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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, middle, visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility in April, 2008. (IRANIAN PRESIDENT’S OFFICE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, middle, visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility in April, 2008. (IRANIAN PRESIDENT’S OFFICE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Does a nuclear-armed Iran pose a threat to the world? Add to ...

Monday night, in Toronto, the three thousand people attending the Munk Debates will vote and decide which of these two powerful debating teams has the correct assessment of the risk an Iran armed with nuclear weapons poses to the world.

For Fareed Zakaria and Vali Nasr, the key issues to refute are not nuclear proliferation or “mad mullahs” in Tehran, but what we are seeing in Gaza right now. How does Israel respond to future threats posed by groups like Hamas if Iran infers that a cloak of nuclear protection extends to its proxy fighters? It is hard to see how such a state of affairs would not seriously degrade the deterrent effect of Israel’s conventional forces and embolden its enemies not only in Gaza but Lebanon and Syria too. And, why any nation, let alone a people who have faced mass annihilation in their past, should be expected to live in such a profound state of insecurity strains credulity.

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Charles Krauthammer and Amos Yadlin face an equally daunting question: does the world have the choice of not living with a nuclear armed Iran? The expert opinion is that a pre-emptive strike would set back Iran’s enrichment program by three years while bolstering public support for its theocratic government for a decade, if not a generation. To win, the pro debaters need to make a convincing case for how the international community can stop an Iranian bomb, for an extended period of time, when we failed to achieve this very thing in North Korea, Pakistan and India.

Rudyard Griffiths is the organizer and moderator of the semi-annual Munk Debates.

Charles Krauthammer

Earlier this year, Fareed Zakaria cited me writing in defence of deterrence in the early 1980s at the time of the nuclear freeze movement. And yet now, when it comes dealing with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, Mr. Zakaria is singling me out, and others on the right, as having erroneously decided that “deterrence is a lie.”

Nonsense. What I have decided is that deterring Iran is fundamentally different from deterring the Soviet Union. You could rely on the latter but not on the former.

The Soviet quarrel with America was ideological. Iran’s quarrel with Israel is existential. The Soviets never proclaimed a desire to annihilate the American people. For Iran, the very existence of a Jewish state on Muslim land is a crime, an abomination, a cancer with which no negotiation, no coexistence, no accommodation is possible.

America is also a nation of 300 million; Israel, 8 million. America is a continental nation; Israel, a speck on the map, at one point eight miles wide. Israel is a “one-bomb country.” Its territory is so tiny, its population so concentrated that, as Iran’s former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has famously said, “Application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” A tiny nuclear arsenal would do the job.

In U.S.-Soviet deterrence, both sides knew that a nuclear war would destroy them mutually. The mullahs have thought the unthinkable to a different conclusion. They know about the Israeli arsenal. They also know, as Mr. Rafsanjani said, that in any exchange Israel would be destroyed instantly and forever, whereas the ummah – the Muslim world of 1.8 billion people whose redemption is the ultimate purpose of the Iranian revolution – would survive damaged but almost entirely intact.

This doesn’t mean that the mullahs will necessarily risk terrible carnage to their country in order to destroy Israel irrevocably. But it does mean that the blithe assurance to the contrary – because the Soviets never struck first – is nonsense. The mullahs have a radically different worldview, a radically different grievance and a radically different calculation of the consequences of nuclear war.

The confident belief that they are like the Soviets is a fantasy. That’s why Israel is contemplating a pre-emptive strike. Israel refuses to trust its very existence to the convenient theories of comfortable analysts living 6,000 miles from its Ground Zero.

Charles Krauthammer is a Washington Post columnist and Fox News contributor. 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.

Amos Yadlin

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.

Vali Nasr

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.

We can tolerate a nuclear Iran because the argument that we cannot is based on the faulty assumption that Iran’s government is messianic and irrational, ready to destroy Israel and the world. That is a caricature view, not based on fact. The Iranian regime has been in power for 30 years exactly because it’s top priority is survival, not its self destruction. It has strategic objectives, which run counter to America and Israel’s goals, but are very much within the realm of Realpolitik we are readily familiar with.

Far from the caricature of an apocalyptic mad dash to nuclear Armageddon, Iran, like the Soviet Union and communist China during the Cold War or Pakistan today, dreams of power and hegemony. And in this, Iran seeks to dominate the Arab world, not Israel. The West should resist Iran’s dreams of hegemony, but this is something we can do. Given the alternative, we can manage nuclear Iran.

Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born American, is dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He will argue against the resolution be it resolved the world cannot tolerate and Iran with nuclear weapons capability at tonight’s Munk Debate in Toronto.

Fareed Zakaria

Before we start cowering in fear, here are some facts. Iran is not a powerful country. Its GDP is one 40th the size of America’s – in fact its GDP is much smaller than America's defence budget – its economy is in ruins, and the regime faces popular discontent. The country has alienated most of its neighbours , it is desperately trying to shore up its Syrian ally at great cost, and its notorious president is on his way out. Most importantly, international efforts to delay Iran's nuclear program are working. Even if they manage to build some form of crude bomb, we can tolerate the consequences through robust containment and deterrence

We will be told that a nuclear Iran would set off an arms race in the Middle East. But when North Korea went nuclear, South Korea and Japan didn't follow and while Israel has developed their nuclear program, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have made few moves in this direction – even though they regard Israel as their main enemy. So why, with security guarantees from the United States, would these countries do so now in response to Iran?

It will be explained that a nuclear Iran will lead to an escalation with Israel. But India and Pakistan went to war three times in the 30 years before they had nuclear capability, and have not again in the 40 year since. Deterrence works.

Since none of the usual arguments hold up, we hear that Iran is irrational, a mad, messianic power. But this is precisely what was said about both China and the Soviet Union. And North Korea's behaviour has been far more bizarre than Iran’s, which has generally pursued its interest in a cool, calculating way. If deterrence worked with madmen like Mao and Kim Il Sung, and thugs like Stalin, then it will work with the autocrats of Tehran.

A rational actor need not have the same goals we do. He may not be reasonable. A rational actor need only be concerned about its own survival. As former senior U.S. intelligence official Paul Pillar writes, Iran's rulers "are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power – in this life, not some future one."

Let me end with a simple question: If Israel does not believe in deterrence, why did it build a nuclear arsenal at great cost, if not to deter its neighbour from attacking it?

Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN’s flagship global affairs program, Fareed Zakaria GPS. He is also a Washington Post columnist and editor-at-large of TIME magazine. He will argue against the motion be it resolved the world cannot tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons capability at tonight’s Munk Debate in Toronto.

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