In his latest column, Fareed Zakaria makes yet another attempt to deter Israel from attacking Iran through what I call ‘deterrence by history’. The trite argument is deceptively simple: history suggests that states which perceive that they have a ‘closing window to act’ while they still have an advantage are often wrong, and deterrence has worked in the Cold War and even on North Korea and Pakistan thus far. What’s to say that the Iranians won’t be deterred as well?
Zakaria, and the troves of others who have argued along similar lines, could well be right: a nuclear Iran, even if it comes to pass, may be deterred by the threat of mutually assured destruction – especially with over a hundred nuclear weapons over in Israel. And, ideally, Israel would recognize that while absolute security is impossible to achieve, deterrence is less disastrous than preventive war, and it would therefore not be wise to strike Iran over the next few months.
But what Zakaria et. al seem to forget is that we have to contend with a world as it is rather than the world as it should be. The leaders of nation states do not run their foreign policies based on historical analogies and strict rationality. Even if they do at time, this is filtered through their unique lenses and combined with threat perceptions, domestic politics, their nation’s historical experience, various psychological quirks, and so on.
That’s precisely why this deterrence by history amounts to little more than intellectual masturbation. Resolving this impasse practically requires understanding the Israeli position, even if one disagrees with it, in order to affect a change in behavior, rather than simply telling them how they should think.
Israeli leaders aren’t stupid. They understand that a strike on the main sites of Iran’s nuclear program may potentially result in reprisals, regional war, retaliation by Iran or Hezbollah, the resurgence of a regime currently under siege, and a rupturing of relations between it and the West. Some within the Israeli military are also aware of the logistical difficulties such an attack presents, and the limitations of their own capabilities.
But Israel’s leaders, particularly its current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also believe equally firmly that a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat to the survival of the Jewish people since Hitler. They live within missile range of a regime that has called for the extinction of their state, and has shown clear signs of aggression – including the Iranian assassination attempt against a Saudi diplomat in Washington and recent bomb attacks and attempts in Thailand, India and Georgia. They feel isolated in a changing Middle East after the Arab Spring, and they are growing less and less confident that US President Barack Obama will attack Iran under any circumstances.
For these reasons and more, the Israelis draw their red line at the Iranian acquisition of a nuclear capacity, not just the actual production of a nuclear weapon. They remain unconvinced the tactics of dissuasion are keeping Iran from marching towards a abomb, and they no not believe that the logic of deterrence would work on a future nuclear Iran.
If the United States and other countries (and commentators) really want to effectively persuade Israel to hold off on striking Iran, I would suggest they spend their time more constructively on doing two things rather than beating deterrence by history to death. First, be clear about the specific types of Iranian actions that violate their red lines, and what they would do if those red lines are crossed (covertly, overtly or otherwise). This would help convince the Israelis to trust that enough is being done to try and change Iranian behavior through non-military means, and that there is consensus on a point (if it exists) that the Iranians cannot cross.
Second, impress upon the Iranians that they need to demonstrate meaningful progress on a negotiated settlement. There are various diplomatic proposals out there, but the goal would essentially be to somehow verifiable guarantee that Iran’s nuclear program will remain a civilian one by combining restrictions – like limitations on enrichment or ‘fuel swap’ proposals – with various carrots like the phased lifting of sanctions. The Iranians have already signalled a willingness to talk, and I don’t think Israeli strikes are something they desire either.
These two measures may not work in the end, but they are at least worth trying. And it’s far more useful to try to change the behavior of states as they exist today, rather than ignoring their idiosyncracies and hoping they learn from the lessons of yesterday.