Breaking the Nuclear Taboo in Iran
Martin van Creveld, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is considered one of the world’s most eminent experts on military history and strategy. His books include The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force (1998) and his widely influential 1991 book, The Transformation of War.
Jerusalem—Perhaps because his American “strategic adviser” has told him that this is the way to win the approaching primaries in his Kadima Party, Israel’s former minister of defense, Shaul Mofaz, says that Israel must eliminate the “existential threat” that Iran’s nuclear program represents. Probably because he is afraid, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says that if Israel (or the United States) attacks his country, he will hit back with all his might.
Israel holds maneuvers over the Mediterranean, testing its forces and probably sending a message to Tehran: Back off. Iran also holds maneuvers, testing its forces and sending a very clear message to Washington and Tel Aviv: Back off. “Senior sources” in the Pentagon say that, in view of the progress the Iranians are making, Israel must attack by the end of the year and that it got the yellow light from the US administration. “Senior sources” in the State Department say that their opposite numbers in the Pentagon are talking rubbish.
Nobody knows whether Israel and/or the US will attack Iran—after all, there are no limits to how crazy some people can be. That neither the US nor Israel should attack Iran is, to this writer at any rate, very clear indeed. Here is why.
First, and in spite of those who see a mullah behind every corner, there is no real indication that, in the face of Israel’s well-known ability to wipe their country off the map, Iranians are less rational, or more eager to go to heaven, than anybody else.
It is true that Mr. Ahmadinejad does not like Israel and that he expects it to collapse under its own rottenness. Yet his fulminations may simply show how impotent he is; in any case, it is a view that some Israelis share. It is also true that he has promised to retaliate if he is attacked—what head of state would behave differently? However, not once in all these years has he, or any other leading Iranian, said that Iran, on its own initiative, will strike at Israel out of the blue and without provocation.
Second, it is true that the damage Iran can do to Israel is strictly limited. However, its submarines, surface-to-sea missiles and speedboat-riding suicide bombers can play havoc in the Gulf. Even now, each time there is a rumor of war, the price of oil rises; where it will go once the first shot is fired is impossible to say. The war may be short, as some US commanders say, or it may be long, as the one in Iraq turned out to be—who knows? The damage to the world’s economic fabric, already fragile, will be immense.
Third, can it be done? The 1981 Israeli strike against the Iraqi reactor was highly successful and is often cited as a model of its kind. The same applies to the Israeli attack on the Syrian installation in September, 2007. Superior aircraft, superior electronics and superior precision-guided munitions enabled Israel to carry out these two strikes. And, of course, it must be taken for granted that whatever weapons Israel has the US has, too.
However, the Iranian nuclear program does not resemble either the Iraqi or the Syrian one. It is much larger, more dispersed, better protected, better camouflaged and perhaps redundant as well. Some of its elements are said to be housed in caves around the country, and not even all the world’s vaunted intelligence agencies can be certain that all those caves have been detected. Most important of all, this time around the vital element of surprise will be missing.
Overall, precision-guided “surgical” air strikes such as the US or Israel can mount may very well take out some vital installations and set back the Iranian program by a number of years. However, they are most unlikely to eliminate it once and for all.
There is another possibility that cannot be ignored. If American spokesmen in particular are to be believed, the declared rationale for attacking Iran is not so much the fear that, once Tehran has acquired nuclear weapons, it will use them against Israel and/or other countries in the region. Rather, they fear, or claim to fear, that nuclear “materials” and/or “technologies” may either fall into the hands of terrorists or be given to them.
Now suppose the US and/or Israel does attack Iran. They succeed in destroying the country’s most important nuclear installations, postponing the moment at which it acquires a bomb by several years and perhaps preventing such a scenario for a long time to come. However, they cannot find, let alone eliminate, every element of the large, well-dispersed, redundant program. In that case, the danger of a “flow” of “technologies” and/or materials falling into all kinds of interesting hands may well become more acute, not less.
Fourth, is the intelligence on which Western governments and Israel rely really reliable? Those of us who have followed reports on the development of Iran’s nuclear program know that, over the last 16 years, American, Israeli, and other intelligence agencies around the world have always been warning that it would take Tehran between three and five years build a bomb. For 16 years, they have been proved dead wrong.
As if this gross exaggeration of Iran’s true intentions and capabilities were not bad enough, remember that these are the same “intelligence” agencies whose misunderstandings, misrepresentations and outright lies concerning Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction prepared the way for the US attack on Iraq.
The CIA, DIA, NSA, Mossad and the rest may, or may not, know where Iran’s main nuclear installations are located. They may, or may not, know which of those installations is the most important, how they are linked to each other, what is going on inside them, and what it would take to hit them and destroy them. If ever there has been a house built on sand, it is theirs. Considering their past record, probably they cannot even tell whether they do or do not know, lie or do not lie, to their superiors, to each other, and to themselves. Anybody who believes one word they are saying, let alone accepts the “hard” data they supposedly provide without very thorough questioning indeed, must be out of his or her mind.
These, then, are the arguments against a possible war against Iran. Whatever Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Gates, Ms. Rice, Mr. Olmert, and Gen. Barak decide to do, they must make up their mind soon. Failing to do so, they run the risk that, by attacking a program that is approaching completion, they will cause radiation to escape. The outcome may be heavy casualties not just in Iran but in some of the neighboring countries, too; much worse still, it will mean that the nuclear taboo is broken for the first time since Nagasaki. Once this happens, what the implications for the world’s future may be are almost beyond the human imagination.