The increased attention given to the threat from Iran’s nuclear program by both Israel and the United States has set off alarm bells on the left, where even the Obama administration’s at times half-hearted effort to pressure the Islamist regime is worrying. But those arguing against the crippling sanctions that the United States is thinking about imposing–let alone the use of force to avert the Iranian nuclear threat–have a subsidiary goal: disarming Israel. That’s the point of an op-ed in today’s New York Times by Shelby Telhami and Steven Kull, who urge that those worried about the danger an Iranian nuke would pose to Israel, the Middle East as a whole and the security of the West, should instead focus their efforts on getting Israel to disavow its own nuclear deterrent.
The conceit of this argument, which repeats a point some in Iran and others in the Muslim world have also put forward, is that the way to persuade the ayatollahs to renounce nukes is to force the Jewish state to dismantle its own nuclear arsenal. But the seeming fairness of this proposal masks its inherent bias. Unlike Iran, or indeed any other country on the planet, Israel faces threats to its existence as a nation. Those who wish to give up its ultimate weapon are asking it to put its trust in the goodwill of its neighbors and the international community, a notion that contradicts the lessons of Jewish history as well as the very reason for Israel’s existence.
Telhami and Kull’s thesis seems to begin with the premise that there is no way for the West or Israel to prevent Iran from getting nukes eventually if that is their goal. They claim that since Iran will have its nukes if it wants them badly enough, the real choice is not between a nuclear Iran and a non-nuclear Iran but between a Middle East in which neither Israel nor Iran has nukes and one in which they both have such capability. That is not true, because even if a bombing campaign would only set the Iranian effort back a few years, the continuance of sanctions and the threat of future attacks would, if the West were determined to press its point, force Tehran to give up its nuclear fantasy. But the pair ignores this and goes on to argue that a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East is actually more desirable for Israel than a non-nuclear Iran.
While it is true that a Cold War-style policy of mutually assured destruction would not work, that is an argument for stopping Iran, not disarming Israel. It is also true that Israel’s official ambivalence about its nuclear weapons is pointless, and it can be argued that its nuclear deterrent is of limited value as everyone knows they will never be the first to use one.
But the one thing those who dismiss the value of Israel’s nuclear arsenal often forget is that Israel’s status as an unofficial nuclear power provides the state’s enemies with a very convincing argument to avoid a direct challenge to its existence. Forcing Israel to divest itself of such weapons, even if it will never use them, can only encourage those in the Muslim and Arab worlds who continue to dream of its destruction. Israelis rightly say that a nuclear-free Middle East must await the conclusion of a lasting peace agreement that will ensure such fantasies are impossible.
Those who ask us to disarm Israel rather than preventing Iran from gaining such weapons also ignore the obvious difference between the goals of the two nuclear programs. Israel is a democracy and has no wish to obliterate its neighbors or to end their independent existence. Iran is an Islamist tyranny whose goal is the destruction of Israel. Anyone who sees these two states as morally equivalent or believes there is no real difference between them with respect to possession of nuclear weapons has either lost their moral compass or is pushing another more sinister agenda. Diverting diplomacy aimed at persuading the ayatollahs to abandon their nukes into a discussion about Israel’s weapons won’t heighten the chances for Middle East peace. It will just give Tehran more time for its scientists to work on a weapon.
It is to be hoped that sanctions and an oil embargo will force Iran to realize it must abandon its nuclear dream without the use of force. But no matter which method the West must ultimately employ to stop Iran, disarming Israel is merely an invitation to more Middle East strife.