Don’t Make Iran an Israeli Issue


By Patrick Clawson

Published September 11, 2008, issue of September 19, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

As Iran makes steady progress toward achieving its nuclear ambitions, the debate over how best to respond is growing louder. Lately, however, the public discussion has been focused too much on the specific threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Israel.

Israel’s friends do indeed have reason to worry. Iran’s leaders not only regularly issue inflammatory threats against Israel, they also spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year arming and training terrorist organizations that are committed to its destruction. Given this record of belligerence, Iran’s nuclear program represents a potentially grave threat to the Jewish state.

The singular focus on the threat that Iran represents to Israel, however, obscures the other profound dangers posed by Tehran’s nuclear program. A nuclear-armed Iran would be a menace, not only to Israel, but also to its Arab neighbors and to American and Western interests in the region.

Already, Iran funds, arms and trains violent radicals fighting moderate Arab governments in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The Islamic Republic has a long history of sponsoring terrorist attacks in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — a country that hardliners claim is an Iranian province. On all of these fronts, a nuclear Iran could well be more assertive and more willing to risk confrontation. For instance, much of the world’s oil passes the Strait of Hormuz, right by islands disputed between Iran and the United Arab Emirates. A nuclear Iran might feel emboldened to actively control the oil tanker traffic through the strait.

Faced with a more acute threat from a nuclear Iran, the Middle East could experience a nuclear cascade. Experts who have studied this issue warn that, at the very least, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will think long and hard about whether to develop a nuclear weapons option. And if any one of them goes that route, the pressure will build for others to do the same, if for no other reason than to maintain the balance of power. The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of the Mubarak regime or the House of Saud is not a comforting thought, made even worse by the possibility that Islamists hostile to the West could overthrow these not entirely stable governments.

There is also the danger that Tehran could share its nuclear knowledge, or even its nuclear weapons. Iran’s leaders loudly proclaim their willingness to share their nuclear expertise, while being vague about what exactly they have in mind. Indeed, Tehran’s South American ally, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, has said he wants to acquire nuclear expertise from Iran, which says it will cooperate with him.

Moreover, the possibility that Iran would provide terrorist groups with nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. After all, Iran’s leaders have provided impressive military technologies to other terrorists: Think of the hundreds of long-range rockets in Hezbollah’s hands or the sophisticated improvised explosive devices used by Iraqi insurgents to kill so many American soldiers. The chances of Tehran behaving similarly with nuclear armaments may seem slim, but given the radical character of the Iranian regime and the seriousness of the stakes, it is nevertheless a frightening scenario.

More broadly, if Iran can get away with violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty — to which it is a signatory — then the whole global system for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons could fall apart. To date, the NPT system has worked pretty well. Several countries that had nuclear weapons programs — or, in South Africa’s case, actual weapons — have dismantled them and joined the NPT.

Outside of the five original nuclear powers — America, Britain, France, Russia and China — the only four countries that have nuclear weapons have been nations that refused to fully join the NPT: Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. But if the NPT begins to weaken, quite a few countries around the world may reconsider their nuclear option. Important political leaders in Argentina, Brazil and South Africa have all said that it was a mistake for their countries to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons. It would not take much for the world to end up with dozens of nuclear powers.

Proliferation is a complicated issue, hard to explain in a sound bite, so it may never dominate public discussion. But it is something that matters deeply to policy elites in many countries. The Clinton administration fought hard to get NATO to define proliferation as the main global security threat. For France and Russia, their nuclear weapons are central to their claim to be world powers. If, on the Iranian nuclear issue, we want to get Europe to do more to add bite to its bark, and if we want to figure out how to move Russia and China to do more, we are more likely to persuade these governments by emphasizing the risk of proliferation rather than the threat to Israel, a country they do not necessarily care much about.

The menace posed by a nuclear Iran is broad and multi-faceted. Focusing exclusively on a single aspect of the issue — namely, the threat to Israel — is not helpful. Americans are more likely to be concerned about defending their country’s national security than about protecting another nation, even a close ally such as Israel. And the international community is more likely to mount a vigorous response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions when the nature of the threat is not framed as an Israeli issue. Stopping Tehran means making the case that the Iranian nuclear program is a menace, not only to Israel, but to world peace.

Patrick Clawson is deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and co-author of the recent study “The Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Military Action Against Iran.”

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!
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel:
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war?
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah:
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • 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.