Six Questions About the Nuclear Crisis in the Middle East
The emotional factors, and the scientific ones.
Solutionists who put their faith in deterrence neglect the chilling statement by Iranian Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani suggesting that a nuclear conflict would not be overly troubling, because "the application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world." Behind the sinister euphemisms is a grotesque calculation. The "application of an atomic bomb" means dropping one on Israel. "Leaving nothing in Israel" can only be interpreted as leaving no people alive. A second holocaust courtesy of the Holocaust deniers. And an Israeli nuclear retaliation would "just produce damages in the Muslim world." Damages! Israel is said to have some 200 nuclear warheads and an invulnerable retaliatory capacity (stashed in undetectable submarines). Just "damages" in the Muslim world might mean deaths in the tens of millions.
These are, ultimately, the stakes we can expect in a regional nuclear war—and it should never be forgotten that an attack on a facility that contains nuclear fuel turns each target into a nuclear "dirty bomb," however deeply buried, one whose long term consequences are still unknown.
Can science predict—or influence—outcomes in the Middle East? After some consideration of his well-meaning offer, I told the science journal’s editor I didn’t think I could accept the assignment, because there were so many immeasurable emotional factors involved in the Iran-Israel nuclear situation. In some ways, lamentable or not, science is a distraction, a false refuge from the ominous emotional undercurrents more likely to be crucial to history. Science is a variety of solutionism.
As a non-solutionist I have no good answers to the dire questions we face. But I have sought to separate out six of the key unanswered questions that will decide the outcome and which still offer no easy or comforting answers.
Q. Would President Obama ever take military action against Iran and its nuclear facilities?
A. Recently I was at a dinner with a writer who had just interviewed Obama. And when I asked him this question, he said he was absolutely convinced that Obama would be willing to order a strike. But not because of Israel. Or the Israel lobby. Rather, because of his longtime grounding in the thinking of the anti-nuclear proliferation movement.
It sounds unlikely at first, but it makes a certain kind of sense: Obama wrote a seminar paper at Columbia about the nuclear freeze movement, after all. He probably won the Nobel Prize because of his speech calling for the abolition of all nuclear weapons (remember that?) and, this reporter suspects, he believes that Iranian possession of a nuclear weapon will mean a Middle East arms race. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Sudan, Egypt, even the Emirates will want them, while Israel already has a couple hundred nuclear warheads, and Pakistan around a hundred. Sooner or later, this proliferating arms race will lead to regional (or even global) nuclear war.
I still can’t decide if I can visualize Obama ordering a reluctant military to start another war for the sake of nonproliferation. It sounds counterintuitive, does it not, but it now seems that Iranian nuclear capability to build a bomb—not even the actual "breakout" race to assemble it—is a "red line” for the president. Maybe the attack he's alluding to with his "all options are on the table" rhetoric will start and end such a war. I've come to the tragic conclusion that the world will not really move to ban nuclear weapons until it gets another taste of their sinister sting, another preview of the Armageddon they promise in the form of a "small" nuclear war. Obama has said he doesn’t want a “temporary” solution—but more likely it would be a war that would never end, in terms of consequences.
Q. How do the feelings of the Iranian populace factor in?
A. This is an emotional aspect of the situation I have rarely seen discussed in debates over whether Iran shoud be "allowed to have the bomb." I thought of the term “Cuba Syndrome” when I read an otherwise unsurprising op-ed in the Times by Dennis Ross in which the veteran Mideast diplomat, among other things, declared Iran “must not have nuclear weapons.” There was something in his imperious tone that made me feel that if I were an Iranian person on the street—not some apocalyptic-minded mullah, perhaps even a participant in the Green Revolution—-hearing this, I would feel my sense of dignity denigrated. It made me think of Cuba, whose people have endured a half century of privations and immiseration because of U.S sanctions and yet have clung to an oppressive police state regime. Why? Because of emotion, the emotion of dignity. Because they didn’t want to be told who should rule them by the United States and be forced to act subserviently. These things are often more important to people than new American cars.
The connection: Iran would likely continue its bomb program even if a raid left its current facilities in smoking ruins. If only because of the Cuba Syndrome. Even if it took another half century, they would get one nuclear weapon built, or buy one from North Korea or Pakistan. And Israel—which has been called a “one-bomb state,” in the sense that a one-megaton bomb airburst over Tel Aviv would annihilate the country—will never escape that shadow.
Q. Why did Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrallah say last month he would sit and think if Israel attacked Iran?
A. Sheikh Nasrallah is the head of Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored anti-Israel terrorist group—so designated by the State Department—now virtually ruling Lebanon. Hezbollah has become less popular lately because the Lebanese people believe that if Israel were to attack Iran it would first strike Hezbollah’s rocket concentrations in Lebanon, to pre-emptively ward off counterstrikes in support of Iran, and the battered country would suffer again.
So Sheikh Nasrallah was essentially quoted saying “not so fast” on that pre-empt. He claimed that if Israel attacked Iran, he wouldn’t immediately smite the attacker.
Instead he said, uncharacteristically mildly, that “on that day” he and the other Hezbollah leaders would “sit, think and decide what we will do” before acting.
It was a ground-breaking moment: a less-than-belligerent statement from one of the most bloody-minded terrorist leaders, Nasrallah. Was he worried about Israeli power or was it, as someone suggested to me, another question of dignity; that for strategic if not humanitarian reasons he would not sacrifice his people or his country to slaughter for the sake of some Iranian enterprise. They weren’t just puppets.
Q. What about those Israeli submarines? Are they nuclear-armed? Would they go so far to use such nukes?
A. Almost everyone ignores the subs in this discussion. The BBC recently ran a map that purported to show the difficulty of an Israeli fighter bomber attack on Iran. Refueling problems, overflight problems, return-flight problems, and the like. What was surprising about the map was there was no submarine icon drawn on it in the waters around Iran. A submarine-launched cruise missile would be a far more efficient—though catastrophic—way of attacking that mountain at Fordow which is sheltering the key bomb-making capacity—uranium enrichment. And there have been reports of Israeli possession of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Most people, including myself, express horror at the idea of Israel launching a nuclear attack, but the Israeli military ethicist Moshe Halbetal told me, unofficially, that he felt that the emotional memory of the Holocaust would be a strategic factor in the decision of whether to go nuclear first in the face of an existential threat. Go nuclear if the aim was to target weapons and military installations, not people, though he recognized noncombatants would die.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.