One of the arguments often made in favor of bombing Iran to cripple its nuclear program is this: The mullahs in Tehran are madmen who believe it is their consecrated duty to destroy the perfidious Zionist entity (which is to say, Israel) and so are building nuclear weapons to launch at Tel Aviv at the first favorable moment.
It’s beyond a doubt that the Iranian regime would like to bring about the destruction of Israel. However, the mullahs are also cynics and men determined, more than anything, to maintain their hold on absolute power.
Which is why it’s unlikely that they would immediately use their new weapons against Israel. An outright attack on Israel - - a country possessing as many as 200 nuclear weapons and sophisticated delivery systems -- would lead to the obliteration of Tehran, the deaths of millions, and the destruction of Iran’s military and industrial capabilities.
The mullahs know this. But here’s the problem: It may not matter. The threat of a deliberate nuclear attack pales in comparison with the chance that a nuclear-armed Iran could accidentally trigger a cataclysmic exchange with Israel.
The experts who study this depressing issue seem to agree that a Middle East in which Iran has four or five nuclear weapons would be dangerously unstable and prone to warp-speed escalation.
Here’s one possible scenario for the not-so-distant future: Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, launches a cross-border attack into Israel, or kills a sizable number of Israeli civilians with conventional rockets. Israel responds by invading southern Lebanon, and promises, as it has in the past, to destroy Hezbollah. Iran, coming to the defense of its proxy, warns Israel to cease hostilities, and leaves open the question of what it will do if Israel refuses to heed its demand.
Dennis Ross, who until recently served as President Barack Obama’s Iran point man on the National Security Council, notes Hezbollah’s political importance to Tehran. “The only place to which the Iranian government successfully exported the revolution is to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Ross told me. “If it looks as if the Israelis are going to destroy Hezbollah, you can see Iran threatening Israel, and they begin to change the readiness of their forces. This could set in motion a chain of events that would be like ‘Guns of August’ on steroids.”
Imagine that Israel detects a mobilization of Iran’s rocket force or the sudden movement of mobile missile launchers. Does Israel assume the Iranians are bluffing, or that they are not? And would Israel have time to figure this out? Or imagine the opposite: Might Iran, which will have no second-strike capability for many years -- that is, no reserve of nuclear weapons to respond with in an exchange -- feel compelled to attack Israel first, knowing that it has no second chance?
Bruce Blair, the co-founder of the nuclear disarmament group Global Zero and an expert on nuclear strategy, told me that in a sudden crisis Iran and Israel might each abandon traditional peacetime safeguards, making an accidental exchange more likely.
“A confrontation that brings the two nuclear-armed states to a boiling point would likely lead them to raise the launch- readiness of their forces -- mating warheads to delivery vehicles and preparing to fire on short notice,” he said. “Missiles put on hair-trigger alert also obviously increase the danger of their launch and release on false warning of attack -- false indications that the other side has initiated an attack.”
Then comes the problem of misinterpreted data, Blair said. “Intelligence failures in the midst of a nuclear crisis could readily lead to a false impression that the other side has decided to attack, and induce the other side to launch a preemptive strike.”
Blair notes that in a crisis it isn’t irrational to expect an attack, and this expectation makes it more likely that a leader will read the worst into incomplete intelligence. “This predisposition is a cognitive bias that increases the danger that one side will jump the gun on the basis of incorrect information,” he said.
Ross told me that Iran’s relative proximity to Israel and the total absence of ties between the two countries -- the thought of Iran agreeing to maintain a hot line with a country whose existence it doesn’t recognize is far-fetched -- make the situation even more hazardous. “This is not the Cold War,” he said. “In this situation we don’t have any communications channels. Iran and Israel have zero communications. And even in the Cold War we nearly had a nuclear war. We were much closer than we realized.”
The answer to this predicament is to deny Iran nuclear weapons, but not through an attack on its nuclear facilities, at least not now. “The liabilities of preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear program vastly outweigh the benefits,” Blair said. “But certainly Iran’s program must be stopped before it reaches fruition with a nuclear weapons delivery capability.”
Ross argues that the Obama administration’s approach -- the imposition of steadily more debilitating sanctions -- may yet work. There’s a chance, albeit slim, that he may be right: New sanctions are just beginning to bite and, combined with an intensified cyberwar and sabotage efforts, they might prove costly enough to deter Tehran.
But opponents of military action make a mistake in arguing that a nuclear Iran is a containable problem. It is not.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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