israel nuclear

David Sanger on Iran, Israel and the Nuclear Threat

On Tuesday, I attended a luncheon lecture by renowned New York Times correspondent David Sanger here at the Fletcher School on Iran. The talk was organized with the help of Professor Vali Nasr, the Fletcher Iran Working Group, Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies, and International Security Studies Program.

As with most public events, the talk was more of an opportunity to confirm things being heard and understand the mindset of the various actors from an influential and informed voice, rather than a treasure trove of new information. These are some of the key points I picked up.

  • While it is clear that Iran’s nuclear program has encountered difficulties and slowed down (part of which is political), Sanger doesn’t think that the Iranians need an actual bomb to make their point. He said, “I still don’t think they have made the decision to go for a weapon, and I’m not sure they need to. A virtual weapon gives them as much leverage as an actual weapon”.

Others have also made this point. My former professor at the University of Virginia, Michael Krepon, puts it this way:

If Iran’s national leaders calculate that there are greater risks in crossing nuclear red lines than in observing them, they might stop short of acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran’s leaders might decide not to go the whole nine yards if perceived penalties – being locked into pariah status, facing punishing economic sanctions, and having Muslim neighbors take out their own nuclear insurance policies – are considered to be sufficiently injurious.

  • On Israel’s thinking regarding Iran, Sanger said that if he were Israeli and he was considering an attack on Iran, he would do so before the US presidential election, since the timing and context would give President Obama room to express concern at the consequences while stating his understanding about why it was done to preserve Israel’s security. That timeline is consistent with what we have been hearing over the last couple of weeks.
  • While there is a whole spectrum of views in Israel, there is a growing thought process among some that if attacked, Iran would not respond significantly with direct attacks on US and Israel since that would trigger a war that it would lose. According to this line of thinking, the response would be much less dramatic and very asymmetrical, focused on responding in Afghanistan and other places for instance. This is crucial because if the Israelis perceive the Iranian response to be much weaker, that could increase the likelihood of a strike.

David Ignatius also briefly mentioned this school of thought in his Washington Post piece earlier this month. Here’s Ignatius:

Israelis are said to believe that a military strike could be limited and contained…Iranians would retaliate, but Israelis doubt that the action would be an overwhelming barrage, with rockets from Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. One Israeli estimate is that the Jewish state might have to absorb 500 casualties…Israelis point to Syria’s lack of response to an Israeli attack on a nuclear reactor there in 2007. Iranians might show similar restraint, because of fear the regime would be endangered by all-out war.

  • On the American side, Sanger said some in the Obama administration do still believe that a nuclear Iran is containable. And with its aggressive cyber program and tough sanctions (the first round of sanctions, in his view, to actualy bite), the administration “cannot find the rationale” for contemplating a military invasion right now.
  • Moving forward, even tougher sanctions could be possible on Iran since these are not the toughest sanctions yet. Kicking Iran out of SWIFT, which provides banks with a system for moving funds around the world, is one option, although the US worries that this might affect regular Iranians and may interfere with other American intelligence priorities. Vali Nasr also added that while sanctions may weaken the regime, it may also undermine the regime’s ability to negotiate and merely reinforce its commitment to attaining a nuclear capability. That’s consistent with what he told the New York Times last month:

“Look at it this way…sanctions are weakening the regime, but they’re also putting pressure on the regime, which is arriving to the point where the Iranians have no motivation other than to get their nuclear capabilities faster.”

On a more humorous note, Sanger said that if Iran was indeed behind the scrappy attempts at assassinating a Saudi ambassador in Washington and the recent bombing attempts, then “they certainly haven’t brought out their A-team”. The audience erupted in laughter. But one has to wonder what lies ahead should Tehran decide to continue on its current path. Like many vexing foreign policy problems, there aren’t really any good options.

Fareed Zakaria and How Not to Deter Israel from an Iranian Strike

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.