Who is the existential threat?
Israel and Iran: Countdown to tragedy
By Steve Weissman / The Rag Blog / November 11, 2009
The countdown to open conflict between Israel and Iran has the feel of classic tragedy. Everyone will lose, no one will win. The only question is how many will needlessly die before the final curtain falls.
The Iranian leaders see the story through the prism of their own history. They are heirs of an ancient civilization, humiliated in 1953 when the Americans and British overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh and imposed the rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Only with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 did the people of Iran regain control of their land, and only now are they taking their rightful place as a world player and regional power.
With this view of the world, the Iranians sometimes appear to outsiders to have a chip on their shoulder, always demanding to be treated as equals, as if certain they will be treated otherwise. Too often American officials like Hillary Clinton fulfill Iranian expectations, talking of them in the media as if they were school children.
No one on the outside yet knows if the Iranians stopped trying to develop nuclear weapons in the fall of 2003, as the U.S. U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) reported two years ago. But even if they did stop, their lack of transparency often makes others fear the worst.
Are the Iranians simply channeling the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, who lost his country and his life because he never dared let his Iranian foes know that he did not have weapons of mass destruction or any ongoing program to build them?
Jews, whether in Israel or beyond, have our own historical chip on the shoulder. Every year, religious Jews observe a fast day called Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, as well as subsequent tragedies like the expulsion of Jews from Catholic Spain in 1492 and the European Holocaust.
At home, my family ate the meat and potatoes before we had the soup. The tradition came from Russia and the Ukraine, where terrified Jews wanted to have something solid in their stomachs in case they had to flee from attacking Cossacks.
Living and reliving this tragic history leaves its mark. As the American writer Henry Miller observed in his Tropic of Cancer,
For the Jew, the world is a cage filled with wild beasts. The door is locked and he is there without whip or revolver. His courage is so great that he does not even smell the dung in the corner. The spectators applaud but he does not hear. The drama, he thinks, is going on inside the cage. The cage, he thinks, is the world.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and many other Israelis remain trapped in the cage, sincerely believing that a nuclear Iran would threaten their very existence. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has escaped the cage. As he told the Hebrew-language daily Yedioth Ahronoth, “I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel.”
“Israel is strong,” he added. “I don’t see anyone who could pose an existential threat.”
A highly decorated military office and former head of the Israeli Defense Forces, Barak is absolutely right. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Israel has a nuclear arsenal of anywhere from 70 to 400 nuclear weapons. Iran currently has none.
The Iranians could conceivably quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Israel has steadfastly refused to join. They could refuse inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as Israel refuses to do. Iran could then produce highly enriched weapons-grade uranium and reprocess plutonium from spent fuel rods from whatever nuclear reactors they have in operation.
But even if the Iranians did all this, they could not produce more than a small handful of weapons during the next five to ten years. During that time, the Israelis would have created new weapons and acquired new and more sophisticated aircraft, missiles, and submarines.
This enormous advantage would give the Israelis a powerful incentive to stage a preemptive first strike that would keep Iran from striking back. So, by the numbers, the Israelis pose an existential threat to Iran, not the other way around.
Even if Iran had nukes, they would pose far less of a threat to Israel or anyone else than Soviet missiles posed to the United States and Europe during the Cold War. At the time, Gen. Thomas Power and others talked of removing this truly existential threat with a surprise first strike. Happily, cooler heads prevailed.
Today, too many American leaders are thoughtlessly repeating talk of Iran’s existential threat to Israel and the need for a preemptive military strike on Iran, only “as a last resort,” of course.
As Senator Lindsay Graham told Fox News, “if we use military action against Iran, we should not only go after their nuclear facilities, we should destroy their ability to make conventional war. They should have no planes that can fly and no ships that can float.”
Such reckless talk only opens the door to another no-win tragedy.
[A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. A former senior editor at Truthout, he now lives and works in France.]