The United States, Israel, and Iran: Defusing an 'Existential' Threat
Sixty years after the Holocaust, Iran’s repeated threats to wipe Israel off the face of the earth are unconscionable, not just for Israel but for people of good will everywhere. To an extent, it is a moot point whether or not the Iranian nuclear capability poses an existential threat to Israel. If just one Iranian nuclear bomb hit Tel Aviv, resulting in “only” a few hundred thousand deaths, Israel as we know it would cease to exist. True, the national population today numbers close to seven million; but the economic and intellectual heart of the nation, its driving spirit, would be extinguished, national collapse would follow, the blow irreversible. One may debate the prospects of this scenario ever materializing. Indeed, this author belongs to those who believe that Iran is fundamentally rational and thus deterrable. Nevertheless, no one in a position of authority, certainly in Israel but abroad as well, has the luxury of dismissing the severity of the threat and treating it as anything less than potentially dire.
Even if one believes that regime change is feasible, it will apparently happen only well after Iran has gone nuclear. To date there is little if any evidence to indicate that regime change is in the offing in the next few years, whereas a nuclear capability is highly likely. Moreover, there are no assurances that the next regime will be any better than the current one. Most of all, simply no one seems to know how to do it. The option has been roundly explored ever since 1979. Israel, in any event, would be foolish to pin its hopes on this possibility.
There is little doubt that Iran will respond to a direct attack or even a naval blockade, but its options, heated rhetoric notwithstanding, are actually limited. What can it truly do? Attack U.S. ships, block the Persian Gulf? Maybe a pinprick to make it look good at home, but beyond that, the risks of escalation and the costs to Iran's economy are probably too great. Iran is extremist but most evidence to date indicates that it is not irrational. It may very well cause the United States greater difficulty in Iraq, a serious problem at a time when trends there have finally taken a turn for the better, and increased levels of terrorism can be expected against U.S. and Western targets. It is highly unlikely, however, that Iran would be willing to go beyond limited actions and risk direct military escalation with the United States, and it too has an interest in preserving the emerging order in Iraq. Moreover, U.S. preparations can greatly reduce, although not eliminate, the dangers of Iran's potential responses.
Furthermore, the greatest practical danger may lie not in an intentional Iranian use of nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, but in a variety of lesser scenarios. A renewed confrontation with Hezbollah seems only a matter of time, and one with Syria is quite possible. Either scenario may provide the setting for an unintended escalation that gets out of hand. Iran might threaten to use nuclear weapons to dictate the outcome of a future conflict of this sort or even as a means of affecting the Arab-Israeli peace process. Its nuclear umbrella might merely embolden Tehran to take harsher conventional measures or allow a regional ally to do so, for example, heightened terrorist or conventional missile attacks against Israel.The danger of an Iranian transfer of nuclear weapons to Hezbollah or covert deployment of Iranian nuclear weapons in Lebanon also cannot be dismissed. Indeed, Iranian involvement in nuclear terrorism against Israel, directly or indirectly, with or without the knowledge of the Iranian leadership, may pose the greatest danger of all. The danger also exists of an Iranian nuclear capability falling into the hands of an even more extremist regime, if the current one is replaced, or of a loss of control over it in a scenario of internal chaos.
First, the good news. It is difficult to imagine a practical scenario in which Iran would initiate the actual use of nuclear weapons against Israel. Iran has to take into account that Israel is reputed to be a nuclear power. Thus, any nuclear attack might result in a counterstrike and in a "Tel Aviv for Tehran" exchange or even a broader one. Iran certainly has a deep theological commitment to Israel's destruction and has already proven its willingness to devote considerable resources in pursuit of this divine vision, but what price is Iran ultimately willing to pay? At what point does its cost-benefit calculus change? Would it accept thousands dead, tens of thousands? Probably. Hundreds of thousands, as it lost in the Iran-Iraq war? Maybe. Untold destruction?Again, presumably not. As extreme as Iranian ideology is, Iran has pursued a largely "rational" policy over the years, in which its national interests have usually taken precedence over theological ones and which has generally adhered to a carefully calculated course. Iran has fundamental national security reasons, totally unrelated to Israel, for seeking a nuclear capability. Iran fears a future resurgence of Iraq, its traditional nemesis, and views the United States as the primary long-term threat to its security. It also lives in a highly unstable region in which two of its neighbors are already declared nuclear powers and many more are exploring nuclear capabilities. As aggressive as Iran's stance toward Israel is, it genuinely fears Israel's intentions, totally unwarranted as this may be, except in a reactive sense.
Should the sanctions fail, a further ratcheting up of the pressure on Iran, short of actual military attack, could take the form of a naval blockade, preferably multilateral but unilateral if necessary. The blockade could be comprehensive from the outset or graduated (e.g., initially limited to Iranian imports of refined petroleum and then expanding over time). A partial air and ground blockade might also be feasible. Only if this, too, failed, would there be a need to consider direct military action.Some will oppose the option of a unilateral naval blockade on the grounds that it would constitute a violation of international law and even an act of war. So be it. Illegal development of nuclear weapons also constitutes a violation of international law, as does dealing a killer blow to the international nonproliferation regime and repeatedly threatening the annihilation of a fellow member state of the United Nations. The issue is not one of niceties or international norms, but of the cold world of realpolitik. A naval blockade may be the only way of ending the Iranian threat without having to resort to direct military action.For the economic reasons argued above, Iran would be extremely vulnerable to a blockade, and the prospects of its acquiescence to international demands are high. For the reasons argued in the next section, its military response can be expected to be quite limited. Iran talks a very good and scary game, but its behavior is far more cautious; even more importantly, its actual ability to respond significantly would most likely be very limited. Those who truly wish to deal with the problem but are wary of direct military action should give careful consideration to the blockade option.