Another War in the Middle East?

Why Israel and the U.S. must not launch a preventive strike against Iran

By Fareed Zakaria

President Obama has been trying to cool down the war fever that suddenly gripped Washington early this month. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit and the flurry of statements surrounding it have created a dangerous dynamic. It is easy to see how things move toward war. It is difficult to see how they don’t.

The pressure is building on Iran, but there are no serious discussions of negotiated outcomes. Israel has been ever more explicit in saying it may launch an attack by summer. Obama has amped up his threats of military strikes too, limiting his room to maneuver. And Republican presidential candidates will instantly denounce any negotiated solution—no matter how comprehensive the inspections it requires—as a sellout.

So either Iran suddenly and completely surrenders—and when have countries done that under foreign pressure?—or Israel will strike. And the Israeli government knows that the window presented by the U.S. political season is closing. If it were to strike between now and November, it would be assured of unqualified support from Washington. After November, the American response becomes less predictable. The clock is ticking.

Before we set out on a path to another Middle East war, let’s remember some facts. First, Iran does not have nuclear weapons. And the evidence is ambiguous as to whether it has decided to make them. The U.S. intelligence community has twice concluded that there is no evidence that Iran has made a decision to build a nuclear weapon. London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies released a report in February that concurred. On the other hand, the International Atomic Energy Agency recently suggested that Iran could be working on some military aspects of a program.

What if Iran does manage to develop a couple of crude nukes in several years? Obama says a nuclear Iran would set off an arms race in the Middle East. But a nuclear North Korea has not led the two countries directly threatened by its weapons—South Korea and Japan—to go nuclear. Saudi Arabia and Egypt did not go nuclear in response to Israel’s developing a large and robust arsenal of nuclear weapons. After all, Egypt has gone to war with Israel three times. By contrast, it has not been in a conflict with Iran. Were the U.S. to provide security guarantees to Iran’s neighbors, as Hillary Clinton has proposed, it is highly unlikely that any of them would go nuclear.

Obama has explained that a nuclear Iran would be a problem like India and Pakistan with their nuclear weapons. But India and Pakistan went to war three times in 30 years before they had nuclear weapons. Since they went nuclear, they have been restrained and have not fought a war in 40 years. That case shows the stabilizing, not destabilizing, effects of deterrence. If Israel genuinely believes that deterrence doesn’t work in the Middle East, why does it have a large nuclear arsenal if not to deter its enemies?

Iran’s weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists, says the President. But would a country that has labored for decades to pursue a nuclear program and suffered huge sanctions and costs to do so then turn around and give the fruits of its efforts to a gang of militants? This kind of reasoning is part of the view that the Iranians are mad, messianic people bent on committing mass suicide. When General Martin Dempsey explained on my CNN program last month that he viewed Iran as a “rational actor,” he drew howls of protest.

Dempsey was making a good point. A rational actor is not necessarily a reasonable actor or one who has the same goals or values that you or I do. A rational actor is someone who is concerned about his survival. Compared with radical revolutionary regimes like Mao’s China—which spoke of sacrificing half of China’s population in a nuclear war to promote global communism—the Iranian regime has been rational and calculating in its actions. In an essay in the Washington Monthly, former senior U.S. intelligence official Paul Pillar writes, “More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power—in this life, not some future one.”

In fact, the entire punitive strategy against Iran is premised on the notion that Iran is calculating the costs of these pressures and will change its policies as a result. The question right now is not whether Iran can be rational but whether the U.S. and Israel can carefully evaluate the consequences of a preventive war—inside Iran and beyond—and weigh them against its limited and temporary benefits.

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