16 February 2009

Sacriligious Thoughts

Haaretz Reports:

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told senior military leaders on Monday that Iran's development of nuclear weapons was likely to "threaten the existence of the State of Israel."

Barak told the top Israel Defense Forces commanders that should Iran achieve nuclear capability, it would enormously strengthen the immunity of groups aided by Tehran and dramatically boost the efforts of enemy regional elements to develop the same capabilities.

"It will be very difficult to stop the trickling if nuclear capabilities, even if primitive, to terrorist organizations," he said. "We have already received our first sign of such from Pakistan.
I just want to make three comments. First, obviously, Barak's statement was really that Iran's development of nuclear weapons is likely to "threaten the existence of the State of Iran."

Second, if Iran actually developed nuclear capabilities together with adequate delivery systems, the risk of nuclear proliferation should not necessarily increase at all. Nuclear weapons are a powerful bargaining chip between rivals when they have secure control over them, not when they are handed over to non-state actors who are pursuing complementary strategies with divergent aims.

And so, third, and most importantly, the real Israeli fear is precisely that once another regional power gains nuclear capabilities, the bargaining terms are going to change. Israel's regional nuclear monopoly will no longer be a decisive factor (we already know that it is no good as a conventional deterrent against terrorist groups; in the possible future we are imagining - assuming Iran is developing nuclear weapons at all - it will also be no good as a conventional deterrent against Iran). The potential Iranian threat of nuclear attack or of proliferation to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah - a threat which would be irrational but paradoxically powerful - would also alter the bargaining situation between Israel and aspirant rulers of a future Palestinian state (e.g. Hamas). Barak points to the real considerations at play here beneath the rhetoric of existential threats and irreconcilable enmities: "it would enormously strengthen the immunity of groups aided by Tehran."

What I want to highlight is that the fear is not of increased regional instability exactly, but a change in the terms of regional stability which would be less favorable to (a certain interpretation of) Israeli interests. Whether this is desirable or undesirable is actually not as obvious as we have been primed to believe. The persistence of protracted conflict over Palestine and the use of asymmetrical violence by Palestinian militants (with the usual disproportionate IDF response), we can all probably agree, seems pathological. And perhaps it is due to the fundamental disproportion in the bargaining situation, in which the Palestinians lack the power to achieve a solution that meets their minimum threshold and so the Israelis feel no compulsion to gift them that bargain. If this is the case, and Iran is actually intent on developing nuclear weapons because it wants to alter its and its allies' bargaining power with Israel, and the U.S. has a separate (non-Israel-related) interest in seeing a non-nuclear Iran, then a plausible policy recommendation is for the U.S. to distance itself from Israel, achieving a similar shift in bargaining power without the need for Iran to nuclearize.

Pure speculation, of course, and there are many good arguments against this point of view.

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