Benny Morris’s riff on nuking Iran, featured on Friday’s New York Times op-ed page, conjures up Maj. Kong’s bronco-riding whoop at the end of Dr. Strangelove, and not just because that film revealed the glee with which the military-minded can look forward to apocalypse. Playing off the terrifying “Fail-Safe,” Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers also reminded viewers that the sane side could start a nuclear war by mistake – and that the “sane” side could not be counted on to act sanely. Forty-four years after Kubrick, Morris argues that Israel will use the bomb so that Iran won’t get the bomb. Is this a warning, a recommendation, or the whoop of joy as someone gives into temptation and picks up the Dangerous Thing that Dad said not to touch?
Morris, it happens, does agree with one point in my piece last week in the American Prospect. Given, he says,
that Israel’s military capacities are far smaller than America’s and, given the distances involved, the fact that the Iranian sites are widely dispersed and underground, and Israel’s inadequate intelligence, it is unlikely that the Israeli conventional forces… can destroy or perhaps significantly delay the Iranian nuclear project.
He also acknowledges that Iran would retaliate with missiles against Israeli cities, and that Hezbollah and Hamas might join in. And while he’d like the Israeli strike to convince Teheran to stop its nuclear program, or for it to convince the international community to step up sanctions, he knows that’s not likely. (Not likely, in the way that the sun rising in the west is unlikely.) Should Israel therefore rethink this approach? Nope, says Morris. Instead, it should launch a nuclear strike against Iran. Let’s just ride that bomb on down.
As Rebecca notes at Mystical Politics, two years ago Physicians for Social Responsibility used Department of Defense software to simulate the medical impact of a US nuclear strike against two Iranian facilities. The group’s report says that:
In the immediate area of the two attacks, our calculations show that within 48 hours, an estimated 2.6 million people would die. About two-thirds of those would die from radiation-related causes, either prompt casualties from the immediate radiation effects of the bomb, or from localized fallout. Over 1,000,000 people would suffer immediate injuries including thermal and flash burns, radiation sickness, broken limbs, lacerations, blindness, crush injuries, burst eardrums and other traumas. In the wider region, over 10.5 million people would be exposed to significant radiation from fallout…
In effect, Morris is suggesting a new version of mutually assured destruction: We will destroy you, regardless of the cost to ourselves, if you acquire nuclear arms, not if you use them.
I don’t see any particular reason that Morris’s evaluation of Israel’s plans should be regarded as accurate. Back when he wrote about Camp David, he was interviewing Ehud Barak, now defense minister. But he does not attribute anything in his current article to Barak or another Israeli source. If he is basing himself on something told to him on background, one must ask about the motives of the source. Presumably, the reason to warn of an impending Israeli attack would be to convince Iran to stop enriching uranium. But the warning could reinforce a belief among Iran’s leaders that they should develop a nuclear deterrent as quickly and quietly possible.
Speaking of deterrence, Morris posits that the threat of destruction wouldn’t be enough to convince Teheran not to use its bombs once it has them. Like other hawks, he bases this evaluation on the fact that Iran’s leaders are religious extremists, whom he assumes would be more willing to commit national suicide than the “comparatively rational men who ran the Kremlin and White House during the cold war.” The history of the last century should not lead one to conclude that secular extremists are particularly rational. Soviet leaders sacrificed their citizens wholesale in order to maintain their own rule; nonetheless, they avoided nuclear destruction. As I explain in my Prospect article, Iran’s leaders have pursued realpolitik in their foreign policy, looking out for Iran’s national survival. The danger is that if Iran gets the bomb, more countries in the region will get it, and eventually one of those countries will make a mistake. Their brand-new NukeManage 3.0 software from Microsoft will just go haywire, and the world will be plate glass.
An aside: On Iranian realpolitik, Ezra Klein cites Richard Clark as saying:
Tehran’s a bad government, to be sure, But sometimes it’s worth trying to put yourself in the guy’s shoes. if you lived in Tehran, and the United States invaded the country to the East of you, and the United States invaded the country to the West of you, and it was reported that the US government was funding covert operations against you, and President Bush had named you part of the Axis of Evil….well, you wouldn’t have to be paranoid [to perceive a threat].
Ezra says Clark is stating the obvious. I’d argue that Clark is being too America-centric in describing why Iran would feel it needs a bomb. To its east, Iran has a Sunni-led country, Pakistan, that has nuclear arms. On its north is Russia; on its west is Israel. Besides nuclear powers, there is the old conventional threat of Turkey and the possibility that Iraq may someday be reconstituted as a functioning country and a military power. Any Iranian nationalist, whether Shi’ite, Pahlavian, or Marxist, would consider seeking the bomb – unless offered other reassurances about his country’s security, in the form of regional and international agreements.
This does not excuse the rabid anti-Israel talk from Teheran or make it less frightening, but it helps explain why Iran would be unwilling to stop its program under current conditions, and why a carrot-and-stick diplomatic approach would work better.
What Israel needs is not to strike Iran before January 20. We need to get to January 20 without the kind of horrors that Morris describes, so that perhaps a new administration can pursue a more sensible strategy to avoid an Iranian bomb.