After my rambling post yesterday about the insanity of the Middle East, I survived our unwanted cold snap watching the Olympics. But on the side of my mind, I kept thinking about Israel and Iran. Why are they in an arms race? Israel doesn’t want to conquer Iran. Iran doesn’t want to conquer Israel. What would either one of them gain? Maybe Iran might vaguely want to give the Israeli land to the Palestinians, but even that’s a reach. This morning, I read this article in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest and most influential paper.
Iranian threat to destroy Israel doesn’t hold up
By Avner Cohen
February 25, 2010
What if our leaders and pundits had reacted to the Iranian nuclear program in a completely different way than they actually have? What if they had not viewed an Iranian bomb as an "existential threat" and instead treated it as something that, even if it became a reality, would be a major global political problem, but not a military threat – because Iran [like every other nuclear state] would never be able to use a nuclear bomb as an operational military weapon?
What if Israel had treated Iran’s nuclear project as an exhibitionist, even childish, attempt by a nation mired in a deep identity crisis to exploit the prestige and mystique of nuclear power to create a national ethos of technological progress at home, as well as a diplomatic miracle cure that would enable it to challenge the West and move to the center of the international stage?
Such a reaction would not [and should not] have minimized the gravity of the challenge Iran poses to the worldwide nuclear order, but it would have left the battle in the hands of the true guardians of this nuclear order [of which Israel is not one]. Moreover, this view would not oblige Israel to attack Iran. And what would have happened if we had refused to see ourselves as existentially threatened by Iran’s push toward the nuclear threshold, viewing ourselves, as the world has already viewed us for decades, as a responsible nuclear weapons state that does not threaten other states but is also not vulnerable to nuclear threats?
What would have happened if we had refused to become hysterical and apocalyptic, and had instead remained calm at the existential level, just as the Iranians are calm with regard to us? After all, the Iranians are convinced that we have nuclear weapons – and a lot of them. Yet despite this, while they see us as a military threat to their nuclear program, they do not see us as an existential threat to the Iranian nation. Adopting such a strategic view would not oblige Israel to attack Iran, because Tehran could not pose an existential threat to Israel.Ultimately, we need to internalize the insight that even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad voiced this week, when he said that all the talk about an Iranian bomb is irrational and meaningless. This is not simply because any Iranian attempt to destroy Israel via a nuclear bomb would kill countless Palestinians, but because it would surely lead to the destruction of Iran itself by Israel and the United States. Therefore, the idiotic claim that Iran could bring about Israel’s destruction does not hold water. While it is true that Ahmadinejad would love Israel to implode of its own accord, a self-confident and strong nation should not take such statements too seriously. And it certainly should not view them as an existential threat…
Avner Cohen is writer, historian, and professor, and is well known for his works on nuclear weapons. Cohen received a B.A. in Philosophy from Tel Aviv University in 1975. He went on to study at York University where he received a M.A. in Philosophy in 1977 and four years later earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in the History of Culture. After these studies he embarked on an academic career, returning to Tel Aviv University in 1983 to join the department of philosophy. He went on to hold positions at M.I.T., Harvard and is presently affiliated with the University of Maryland, College Park.Cohen has researched various issues with regard to nuclear weapons, including deterrence, morality, and proliferation. His seminal work, Israel and the Bomb, which chronicled the Israeli nuclear program, was published in 1998. This book prompted him to encounter problems with the Israeli censor and provoked substantial legal difficulties upon his return to Israel to give a keynote speech at an academic conference.