Imagine Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telling a group of leading U.S. policymakers that Iran’s nuclear weapons program does not pose a direct threat to U.S. security, or former CIA Director George Tenet making the same kind of argument in a public forum. Imagine also that their views are reported in front-page news stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
You don’t have to be a veteran Washington insider to predict that in the aftermath of a Times headline like "Rice: U.S. Can Live with Iran Bomb," America’s chief diplomat would be forced to resign, but her comments would dramatically transform the debate in Washington. At a minimum, President George W. Bush might stop threatening Tehran with a military response if it decides to go nuclear. Instead, most of the discussion in the U.S. capital would focus on the "Day After"—that is, on ways to deter Iran from using its nuclear military capability.
But if that happens, and U.S. officials agree with MIT’s Barry Posen and other American strategists that Iranian nukes would not pose a direct threat to America, wouldn’t Norman Podhoretz and other neoconservatives then argue that nuclear arms in the hands of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could endanger the security of Israel and create a condition for another Holocaust? And in that case, shouldn’t America "do something" to protect the interests of its ally, Israel?
Actually, neoconservatives are already making this kind of argument. Podhoretz, who is serving as a foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, said that Ahmadinejad is "like Hitler" who wants to replace the international system with "the religio-political culture of Islamofascism." And Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), invoking the same Ahmadinejad-is-Hitler analogy, recalled that, "During the run up to World War II, Europe failed to heed the warnings" about the threat that Nazi Germany posed to the world.
But Podhoretz and company could have difficulties presenting a case for going to war against Iran in order to protect Israel—both Israel’s foreign minister and a former head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, have suggested that if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, Israel would deal with it by deterring Iran. Not attacking it.
Indeed, according to a report published in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions with other top Israeli officials that in her opinion Iranian nuclear weapons "do not pose an existential threat to Israel" (Ha’aretz, "Livni behind Closed Doors," October 25, 2007). In their report, which received very little attention in the United States, Gidi Weitz and Na’ama Lanski noted that "Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb," claiming that he was "attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears." Mmm … sound familiar?
Ha’aretz also reported in October that former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy told an audience that even if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, it would not pose an "existential" threat to Israel. During a lecture last month in Jerusalem, Halevy—who, like Livni, is regarded as a "hawk" on Israeli security—said that "the State of Israel cannot be destroyed" if Iran went nuclear. He also called on the government to follow Washington’s lead and offer Iran a diplomatic option as part of a strategy to foil Tehran’s nuclear plan.
"Israel cannot be destroyed for many reasons, some of which are known and others you can presume," Halevy said. "There is a chance that something serious will happen here, but I tend to say the following when I am abroad: Israel cannot be destroyed. If you do not believe this, then don’t, but I suggest that you do not try it" (Ha’aretz, "Former Mossad Chief Downplays Iranian Threat," October 18, 2007).
Halevy seemed to be implying that Israel’s own nuclear military capability (Israel is estimated to have about 300 nuclear weapons) would be effective in deterring a nuclear Iran from attacking Israel. The former Mossad chief also downplayed the notion that has been promoted by neoconservatives that Iran is emerging as a regional and global threat, insisting that contrary to such rhetoric, the Iranians "are no giants." (The United States spends around 100 times as much as Iran does on its military).
And Halevy called on Israel and the United States to negotiate with Iran a diplomatic deal along the lines proposed by the Iraq Study Group. (According to the Financial Times and other news reports, Iran indicated its willingness in 2003 to negotiate with the United States a regional settlement that would have included recognition of Israel, but the Bush administration dismissed the proposal.)
It was not surprising therefore that the Ha’aretz correspondent who reported Halevy’s comments added: " Halevy’s lecture presented a less-disturbing picture from the one offered by President George W. Bush."
Indeed, notwithstanding the fact that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney continue to insist publicly that they would like to resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran through diplomatic means, the two together with their aides and legions of supporters on Capitol Hill seem to be preparing for World War III. In an October 21 speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Cheney declared that the Bush administration will not stand by in the face of "the Iranian regime’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East and to gain hegemonic power"; just a few days earlier, President Bush warned that if "you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
That Israeli hawks Livni and Halevy seem to be projecting a more realpolitik approach toward Iran than Bush and Cheney, not to mention Republican frontrunner Giuliani’s Podhoretz-led team of foreign policy advisers, is not unexpected.
There is no doubt that many Israelis had hoped that the United States would attack and perhaps destroy Iran’s nuclear military installations—not because they are concerned about its threat to the existence of Israel, but because they are aware that a nuclear Iran would be able to challenge Israel’s military supremacy in the Middle East. But there is now a growing recognition among Israeli officials that the Americans don’t have the capability to decimate Iran’s nuclear military sites and that a U.S. strike against Iran would, in all probability, lead to a U.S.-Iran military confrontation that could ignite a bloody regional war involving Hezbollah and Syria.
At the end of the day, the costs of such a war to Israelis would be higher than for the Americans, who could always go back home to the United States, where Podhoretz and his chicken-hawks would continue pushing for war from the safety of their offices.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and contributor to the International Relations Center’s Right Web program (rightweb.irc-online.org), is author most recently of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com.