Channeling Strangelove: Benny Morris on Iran

Gershom Gorenberg

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.

13 thoughts on “Channeling Strangelove: Benny Morris on Iran”

  1. Benny Morris’s article on nuking Iran gave me a serious sense of sadness for people of Israel. Benny Morris is either certifiably insane or lacks empathy (criminal attitude). I felt sad because he provoke the same feelings for actions of Hitler killing Jews as Mr. Morris would suggest for mass killing of Iranians, some of them being Persian Jews.

    For self-survival, if not have done yet, Iranian should develop self-defense against crazy people like Benny Morris who could govern nuclear armed Israel. We were saved from a massive nuclear war with the Soviet Union because of assurance of mutual destruction. If the world cannot protect Iran, then Iran must protect herself.

    Would he expect the world would fee empathy for Jewish Holocaust after Israel nuclear mass killing of Iranians? No, I would not.

  2. Morris has a disturbing tendency to attribute inhuman characteristics to “the other” in order to justify his own inhumanity towards them. In his famous interview with Ari Shavit, after recounting the brutality of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians using rape and massacres, Morris justifies it all as a case of “breaking a few eggs” and characterizes the Palestinians as being the genocidal ones, not the Zionists who were massacring them.

    This unfortunately is a characteristic of Israeli rhetoric. For any atrocity, first deny it happened, then claim if it did happen, it was the victim’s own fault. The pattern repeats: Qana shelling, Deir Yassin masscre, shooting of the little boy Addura, etc.

    Frankly one wonders if the Nazis didn’t resort to similar logic to justify their actions.

  3. Since we’re all being so “realistic” about what to do about nuclear weajpons in the middle east, how about this as a solution? The United States does a first strike on Israels nuclear delivery systems- air, missile and submarine. And invades and captures its nuclear depots. Then the Iranians won’t have a reason to build a nuclear bomb because the US will then be able to pursuade it to give up all the land it has stolen from the Palestinians, permit the right of return and become a democratic state of all its members. Then Americans could stop worrying about $12 a gallon oil and world nuclear war.

  4. Jesus Christ, the Nazis.

    Why do you guys tolerate this kind of hate speech on your blog?

  5. Gershom, you haved tracked Morris’ politics over time more closely than I, so I’ll accept your read on his possible motives in writing the NY Times Op Ed piece. But, for the average-Joe-US, his piece may be just what is needed here if the goal is to keep the Bushites from doing something (else) incredibly stupid, or encouraging/approving someone else to, during the next seven months. With the widespread reprinting of the NYT editorial content throughout this country even to many smaller local papers, Morris’ direct and simple opening statement – assuring that Iran WILL BE attacked by year’s end – is the kind of ice water over the head that is needed here to get folks to begin to focus on something besides tomorrow morning’s prices at the pump. Folks are (finally) beginning to recognize the sound of Cheney’s nutty logic, and know what it produces, whoever the speaker. I say, let them hear it and be fearful, very fearful.

  6. Its not “hate speech” – its human pscyhology. The same coping/defense mechanisms that allowed Good Germans to look the other way is what allows people like Morris and Dershowitz celebtrate ethnic cleansing and nuclear annihilation – to accept doing evil for what Morris has labelled the “ultimate good” (read his interview with Shavit.) That, unfortunately, is the human condition and you’re simply copping out by trying to dismiss the noion as mere hate speech.

  7. “It seems that fear of the U.S. rather than Israel has been the main reason for Iran’s nuclear ambition. That is why the attractive idea of a nuclear-free Middle East, in which Iran would renounce nuclear weapons in exchange for a similar move by Israel, appears unrealistic. It is the U.S., not Israel, that Iranian hard liners want to deter, using Israel as a hostage. They see going nuclear as a way of limiting U.S. military and geopolitical involvement in the Middle East.”

  8. It’s late in the day, however:

    Discussing mechanisms of xenophobia, dehumanization, etc., perfectly kosher.

    Comparing Israeli actions or even thought processes with those of the Nazis, however, will clearly cause a visceral feeling of sickness and anger in Jews. It’s impossible not to understand this. Hence, in making the comparison, one must be intending to cause this feeling. That’s why it’s hate speech.

    It’s false as well. While it’s unpleasant to contemplate differences of degree or of context among in barbaric acts, they do exist, and to bring up the Nazis is inevitably to imply something on the scale and perversion of the atrocities they perpetrated.

    Is it actually possible to be unaware of all this at this point?

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