President Obama has been trying to cool down the war fever that suddenly gripped Washington early this month. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit and the flurry of statements surrounding it have created a dangerous dynamic. It is easy to see how things move toward war with Iran. It is difficult to see how they don’t.
The pressure is building on Iran, but there are no serious discussions of negotiated solutions. Israel has already discounted the proposed new talks. Republican candidates will denounce any deal, no matter how comprehensive the inspections.
So either Iran suddenly and completely surrenders – or Israel will strike. And Bibi Netanyahu knows that the window presented by the U.S. political season is closing. If he were to strike between now and November, he would be assured of unqualified support from Washington. After November, the American response becomes less predictable no matter who is elected president. The clock is ticking.
Before we set out on a path to another Middle East war, let’s remember some facts. First, Iran does not have nuclear weapons and the evidence is ambiguous – genuinely unclear – as to whether it has decided to make them.
But what if Iran did manage to develop a couple of crude nukes several years from now?
Obama says a nuclear Iran would set off an arms race in the Middle East.
But a nuclear North Korea has not led the two countries directly threatened by its weapons – South Korea and Japan – to go nuclear.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt did not go nuclear in response to Israel’s buildup of a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. After all, Egypt has gone to war three times with Israel. By contrast, it has not been in a conflict with Iran for centuries. So why would it go nuclear in response to Iran when it didn’t in response to Israel?
Obama explained that a nuclear Iran would be a problem like India and Pakistan with their nuclear weapons. But India and Pakistan went to war three times in 30 years before they had nuclear weapons. Since they went nuclear, they have actually been restrained and have not fought a full-scale war in 40 years.
It’s actually a case that shows the stabilizing, not destabilizing, effects of nuclear deterrence.
If Israel genuinely believes that deterrence doesn’t work in the Middle East, why does it have a large nuclear arsenal if not to deter its enemies?
Iran’s weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists, says the President. But would a country that has labored for decades to pursue a nuclear program and suffered huge sanctions and costs to do so then turn around and give away the fruits of its efforts to a gang of militants? This kind of reasoning is part of the view that the Iranians are mad, messianic people bent on committing mass suicide.
When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey explained on GPS last month that he viewed Iran as a “rational actor,” he drew howls of protest. But Dempsey was making a good point. A rational actor is not a reasonable actor or one who has the same goals or values that you or I do. A rational actor, in economics or international relations, is someone who is concerned about his survival.
The one thing we know about Iran’s leaders is that they are concerned about their survival. The question right now is not whether Iran can be rational – but whether the U.S. and Israel can accurately reason through the costs of a preventive war and its huge consequences.