Third, there is the matter of geography. Moscow and Washington are 5,000 miles apart. If they were 900 miles apart (as Tehran and Jerusalem are), there probably would have been a nuclear war at some point in the last 50 years. It takes a half hour for an ICBM to fly from Moscow to Washington; that’s just barely enough time for the president to decide what to do if a blip on the radar screen suggests an attack is underway. It takes about five minutes for a short-range missile to fly from Tehran to Israel. That’s probably not enough time.
There were several times during the Cold War when America’s finely tuned radars mistook a flock of geese for a flight of Soviet missiles or when a software glitch produced a false warning of an attack. In all these instances, the leaders could afford to wait a bit to see how the signals panned out. According to David Hoffman’s frightening book The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, there was an incident in 1983 when a Soviet early-warning satellite picked up signals of an American missile attack. The signal in this case was never straightened out; the system kept warning of an attack all the way until the point when the warheads would have exploded, had there really been an attack. Luckily, the Soviet lieutenant colonel at the monitoring station, thinking that this couldn’t really be happening, decided—on his own authority—to tell his commander that it was a false alarm and, therefore, there was no need to launch the Soviets’ own ICBMs. He was lying: According to the warning system, the attack was real. But by lying, he probably prevented World War III.
It’s not at all clear that an Iranian or Israeli officer would keep his cool under similar circumstances (or that he’d be so laid back to begin with)—especially if the false warning coincided with a diplomatic crisis or a military exercise or some other moment of extraordinary tension.
I don’t think the Iranian nuclear program constitutes an urgent danger. But if there is a way to nip this whole panoply of nightmare scenarios in the bud—if there’s a diplomatic route to keeping Iran from going nuclear—then it’s worth pursuing, at some effort and cost.
The good news is that the sanctions have been taking their toll on the Iranian economy and its international standing. If the Supreme Leader really does think nuclear weapons are immoral (as he has said), or if there are factions within the government that think the pursuit of a bomb is costing too much, then maybe this weekend’s talks will bear fruit.
The bad news is that, for the Iranians to give up such a high-profile trump card, they need to get something in return—a suspension of sanctions, a guarantee of security, something that’s tangible and valuable. Is there some deal—even hypothetically—that is, at once, worthwhile to the Iranians and acceptable to the Israelis? That’s the key question; it’s hard to envision such a thing.
In fact, if the Israelis really are intent on attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities, they’re likely to do so before this November’s American presidential elections. If they started an attack and needed U.S. firepower to help them complete the task, Barack Obama might open himself up to perilous political attacks—for being indecisive, weak, appeasing, anti-Israel, you name it—if he didn’t follow through. It could cost him the votes of crucial constituencies. If the Israelis tried to pressure the United States into joining an attack after the election, Obama would have (to borrow a phrase from another context) more flexibility. So, to the extent the Israeli leaders have decided to attack (and it’s not at all clear they have), they are probably thinking: much better sooner than later.
One thought worth considering is that the Iranians have probably contemplated this scenario as well. They certainly do worry about an Israeli attack, and for good reason. The fact that they’ve buried some of their facilities so deeply underground, at great cost, attests to this. If they think the Israelis are serious, maybe they will come up with a deal to avert a strike, at least for the next several months. The question, then, is whether their offer—whatever it is—seems authentic and sufficiently tempting for the Israelis to accept.
Maybe the negotiations will be worth following, after all.