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.
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.
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.