I do not like the comparisons to the 1930s and to the Holocaust this debate has evoked. I do not think that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it will launch a nuclear missile at Tel Aviv the next day. I believe in Israel’s defence capabilities and in our deterrence, and I think that this was precisely why Israel was founded: so it would have the ability to defend the Jewish people.
And yet, a nuclear Iran is intolerable due to four very serious considerations. It is unclear whether Iran will be a rational player. We may well be dealing with a culture that sanctifies death and glorifies ‘martyrs’ and suicide bombers, and has a wholly different attitude toward life than we do. Of course, there will not be symmetry between big Iran and little Israel: a single atomic bomb will not kill six million people here, but if it explodes in the centre of the country and takes 20,000 lives, life here will become very problematic, if it can go on at all.
There is also a danger of unplanned and uncontrolled escalation: there is no hotline between Tel Aviv and Tehran, and no other stabilizing mechanisms between us and the Iranians, so the danger of an unplanned nuclear confrontation is significant.
And, finally, nuclear proliferation is a near certainty: If Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and other states go nuclear, a multipolar nuclear system will come into being in the Middle East − and by definition this will be unstable and very dangerous. Such a situation − in which there will also be substate players − will create a big temptation to make use of nuclear weapons and could lead to the occurrence of a nuclear event. We must not get carried away with panic or sow anxiety, but Iran must be prevented from going nuclear.
At the same time, I agree with the criticism of our prime minister and defense minister in two areas. They say that time has almost run out, but I say there still is time. The decisive year is not 2012 but 2013. Maybe even early 2014. We have at least half a year left before we reach the true crossroads where we will have to make the fateful decision. But even when we reach the crossroad, in order for an Israeli strike to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb for a long time to come, it must enjoy international legitimacy.
Israel must shape a policy and take action to ensure that, if we are compelled to attack, the world will be behind us on the day we do so.
General (ret.) Amos Yadlin is Executive Director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and former Head of Military Intelligence of the Israeli Defense Forces. He will be arguing for the motion, be it resolved the world cannot tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons capability, at tonight’s Munk Debate in Toronto.
Can we tolerate a nuclear Iran? The short answer is yes. We have already shown that we can live with troublesome and dangerous nuclear powers, and we have been quite successful at doing so while also preserving world peace. We successfully contained the Soviet Union and communist China during the Cold War, and we are doing a pretty good job with North Korea today. India too, has shown that it can tolerate and contain a nuclear enemy next door. The notion that we can deal with Iran too through a combination of containment and deterrence should not be counterintuitive.
The key question is not whether we can tolerate a nuclear Iran, but whether we can we tolerate the consequences that the alternative would entail. Can we tolerate a war with a country twice the size and with three times the landmass of Iraq, costing multiples of the Iraq war in both dollars and casualties? Can we tolerate the regional instability that a military occupation of Iran would entail? The answer is surely that we can’t. We have already said as much leaving Iraq and Afghanistan to focus on deficit and nation-building at home.
Furthermore, we can clearly tolerate an Iran with nuclear capability but no bomb. We can also easily manage an Iran with limited weaponized capability, as one or two bombs is no strategic advantage, and using them would essentially guarantee their own annihilation. To truly be a threat, Iran would need 30 or 40 bombs, and that too can be contained much as India does Pakistan’s arsenal of several hundred bombs.