, or even mention such possible scenarios at this stage, while we still hold out hope that Iran's nuclear program can be stopped, peaceably or otherwise? Well, I can think of one reason. I don't believe Charles Krauthammer really sees his "Holocaust Declaration" as a viable option right now, especially over Israeli reluctance for such a pact. I do think though he wants to raise the public discussion of a nuclear Iran several notches from where it is now, moving beyond the cliché of it being "unthinkable," to a place where Washington and the rest of the international community really do have to think hard about the specific consequences of what such a situation would mean, both for Israel and the rest of the civilized world. Israelis out of necessity already grasp that truth, which is why it was unnecessary for Fuad to helpfully inform us "in a future war, it will be much safer to live in Nahariya or Shlomi than in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv." But perhaps the time has come for us to start speaking more about the unthinkable - if only to prod the rest of the world to really start thinking deeply about what the consequences of a nuclear Iran would be, in the hope they act sooner rather than later, or too late at all. [email protected]