Is Iranian nuclear issue intractable?

The Iran nuclear threat could make Israel’s occupation of the West Bank truly untenable.

Mahmoud Ahmedinijad 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
Mahmoud Ahmedinijad 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
My daughter Dani was born into the lengthening shadow of a decreasingly implausible showdown between Tehran and Tel Aviv. In the event of such a confrontation, chances are that the Israelis will carry out the first non-nuclear strike and not Iran, simply because Israel thinks its comparatively unfavorable geographical circumstances make it infinitely more vulnerable to a second all-out Holocaust than Iran, and because, based on this reckoning, it also believes it holds the higher moral ground and much more international backing against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Tehran knows that an unprovoked first strike would not only drive the final nail into the coffin of its diplomatic and political isolation and plausibly align the world with Israel, it would also spell the end of the Islamic regime, a large bite of the Iranian population, and perhaps Iran as a modern state.
Likewise, any nuclear attack – first or second strike – on Israeli soil would also extirpate a substantial portion of the country’s infrastructure and population, including my wife, daughter and I (don’t hold me to account for being over-pessimistic, for this worst-case scenario is precisely what has driven this entire debate).
In fact, a nuclear conflagration would also wipe out the West Bank and Gaza, many of Tehran’s non-state allies in southern Lebanon, parts of Jordan and Islam’s third holiest site. The Islamic revolutionary regime may be preeminently Shi’ite and evince a historical predilection for martyr talk, but it is not collectively suicidal, not when the entire country hangs in the balance.
The fact that the Iranians have been courting the Chinese, the Russians, Latin America and others is indicative of its own psychological need for validation and protection.
Analysts are correct that a military solution to Iran’s accelerating nuclear program will not yield the same muted consequences as did Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. Unlike both these countries, Iran probably already possesses some strike and delivery capability, however limited, to countering any potential aggression. To some rational extent, the ideological and eschatological capital to carry out a retaliatory attack without blinking.
Yet this latter point is also unlikely because, like it or not, history’s long sweep shows that the very fact of administering a state within a constellation of states, each of which is competing for its own interests, inescapably precludes foreign policymaking based on morals or theology alone. This also means Iran’s leadership is very much more rational than it it is often given credit for.
In addition, a nuclear Iran, assuming it is fully under Tehran’s reins, is actually only Israel’s second-biggest problem. The biggest danger would be having Iranian nukes fall into the hands of non-state fringe groups that do not answer to a higher political master. This specific risk already exists in the form of promiscuous Pakistani proliferation, of which surprisingly little has been said or written in connection with Israel.
THE INTERNATIONAL community cannot afford to wait for a generational turnover before engaging with the regime’s leaders. Several scenarios are conceivable.
• First, there is the military option. However, most analysts agree that this option has little chance of obliterating enough of the six known, well-dispersed, underground and highly fortified nuclear facilities in Natanz, Qom, Fordow, Esfahan, Bushehr, Arak and Parchin, to effect a decisive change in the balance of power. Furthermore, forcing Iran into that particular corner will almost certainly mean zero inhibition in lashing out with a nuclear option at Israel, let alone Western interests, especially in the untouchable Persian Gulf.
• Secondly, ongoing sanctions and diplomatic isolation, eventually still leading to a nuclear Iran but, by at the same time, mutual deterrence and preference for indirect conflict by a “thousand cuts” instead. This scenario proposes the prosecution of conflict in a manner witnessed in both the sub-continent and during the Cold War. The recent blasts near Tehran and Esfahan, whoever the culprit, are only the most immediate examples.
• The third scenario is for Israel to match an Iranian drawdown blow for blow, inevitably culminating in the decommissioning of its own nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, no one in the Israeli civilian and military leadership is expected to agree to this proposal.
• Fourthly, the international community and especially Israel might bite their collective tongues, recognize and accept Iran’s natural role as a regional powerhouse and to have it integrated into an inclusive regional security architecture. Iran has proven its willingness and ability to assist a number of NATO members in instances where their interests dovetailed, including the provision of intelligence on al-Qaida operating in Afghanistan. Iran has as much of a right as any other state in the world to defend its interests by any means possible and it is pursuing just that. How it does so is another matter.
The overriding obligation of every Israeli government is to ensure Israel’s survival, even arguably at all costs. Yet time has clearly run out for Iran’s nuclear ambitions to be nipped in the bud and the potential fallout of an Israeli (or a joint) strike is already nauseating to contemplate. At best, an attack might lead to only the most Pyrrhic of victories. In fact, thanks to Iran, Israel has many more potential allies in the region’s Arab governments than before, with only the Palestinian issue preventing wholehearted support in some cases.
WHICH BRINGS the problem of a nuclear Iran head-on with the resolution of the Palestinian issue. At the rate tensions are developing, Israel cannot reasonably hope to both neutralize Iran’s nuclear capability and maintain “the occupation.” If Israel’s survival and existence underlie the most brazen (and indeed, the most covert) aspects of state policy, then the growing prospect of a nuclear attack on Israeli soil should by this same logic overwhelmingly eclipse that of indefensible borders on the eastern front, a problem in its turn arguably fueled by the ongoing “occupation” itself.
Furthermore, the parallel argument that Israel would lose its Biblical and historical soul in relinquishing the West Bank/Judea and Samaria would also pale significantly in comparison to a nuclear attack, at which point it loses everything and gains nothing (although some might argue against gaining the whole world and losing one’s soul).
Much of the Islamic revolutionary regime’s anti-Zionist, anti-Israel and anti- Semitic vitriol draws strength from the oddly exogenous Palestinian cause, which in turn prevents many more Arab states from overtly siding with Israel in the present nuclear dispute. Iran’s quarrels with the US and the UK specifically are empirically rooted in both the latter’s muddling about where they should arguably not have been, an enterprise collectively spanning the preceding two centuries.
But its disproportionately virulent quarrel with Israel, excepting the latter’s joint role in training the Shah’s notorious secret services/SAVAK (Israel certainly had little or no active role in having both Pahlavi father and son installed), remains largely rooted at the abstract, ideological level. And it should also be at this level that a solution be attempted, that is, to focus on resolving the Palestinian issue.
A nuclear but rational Iran (because that is what it is), dispossessed of a Palestinian casus belli, confronted with other regional Islamic governments now openly willing to place their bets with Israel, and economically atrophied, will be largely forced to keep itself in check.
An Israeli tactical victory against Iran, supposing that to be the practical outcome of the current war of words, will however not suffice for it to avoid a strategic defeat where it matters most, because the mild-sounding “corrupting influences” of half a century of “occupation,” unlike an Iran feasibly held in check, is already unquestionably, unrestrainedly and irretrievably eating away at the very thing that has spiritually sustained Jews over millennia in exile and undergirded the state of Israel in its earlier years. Its own, collective moral soul.
The writer is a Middle East observer.