Iranians Ought To Be Clear on the Price of Going Nuclear


By Thomas Lippman

Published May 08, 2008, issue of May 16, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Hillary Clinton recently asserted that if she were president and Iran launched a nuclear attack on Israel, the United States would retaliate with strikes that could “totally obliterate” Iran. Here in America her pledge has ignited a flurry of commentary, most of which is likely to be forgotten after the presidential campaign is over. In Iran, it ought to have a sobering, long-term impact.

Iranians appear to have been surprised, even shocked, by Clinton’s stark language. Apologists for the mullahs’ regime and anti-regime exiles alike have filled the blogosphere with offended criticism; some even went so far as to accuse Clinton of espousing “genocide.” Such reactions demonstrate a naive failure to understand the real consequences of acquiring nuclear weapons.

Clinton’s language may seem bellicose, but the substance is hardly new. For decades it has been fundamental to American strategic policy that any country that attacked an American ally with nuclear weapons would face the possibility of nuclear retaliation from us.

This is true whether the ally is Iceland, Australia, Canada, Turkey or Israel. And it is true regardless of the identity, motivation or religious conviction of the attacker. Clinton was asked about Iran, but her answer could be equally applicable to, for example, North Korea.

Iran denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons. It can only be hoped that those denials represent the truth, but if they do not, Clinton’s comments should represent a forceful reality check for Tehran: To possess such weapons is to create the possibility of massive retaliation if you use them, or preemptive strikes if you threaten to use them.

Iranians of every political persuasion need to understand that the development of nuclear weapons would ipso facto propel their country into a dangerous environment in which it would be not only possible but inevitable that their use would bring on reprisals in kind, and in which fatal mistakes could be made.

That reality of the nuclear age was baldly stated and fully understood during the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were constrained from attacking each other by the certainty of Mutual Assured Destruction. It is the reason why both sides stood down in the Cuban missile crisis.

And it is why Pakistan backed away from nuclear confrontation with India in their glacier war a decade ago. India developed its weapons in response to a threat from nuclear-armed China; when Pakistan unwisely followed India’s lead in developing nuclear weapons, it exposed itself to a risk of an Indian nuclear strike that would otherwise not have arisen.

The chilling calculus of mass death and destruction of entire civilizations is the reason no country has used nuclear weapons since 1945, when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. At that time, no other country had nuclear weapons, and thus the United States had no fear of nuclear reprisal. Once the Soviet Union and China developed nuclear capability, the strategic calculus changed.

The certainty of horrifying consequences underlies a fundamental premise of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a party — namely, that the existing nuclear powers will try to manage the world in such a way that it is not necessary or desirable for other nations to acquire nuclear weapons.

India, Pakistan and probably Israel placed themselves outside the treaty’s framework and went ahead with nuclear development. But several countries that had, or could have had, nuclear weapons accepted the treaty’s premise and refrained from acquiring or maintaining nuclear arsenals, among them Japan, South Africa, Brazil and Ukraine. Because they are not nuclear-equipped, there is — and will likely be — no talk of “obliterating” them. Iran should follow the same course.

Clinton was responding on television to a question about what she would do in the event of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. In another forum she might have declined to answer such a question as hypothetical, but in the heat of tightly-contested presidential race, she evidently felt the need to show her toughness.

The corollary of her remarks is that if an attack on an ally comes from a country that does not have nuclear weapons, as in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the United States may take action, but not on a nuclear scale. By virtue of not having nuclear weapons, the attacking country would know that the United States would not reduce it to radioactive ruins.

Iran and Americans who wish for better relations with Iran have seized upon last fall’s National Intelligence Estimate as evidence that the country has no nuclear weapons program. But many specialists argue that the report has been misinterpreted. The report says that while Iran had suspended its effort to build warheads, other aspects of nuclear development were continuing, including enrichment of uranium, and could be applied to the production of warheads with relative ease.

Hillary Clinton appears to understand that no president takes any weapons off the table when confronting an adversary. Whether or not she would really do what she said may be open to question. But what is not open to question is that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would cast a mushroom cloud of suspicion and fear over the Iranian people.

Thomas Lippman, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, is a former national security reporter for the Washington Post.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.