One of the most provocative panels at the AIPAC Policy Conference this week was the session entitled “Ticking Time Bomb: A Nuclear Iran at the Center of the Middle East,” featuring former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, former U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Assistant Director Brad Gordon, and Washington Institute for Near East Policy Deputy Director Patrick Clawson.
Sneh explained the reasons Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran: “Actually,” he said, “I can give one reason which is good enough: it is our recent historic experience that whenever someone says he wants us out, we have to take him seriously, and not allow him to have the means to carry out what he is promising to do.”
For some people, he said wryly, this argument is not good enough – so he proceeded to list seven more: seven threats to Israel resulting from Iran simply having nuclear weapons, even if they are not actually used:
First, immigration to Israel would evaporate – why would anyone come to live under a continual threat of nuclear annihilation? Second, Israelis themselves would increasingly choose to emigrate, if they had options (and the most highly educated and productive Israelis would have options). Third, investment in Israel, and the resulting economic impact, would dramatically drop. Fourth, with the backing of a nuclear-armed power, terrorism would significantly increase. Fifth, Arab leaders willing to negotiate with Israel would be intimidated by Iran and resist doing so. Sixth, even lower-level acts of Israeli self-defense (such as retaliation for rockets from Gaza) would be hindered by the fear of provoking a nuclear reaction. Seventh, Israel would soon face multiple nuclear dangers as Saudi Arabia and then Egypt acquired nuclear weapons in response. He repeated his statement from last year’s AIPAC conference that no Israeli government will allow a nuclear-armed Iran to happen.
Gordon and Clawson put the issue in broader terms – emphasizing that the issue was in fact not primarily an Israeli one, but an American (and international) one. It was clear from their presentations that even if Israel were removed from the strategic equation, Iranian nuclear weapons – coming after two U.S. presidents (from each party) repeatedly called them “unacceptable” – would be a strategic disaster for the United States. There may not be seven reasons, but there are at least four:
The failure to stop Iran would be a critical blow to U.S. prestige (and a corresponding uplift to the stature of Iran) – an incontrovertible demonstration that the only power that might have resisted Iranian hegemony lacked the will or ability (or both). It would set off multiple chain reactions, as erstwhile American allies made their separate peace with the new hegemon – or developed their own nuclear weapons rather than rely on the “superpower” that failed to act. The international structure for nuclear non-proliferation would be irreparably damaged, and proliferation would geometrically increase the chances that the nuclear weapons would eventually be used (intentionally, inadvertently, or after diversion to non-state actors). Finally, the humbled superpower would find the critical resource of its economy under the sway of a hostile regional superpower able to impact both prices and supply – a kind of economic nuclear weapon.
One of the insights from the session was that the very clarity of the existential threat to Israel may cloud an even broader, more fundamental issue of world geopolitics. The U.S. must appreciate – and it was clear from Gordon and Clawson’s comments about their discussions with government officials that some elements in the U.S. government currently do not – that there are compelling American reasons for precluding Iranian nuclear weapons, not just Israeli ones.