With Iran, deterrence won’t work

Prof. Kenneth Waltz recently made this dangerously naive argument: “If Iran goes nuclear, Israel and Iran will deter each other, as nuclear powers always have . . . leading to a Middle East that is more stable than it is today.”

Anyone who harbors illusions about how the world will look after Iran acquires nuclear weapons should read “The Last Israelis” by Noah Beck. One of the characters in this doomsday novel notes that deterrence “makes sense only for a big country . . . that can survive the first strike.”

The doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which has kept the world’s most dangerous weapons in their silos for generations , promotes peace and stability only when the opposing powers have sufficiently large territories and populations. The United States and Russia each has over 3 million square miles of land and over 130 million people.

Between such large countries, the “assured destruction” following any first atomic strike would be “mutual” indeed. But this paradigm cannot apply to certain Middle East conflicts because of how different the numbers are.

Twenty-two Arab states comprise more than 5 million square miles and more than 350 million people. Israel has just 8,000 square miles and 7.6 million people. These disparities help to explain why Israel has invested so much in maintaining its qualitative military edge. Israel must possess weapons so powerful that even a united attack by all aggressors in the region is overwhelmingly discouraged.

Signs of weakness in the Middle East are only exploited. After Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, Iran-backed Hezbollah launched an unprovoked attack in 2006, leading to war. While the conflict ended without the decisive victory that Israel’s long-term deterrence requires, Israel’s military response was strong enough to buy the country relative quiet on its northern front during the last six years.

Similarly, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the Palestinians — rather than reciprocate with peace or confidence-building measures — perceived Israel’s disengagement as weakness and used Gaza to launch 8,000 rockets, threatening a million civilians in Israel’s south. It was only after Israel’s forceful military response in 2009 against Iran-backed Hamas that Israel’s deterrent was restored and relative quiet returned.

When the “balance of power” model of deterrence is applied to a confrontation between Israel and a nuclear-armed Iran, the paradigm is as inapplicable as it is in the Arab-Israeli conflict. With 591,000 square miles and a population of 79 million, Iran has roughly 75 times more territory than Israel and 10 times as many people. Such dramatic asymmetries make a first strike by Iran tempting, as evidenced by the words of a so-called moderate in the Iranian leadership, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an ex-president who is still influential.

In a Dec. 14, 2001, speech, Rafsanjani said: “If one day the Islamic world [acquires nuclear weapons], then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality. Jews shall expect to be once again scattered and wandering around the globe the day when this appendix is extracted from the region and the Muslim world.”

Those who favor or can countenance a nuclear Iran take comfort in describing the regime as rational. Rafsanjani’s speech reveals the true nature of that “comforting” rationality: Iran clearly understands that the “mutually assured destruction” that produced a Cold War stalemate is irrelevant to a conflict with a minuscule country like Israel.

Another concern about the regime’s “rationality” is its penchant for terrorism, which likely contributed to the recent bombing in Bulgaria. If Iran or its ally Hezbollah regularly resorts to terrorism without possessing atomic weapons, how would they behave with a nuclear deterrent? And could Iran’s possession of nuclear materials make future terrorist attacks far more devastating?

Suppose that the Iranian theocracy: 1) doesn’t remotely believe that launching a nuclear attack could hasten the arrival of the Islamic Messiah, and 2) spouted the last decade of genocidal, anti-Israel rhetoric only to distract Iranians from domestic problems.

Does Iran have any rational reason to destroy Israel? Unfortunately, it does. By achieving what no power could accomplish in 64 years, Iran would attain unchallenged hegemony in the Middle East. Such status would bring substantial benefits: skyrocketing oil prices, easier resolution of resource and border disputes in Iran’s favor and swifter exportation of Iran’s radical Islamic ideology.

With nuclear deterrence, size matters. Thus, there is serious reason to worry whether the first Iranian nukes could bring about “The Last Israelis.”

Lahav is an American businessman and frequent traveler to Israel.

NY Daily News

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