OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Israel and the world can live with a nuclear Iran

The world can live with a nuclear Iran

In case Bush does decide to attack Iran, it is questionable whether Iran’s large, well-dispersed and well-camouflaged nuclear program can really be knocked out. This is all the more doubtful because, in contrast to the Israeli attacks on Iraq back in 1981 and on Syria three weeks ago, the element of surprise will be lacking. And even if it can be done, whether doing so will serve a useful purpose is also questionable.

Since 1945 hardly one year has gone by in which some voices — mainly American ones concerned about preserving Washington’s monopoly over nuclear weapons to the greatest extent possible — did not decry the terrible consequences that would follow if additional countries went nuclear. So far, not one of those warnings has come true. To the contrary: in every place where nuclear weapons were introduced, large-scale wars between their owners have disappeared.

General John Abizaid, the former commander of United States Central Command, is only the latest in a long list of experts to argue that the world can live with a nuclear Iran. Their views deserve to be carefully considered, lest Ahmadinejad’s fear-driven posturing cause anybody to do something stupid. [complete article]

Editor’s CommentMartin van Creveld, a world-renowned professor of military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has a habit of being bluntly truthful. This is what he said in an interview earlier this year:

“We are in no danger at all of having an Iranian nuclear weapon dropped on us. We cannot say so too openly, however, because we have a history of using any threat in order to get weapons … thanks to the Iranian threat, we are getting weapons from the U.S. and Germany.”

“Our armed forces are not the 30th strongest in the world, but rather the second or third… We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets that can launch them at targets in all directions. Most European capitals are targets of our air force … We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that this will happen before Israel goes under.”

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  1. I think that van Creveld’s estimation of the damage that Iran could do to be very, very myopic. For example, Iran could easily destroy a significant part Saudi Arabia oil infrastructure. Oil infrastructure is insanely easy to destroy and takes a long time to rebuild (sometimes as much as three years). Currently the world demand for oil is only slightly less than the supply and there is no oil producer that can increase their production to replace even a small part of the oil the Saudis produce. The US economy is EXTREMELY vulnerable to any increase in the price of oil and losing even just some of the Saudi oil will spike oil prices well above the point where the US economy would be severely damaged (depression anyone?) As for Iran’s rockets, van Creveld’s just dismisses them out of hand even though Iran has developed full design and production capability since the Iran/Iraq war. All the knowledge and technology to make an accurate and effective missile is fairly easy to get these days. Like many people, van Creveld, appears to assume that only Israeli and American engineers have the intelligence to make a decent missile, which is patently false, especially given all the non-US engineers the US universities have trained (because US student do not see a rewarding future working as a temporary contractor for a US company). The bottom line is the blow back from an attack on Iran will probably be much more substantial and more devastating to the US and Israel than van Creveld appears to think, but his premise that the world can live with a nuclear Iran is correct. One of the problems I have with most analysis of potential scenarios, is most commentators vastly over-estimate the real-world capabilities of the US and Israel and vastly under-estimate the capabilities of the other side. The reality is globalization and the sharing of knowledge on the Internet now provides every country with the technology (both hardware and software) and knowledge needed to make first class weapons and as I noted above there are well trained engineers all over the world that are very capable of applying the technology to weapons. Never under-estimate your opponents, otherwise you “will be shocked, shocked I tell you,” to borrow a line from an interesting war film.

  2. I found this quote in the attached interview interesting …

    “Most European capitals are targets of our air force … We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that this will happen before Israel goes under.”

    So, is he saying that if the world doesn’t play the game the way Israel wants, Israel will nuke everyone in sight? Does he realize that this will get every last Jew in the world killed? He needs to be reminded that Jews are a minuscule part of the world population and while Israel can do some fairly massive damage around the world, the blow back would be the elimination of most Jews around the world, probably even in the US.

    If I were a European nation I would be very direct and point out to Israel that attacking Europe would be total and complete suicide and remind Israel that going out in a blaze of retribution will not make a difference in the end because the Jews will still be dead and at least some of the rest of the world will continue on.

  3. David Habakkuk says:

    Paul Woodward, Spyguy:

    I think Paul is following a UPI article by Arnaud de Borchgrave, which gives a slightly misleading impression of van Creveld’s view. De Borchgrave puts together remarks on Iran, which come from a June 2007 interview in Playboy, with the apocalyptic comments about targeting European capitals which actually come from a 2003 interview in the Dutch magazine Elsevier.

    The apocalyptic tone of Creveld’s remarks has to be understood in context. He was saying that he personally advocated building a wall ‘so high that not even a bird could fly over it’ along the old border, but he doubted whether Israeli public opinion would wear this any longer — they would not surrender the gains of 1967 and wanted which would incorporate a large Palestinian population. Accordingly, the logic pointed to the expulsion of the Palestinians. Asked whether the world would ‘allow that kind of ethnic cleansing’, he came up with the remark about most European capitals being ‘targets for our air force’.

    You are dealing with a man in a state of apocalyptic despair. And I think also largely accounts for — though it cannot excuse — the silly and vicious remarks about having the ‘capacity to take the world down with us’, and the assurance that that this ‘will happen, before Israel goes under’.

    I partly agree with the suggestion that van Creveld underestimates what the Iranians could do. Among the things that worry experienced US military men — for example the former DIA Middle East chief Colonel W. Patrick Lang — is the acute vulnerability of the supply lines of the American forces in Iraq. See on this a discussion on Lang’s blog from April 2006, at http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2006/04/how_bad_could_i_1.html.

    I also think that Creveld talks complete nonsense about nuclear weapons. Among those who are most sceptical about the notion that they kept the peace in the Cold War are some of those who actually (unlike most Western security studies experts) studied Soviet military planning closely. I am thinking in particular of Raymond Garthoff, the scholar-diplomat who pioneered the academic study of Soviet military strategy, and Michael MccGwire, who headed the Soviet naval section of British Defence Intelligence in the mid-Sixties, before becoming a leading academic specialist on Soviet strategy.

    According to the figures given in the key NSC 68 paper of April 1950, the United States was then producing more than ten times as many motor vehicles as the Soviet Union. In a world without nuclear weapons, the Soviets would have had to expel American power from Europe to avoid the fate that had overtaken the Japanese, of being crushed under the immense weight of American military industrial power — and even if they succeeded in pushing the Americans out of Eurasia and keeping them out, the best they could hope for was a stalemate. Both Garthoff and MccGwire have brought out the implications of this — that Soviet planning for an offensive into Western Europe was not the product of offensive intentions, but contingency planning for a war the Soviets very much wanted to avoid. Unlike the Japanese in 1941, they were not risk takers, in general.

    I think if you look at the military technicalities, it is likely that the existence of nuclear weapons caused what would have been a stable politico-military balance to be replaced by a potentially high unstable one.

    The notion that the Cold War nuclear balance was stable was shown to be false by Bruce Blair in his 1993 study The Logic of Accidental War. He demonstrated conclusively that the common belief that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was postured for second-strike retaliation was wrong. For such a posture to be possible it would have been necessary to have confidence in the survivability of command and control under all-out nuclear attack. Practical military planners, both on the American and Soviet sides, never had such confidence. So both arsenals were configured on a launch-on-warning posture. And the relationship between two arsenals configured on such a posture is latently unstable.

    Nuclear planners face an insoluble dilemma. If you maintain effective central control, your arsenal can be disabled if the leadership is knocked out. If you devolve the authority and physical ability to launch your weapons, the chances of accidental launch become very great. There is no good solution to the dilemma.

    The arguments of Western historians and security studies academics are a major part of the problem we face. All their familiar verities about the peacekeeping properties of nuclear weapons are an incitement to proliferation.

    If any Iranian leader had prudential and moral doubts — and I think some of them almost certainly do — I could compile a memorandum, backed up with quotations from John Lewis Gaddis, Sir Lawrence Freedman, Tony Judt, as well as van Creveld, to squelch them. I think this is a sad state of affairs!

  4. Excellent comments from both David Habakkuk and “Spyguy”. Yes, I was taking the Crevald quotes from a UPI article by Arnaud de Borchgrave and wasn’t aware that statements from separate interviews were being strung together. Having now seen the 2003 interview from which Crevald’s threat to Europe is taken, my reading is that he is saying the world would not be able to intervene if Israel pursued a campaign of ethnic cleansing — it would prevent such an intervention by maintaining its “too dangerous to bother” posture. At the same time, Crevald says that he sees Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians as unwinnable: “I regard a total Israeli defeat as unavoidable. That will mean the collapse of the Israeli state and society. We’ll destroy ourselves.”

    The point of citing Crevald in the context of the purported threat from Iran is to counter the way in which the issue is currently being framed by Israel and its parrots in Washington. They say that the prospect of a nuclear Iran is worse than the prospect of war. Crevald on the other hand is willing to reverse the equation even though he sees Iran as a weak adversary.

    The underlying issue here is political – not military. The West has backed itself into a corner by adopting the position that a nuclear-armed Iran is wholly unacceptable. No one in office can turn around and say, “You know what? We really could live with a nuclear Iran.” The ability to say that, though, doesn’t depend on adopting Crevald’s sanguine view of nuclear-facilitated stability — simply an acknowledgment that Iran is not a suicidal state.

  5. Osama in Iran?

    The Islamic Republic of Iran represents a clear and present danger to America. We are facing new threats, new capabilities, with very old and familiar intentions.

    This is a regime whose leaders open official meetings with shouts of “Death to America.” This is a regime that has a long track record of murdering Americans, in Beirut, in Saudi Arabia, and in Iraq. Now this regime has acquired nuclear weapons capability.

    Simply put, al Qaeda would not exist today as an organized force without the active material support from Iran.

    Carlos Menendez