Iran May Be a Security Threat but It's Not an 'Existential Threat'

03/04/2015 12:11 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015


Some of my Jewish sisters and brothers may not like what I have to say. So let's get a few things out of the way at the outset:

• I'm an American Jew of Eastern European extraction who lost ancestors in the Holocaust, so I'm painfully aware that it's possible for anti-semitism to merge with state power in an attempt to exterminate Jews.

• I lost a close relative in the Twin Towers on 9/11 so I'm also painfully aware of the dangers of global terrorism (although I think those dangers have been exaggerated by politicians, the media, and the military-industrial-national security complex to gin up public fear for their own benefit).

• I think that the continued existence of thousands of nuclear weapons in countries around the world (not only in the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France but in Israel, India, and most of all, Pakistan and N. Korea) constitutes the greatest existential threat to the existence of human life on earth. It's vital that the world find a way to reduce, and eventually eliminate, nuclear weapons from the nations that currently possess them, and to prevent new nations -- particularly Iran -- from obtaining them.

• I agree that Iran is a security threat to Israel, particularly through its supply of arms to Hamas and Hezbollah, and its influence over the government of Iraq and its assorted Shiite militias (an influence, by the way, that was caused by the American invasion of Iraq, carried out with the vocal cheering on of Bibi Netanyahu).

What I question, however, is whether Iran -- even a nuclear-armed Iran -- is an "existential threat" to the existence of Israel or the United States, as important as it is to do everything possible to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.

That is, I do not believe that the leaders of Iran are insane and bent on suicide for themselves and their entire nation. Faced with an Israel with at least 100 nuclear weapons and the means to strike Iran with them and Israel's America security blanket with thousands of nuclear weapons, I do not believe that even a nuclear-armed Iran would unilaterally initiate a nuclear strike against Israel.

In other words, deterrence -- the threat that if Iran launched a nuclear strike against Israel it would be annihilated within hours by a counterstrike from Israel and possibly the United States -- would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran from launching a nuclear offensive, just as deterrence prevented a nuclear strike by Stalinist Russia, by Maoist China, by Pakistan against India or vice versa, and even by North Korea ruled by various members of the bizarre Kim family.

At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each had over 25,000 nuclear weapons pointed at each other, while Maoist China had close to 200 nuclear weapons. In the early years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was ruled by Joseph Stalin, a ruthless dictator, and in the opinion of some, a mad man, but who never came close to using a nuclear weapon against the West.

He was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev who banged his shoe on the table at the United Nations and famously proclaimed to the West, "We Will Bury You," but when confronted by JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis, backed down. Khrushchev was succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev, with whom noted anti-communist Richard Nixon negotiated a détente, reducing the two country's nuclear arsenals, even as Nixon went to China and opened diplomatic relations.

The most dangerous nuclear power may be an unstable Pakistan -- whose intelligence agencies are said to sometimes make common cause with terrorists; but deterred by India's nuclear weapons, Pakistan has never launched a nuclear strike, or vice versa.

Even North Korea, ruled by Kim Jung Il, whom many consider to be the maddest dictator of all, has never used one of his nuclear weapons against his sworn enemies in South Korea. In fact, the only country in the world to ever use a nuclear weapon in anger is the United States, when it launched nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So if Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and Kimist N. Korea can be deterred from using nuclear weapons by the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction, why couldn't Iran be deterred?

There's no reason to believe that the Ayatollah's are any more interested in nuclear annihilation than Stalin, Mao, or Kim. Yes, Iranian leaders like former President Ahmadinejad may try to distract their people from economic hardship and political repression by threatening "death to Israel." (And likewise, Bibi Netanyahu may try to gain reelection by focusing on the danger of Iran to distract his people from Israel's own economic problems.)

Even so, although a nuclear-armed Iran could be deterred from launching a nuclear strike, a key focus of American foreign policy should be to do everything short of war to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Among other things, a nuclear armed Iran could set off a new, destabilizing arms race in the Middle East, leading countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey to obtain their own nuclear weapons. The last thing the human race needs is a nuclear arms race in this dangerous part of the world.

Moreover, a focus of American foreign policy should be both to prevent any other countries from joining the nuclear club, even as it reduces the number of weapons held by the current members of the nuclear club, eventually down to zero. The longer nuclear weapons exist, the greater the chance that an accident or miscalculation could lead to nuclear annihilation.

And the only way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is through a combination of sanctions and diplomacy. Despite Bibi Netanyahu's and Congressional Republicans' attempt to sabotage negotiations, there is no other alternative. The breakdown of negotiations would only leave Iran free to proceed to develop a nuclear bomb.

And Israeli bombing raids on Iran's nuclear research and development facilities are both unlikely to succeed in eliminating Iran's nuclear arms potential and would almost certainly lead to dangerous retaliation by Iran.

Among other things, Iran could launch powerful cyber attacks on Israel's and America's economic and governmental infrastructure; support increased military action by Hamas and Hezbollah; and use its revolutionary guards allied with local Shiite militias to further destabilize Iraq and Syria, which would only increase the power of ISIS. Israeli and/or American war with Iran would be a failure that would make the failure of the Iraq war look like a picnic and would create untold new danger, turmoil, and collateral damage.

Bibi Netanyahu and Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress want to whip Israelis and Americans into a frenzy of fear against Iran in order to enhance their political power. The military-industrial-national security complex wants a frightened people to support unnecessary military spending and look the other way at intrusive government surveillance of its citizens.

But there is no pressing crisis with Iran. It's a fake crisis ginned up by Israeli hawks led by Bibi Netanyahu and Republican (and a few Democratic) neocons bent on new military conflict in Middle East. So let's all take a deep breath, calm down, and let the negotiating process take its course.