How Bad is a Nuclear Iran?

Charles Krauthammer’s weekly column argues that the President is restraining Israel and not presenting a sufficiently credible military threat to prevent a nuclear Iran. Most of his article focuses on the idea that Iran is ‘racing’ to get a nuclear bomb, and the President’s actions are isolating Israel, not Iran, but what I found most interesting was his very brief dismissal of the prospect of deterring Iran. Mr. Krauthammer believes that it is a ‘misreading of history’ to think that we can deter an Iranian nuclear strike against Israel. He believes that the religious conviction of Iran’s reigning mullahs precludes the possibility of a MAD policy working, therefore, Iran must be militarily prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Presumably, the mullahs haven’t yet unleashed the waves of fanatics because they know such an action would have little chance of destroying the nation of Israel, and their own lives would be swiftly taken by Israeli forces. Mr. Krauthammer believes that the acquisition of a nuclear weapon would remove the uncertainty of success currently restraining the fanatical rulers of Iran. With a nuke, Israel could be destroyed, he reasons, and the Muslim leaders of Iran do not mind death in the cause of destroying Israel. I think there are two flaws in this line of reasoning.

First, I don’t think that an Iranian nuclear weapon actually poses an existential threat to Israel, as I don’t think it automatically grants the Iranians a high probability of success. To really destroy that state, you would need three things: 1) Multiple, high-yield nuclear weapons, 2) A foolproof method of delivery and 3) the willingness to bomb Jerusalem. Nuclear weapons are expensive to manufacture and difficult to get right. Iran would probably need several thermonuclear weapons to actually destroy Israel – and in a nuclear strike, nothing less than total destruction can be accepted. Israel has her own, very potent arsenal of nuclear devices, probably including several megaton-yield thermonuclear weapons. If Iran strikes, Iran will be destroyed. There can be no question about this. However, if Iran strikes, it is likely that Israel will not be destroyed. Iran’s Air Force is pathetically weaker than Israel’s legendary IAF. Israel has been developing anti-missile and anti-rocket defenses, from Iron Dome to Arrow II. No plane will get through. It is unlikely that a rocket will get through – and even this assumes Iran can manufacture enough nuclear-tipped rockets to overwhelm Israeli defenses, and destroy Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Which brings us to our final point: Muslims will not destroy their third holiest site – where they believe Mohammed briefly ascended to Heaven – to be rid of the Jews. Should the mullahs dare to strike at Jerusalem, Israeli and Arab jets will race to destroy Iran. Thus it is highly unlikely that the mullahs believe they have a reasonable chance of destroying the nation of Israel, even without nuclear weapons.

A second reason why the mullahs will not instigate nuclear war with Israel is that destroying Israel – even assuming that they truly hold apocalyptic views – is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end: the restoration of an Islamic Caliphate. As I noted above, Israel has an extremely potent, if undeclared, nuclear arsenal. Even if the United States does nothing in the event of an Iranian launch, Israel alone can and will completely annihilate Iran as a nation. The fallout would devastate the region. There would be no triumphant Caliphate, only ashes and wasteland. If a particular means (the nuclear destruction of Israel) to an end (the restoration of the Caliphate) necessarily precludes that end (radioactive and depopulated Caliphates are no fun, I’m told), it is unlikely that the means in question will be utilized. And this is all assuming Iran’s leaders really do want this apocalyptic vision to come to pass, rather than enjoying their political and religious power. If history has taught us something, it is that enemies always look more fanatical in the heat of the moment. Some truly are fanatics. Most are not. And in this case, the smart move for the true fanatic is not to strike at Israel.

Which leaves us with a final question: laying aside issues of national pride, and assuming that the research truly is for a bomb, why do the Iranians want a bomb? Well, Iraq had no bomb. Iraq was invaded and Saddam Hussein executed. Pakistan had the bomb, and gets billions in foreign aid, even if that’s where Osama bin Laden was actually hiding. Hmm. Maybe Iran is trying to deter us, and get some much-needed cash in the mean time?

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