If you’re President Obama, I suppose your Iran options come down to these:
- The United States works toward peace and trade with Iran.
- We go to war with Iran and occupy it before it gets nuclear weapons.
- We engage in a new cold war with Iran, isolating it and simply waiting out its inherent contradictions (as we did with the Soviet Union).
The problem with the last option is that the world is multifaceted and the United States’ influence is in decline. If the West doesn’t trade with Iran, the Russians and Chinese will.
Then there’s Israel. The wild card.
I don’t know what Israel can tolerate. A nuclear Iran is clearly an existential threat to Israel. Islamic ideology currently incorporates a Nazi-like paranoia and demonization of Jews, and there’s no evidence that Muslims and Jews will be singing kumbaya together anytime soon. Terrorists would love to incinerate Tel Aviv with a suitcase explosive and basically put an end to the Jewish state. A nuclear Iran will be the most obvious way for them to get their hands on such a device.
So this is a high stakes moment. Israel’s leadership will either decide to live with a nuclear armed Iran, or do everything in its power to stop it. That decision will almost certainly occur within the next year or two.
I don’t know which decision is correct. If Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the attack is successful, it might put Iran’s weapons program back for a few years, but there’s no telling what the blowback from such an action might be.
On the other hand, if Israel decides to tolerate a nuclear Iran—and the Iranian regime, sometime over the next decade, plays Israel for a fool and smuggles a nuclear device to a terrorist group—Tel Aviv could soon be toast. This would almost certainly lead to retaliation against Iran from Israel via its nuclear-armed submarines.
Who knows how other nuclear armed countries allied to Iran (like Russia) might respond to millions of incinerated Iranians. It’s conceivable, at the height of such a crisis, that Russia and the United States—or Pakistan and India—would contemplate the use of nuclear weapons.
As for the environmental damage from even a limited nuclear exchange, there’s simply no telling. How many nuclear weapons, for example, might be exchanged between just Iran and Israel before things settled down again? Two? Five? A hundred?
And here are three other nervy questions:
- Would Iran’s mullahs give a terrorist group a suitcase nuclear weapon or two before Iran itself had at least a couple of retaliatory nuclear-tipped missiles?
- In the event that the Iranians managed to launch such missiles, would they limit their attempted targets to Israel—or might they target, say, Paris or Berlin (or both) as well?
- What would happen to global crop yields were, say, one hundred nuclear weapons to go off in a 48 hour period?
This whole nuclear Iran crisis, and what to do about it, is the historic pivot around which the 21st century is to progress (or regress). And it’s really not Obama’s call at all. It’s Bibi Netanyahu’s. With his cabinet, he’ll decide.
It’s ironic that the fate of 21st century humanity is about to be decided over a deep and primitive religious division harboring a bitter territorial dispute: to whom does the land that once belonged to the ancient Canaanites rightfully belong to today? A self-consciously Jewish state faces off with a self-consciously Islamic state. But this is no “Thrilla in Manilla” using boxing gloves. The end result may prove Christopher Hitchens all too literally correct: religion might well poison everything.
Update: To get a sense of how Bibi Netanyahu frames the Iran issue in his own mind, here’s Haaretz from 2008:
Netanyahu said Iran differed from the Nazis in one vital respect, explaining that “where that [Nazi] regime embarked on a global conflict before it developed nuclear weapons,” he said. “This regime [Iran] is developing nuclear weapons before it embarks on a global conflict.”