Racism shapes Israel's view of Iran's nuclear programme Image Credit: Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

As tensions rose in the crisis that pits Iran against Israel and the US, the American and Israeli press reported last week that Iranian leaders have threatened Israel and the US with swift retaliation should they attack Iran. Obama administration officials also cranked up the pressure on the Iranians.

On February 2, the Washington Post described US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta as believing that there was a ‘strong likelihood' that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June. At the same time, the Israeli press quoted Panetta as saying that "Iran is only one year away from producing a nuclear weapon."

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak explained the urgency of striking Iran, before Iranian development of a nuclear bomb entered a ‘zone of immunity' and no air strike, however sophisticated, can stop it. A nuclear Iran may not be the worst thing to happen to the Middle East. Yet it is useful to ask, given the approaching drums of war, how dangerous a nuclear Iran is likely to be.

For the Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak seem to have convinced themselves that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. They must therefore, so they argue, act to pre-empt that threat before it is too late.

Netanyahu and Barak astutely framed the danger of a nuclear Iran as an urgent issue of concern not only to Israel but also to the Americans — fighting a war on terror, and concerned about ‘rogue states' acquiring nuclear weapons and sponsoring ‘suitcase terrorism.'

Consider the following expression of alarm from one Israeli analyst who may have spoken for much of the Israeli right on the subject. The international community, he warned, must prevent "the mad mullahs [clerics] from acquiring doomsday weapons and dramatically changing the global balance of power." How can the clerics, mad or not, change the global balance of power is not clear. But what is clear is that the war party in Israel, led by none other than Netanyahu, wants the world to see the crisis in apocalyptic terms because "the fate of modern civilisation as we know it is now at stake." In an article provocatively entitled Time to Attack Iran in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Matthew Kroenig justifies his bellicose endorsement of war against Iran saying "Tehran has threatened nuclear war in response to any US initiative in the Middle East."

First of all, why would Iran threaten nuclear war in response to "any" US initiative in the region? And why would the US have to believe this preposterous threat? And what would Iran do if the US ignored the threat? Attack the US and bring certain destruction upon itself?

Nuclear weapons are not weapons of threat; they are weapons of deterrence. It is obvious that the argument is based on basic misunderstanding of the strategic revolution that nuclear weapons brought to warfare. In the pre-nuclear age war used to be, as the great Prussian military historian Karl von Clausewitz famously put it, "the continuation of politics by other means." Conventional strategic calculations equated war with the acquisition of territories, bounty, or simply the subjugation of another people. In the nuclear age, war lost its role as a continuation of politics by other means.

Logic of deterrence

That is because no one country, not even the US or Russia, could guarantee the pre-emptive destruction of all nuclear weapons possessed by the enemy. Therefore, a first strike, let's say, by the US, no matter how massive, would inevitably bring about a devastating retaliation from Russia. Washington knows it and Moscow knows it. And it is this certainty of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that justified the logic of nuclear deterrence and kept the peace during the Cold War.

If the logic of nuclear deterrence kept the peace between major rivals during the Cold War, why can the same logic not apply to the Middle East? Unless one subscribes to the racist assumption that Iranian leaders are inherently incapable of rational calculations, one must accept that the logic of nuclear deterrence would apply here too.

And thus, if Iran becomes a nuclear power, its first achievement would not be to destroy Israel; this would bring about a devastating response from the Israelis that would completely erase Iran from the map. Its first achievement would be to deter Israel from attacking Iran.

If Barak recognises that a slightly more advanced stage of nuclear weapon development would bring Tehran's nuclear programme into a ‘zone of immunity,' then it makes all the more sense that a fully developed nuclear weapon programme would turn Iran into a fully developed ‘zone of immunity.' In other words, the logic of deterrence would prevail. What would change if Iran became a nuclear power? The balance of power in the region would change; Israel's hegemony in the region would no longer go unchallenged. The practically unrestricted freedom the Israelis enjoyed in carrying out attacks against Gaza, Lebanon and Hezbollah would be viewed through the new balance of power.

In fact, Barak himself recognised that much in the course of an interview with an Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth): A nuclear Iran, he said, "would definitely restrict our range of operations."


Adel Safty is Distinguished Professor Adjunct at the Russian Academy of Public Administration. Novosibirsk. His new book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky and published in England.