Jacob Heilbrunn

Counseling Surrender to Iran

My fellow National Interest scribe Paul Pillar takes issue with the critics of Bruce Riedel. But his own criticisms of the critics are unpersuasive. Like Riedel, Pillar assumes that it must be a paramount objective of the Obama administration to ensure that Israel does not attack Iran. In focusing so closely on Israel and ways to restrain it, however, Riedel and Pillar are espousing an approach that would give Iran a green light to develop nuclear weapons as quickly as it likes.

The truth is that the current situation of strategic ambigiuity is optimal. Israel appears to be serious about attacking Tehran, thereby adding to whatever leverage Washington has in trying to persuade the Iranians that it's in their own interest to strike a deal. The Riedel approach, by contrast, would remove any such incentive. Riedel suggests a mutual defense treaty with Israel as well as improving its defenses in exchange for an explicit understanding that it will refrain from an attack.

Imagine the uproar in the U.S. Congress at such a proposal. Members would fall over themselves to denounce President Obama for having removed a credible threat against Iran and for intruding into Israeli security calculations. It would be hard to imagine the Knesset approving such a deal, either. In the improbable event that it did occur, Iran itself would be emboldened to hasten the pace of its nuclear program. Washington would have removed a serious threat to Iranian ambitions in exchange for...what?

Essentially, Pillar assumes that Iran's acquisition of a bomb wouldn't be a big deal. He says,

Strategic logic about what deterred the USSR during the Cold War or what would deter a future nuclear-armed Iran is not the issue.  The issue is what will keep Israel from doing something foolish and damaging.  If it were all a matter of the strategic logic of deterrence, this whole worrisome problem would never have arisen in the first place.  Even with a nuclear-armed Iran, Israel will retain overwhelming nuclear superiority to go along with its conventional military superiority, retaining what Cold War strategists would call escalation dominance.

This defies reality. The problem is not Israel. It's Iran. And if Iran got a bomb, then Israel would lose its freedom of manuever in the Middle East. It would have to think much harder, for example, about the consequences of a new war in Lebanon. Pillar also ignores the possiblity of nuclear weapons in the hands of a small coterie of fanatics who have made no bones about their desire to bring about a new Holocaust in Israel. Yes, realist doctrine would suggest that the Mullahs will not attack. But what if, like the Nazis, they actually believe their own rhetoric?

Obama can counsel Israel not to attack Tehran. But he cannot determine Israeli foreign policy. Like any sovereign country, Israel must determine what is in its own national interest. Riedel and Pillar are counseling surrender to Iran. But Washington's foremost task is not to restrain Israel. It is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.