Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 19:33 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 19:33 | SYDNEY

Israel: Being and nothingness


Hugh White

25 August 2008 15:52

I find it easier to sympathize with Alex Duchen’s explanation of why Israel might take military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear program than with Antony Lowenstein’s arguments for why they would be wrong to do so. Frankly, if I thought there was a low-cost, low-risk air strike option offering high probabilities of inflicting strategically significant damage to the Iranian program, I would support it, just as I always thought the Osirak raid of 1982 was a good idea.

But I do not think there is such an option. In fact, leaving aside the fantasy of invasion, I think there are probably no military options to disrupt the Iranian program significantly, because I doubt the US or Israel know enough about where its key elements are hidden. 

I think Alex accepts this, but suggests that even an unsuccessful raid might be worth doing. I can’t follow her there. Her argument, and Martin Indyk’s, whom she quotes, is that Israel simply must do something because in some profound way an Iranian nuclear weapon capability would be fundamentally intolerable.  I’m not sure about that. Clearly a world without Iranian nuclear weapons would be a safer place than one with them, but how serious is the threat? I would like to sound a note of caution about the claim often made that Israel simply cannot live with an Iranian nuclear capability on the grounds that it is an ‘existential threat’.

I have no doubt that even a modest Iranian nuclear arsenal would pose an existential threat to Israel, in the sense that they could, if used, destroy the country as a functioning society and kill most of its inhabitants.

But why should we believe that Israel cannot live with that?  American and Russian nuclear arsenals posed existential threats to one another, and arguably to the rest of the world as well, throughout the Cold War. They still do today. It’s not pleasant, but we live with it. How? By virtue of our confidence that nuclear deterrence makes it very unlikely that the weapons will be used. Nuclear deterrence is an unlovely thing, but it seems to work.   

Iranian nuclear weapons would only pose an intolerable threat to Israel if the Israelis could not be very confident that Tehran could be deterred from using them. But there are good reasons for thinking that the Israelis can be very confident of that. First, there are Israel’s own nuclear forces: no Iranian leader could doubt for a millisecond that Israel would destroy most of Iran’s cities in retaliation for an Iranian nuclear strike. Second, there are America’s immense forces, which would ensure that even if Iran managed to destroy Israeli retaliatory forces, the US would be able and willing to retaliate on Israel's behalf.

Does this mean an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would be impossible? No, it doesn’t, any more than a Russian nuclear attack on America, or a North Korean nuclear attack on Japan, is impossible. Only the rationality of those controlling the weapons stands in the way of a catastrophe. Rationality is fragile. Sadly, we have to live with the resulting risk. Happily we seem to be able to, and I think Israel could to. And realistically, there may be no choice.

Photo by Flickr user BabyDinosaur, used under a Creative Commons license.