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‘Israel can live with nuclear Iran just as US lives with more fearsome adversaries’

by Shmuel Rosner

May 5, 2012 | 7:11 am

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar, professor of security studies at Georgetown University and former CIA counter-terrorism expert, discusses Iran’s nuclear ambitions and global efforts to curtail them.

You recently wrote that “the absence of a deal after Istanbul or later rounds of talks is ‎likely to say no more about Iranian obduracy - although that will be the focus of countless ‎commentaries—than about our own”. Can you explain what you mean? How optimistic are ‎you about the current round of talks with Iran, and why?

Even before the Istanbul talks, voices within the United States (and to a lesser extent other ‎Western powers) were clamoring for what would be deal-killing positions. This particularly ‎involves the demand that Iran cease uranium enrichment altogether. Any such demand ‎deserves the adjective “obdurate,” given that it would be inconsistent with the rights of ‎countries to peaceful nuclear programs under the global nonproliferation regime and would ‎involve placing special constraints on Iran that are not placed on others. It is unlikely that any ‎Iranian leader would consider it politically feasible to agree to such a demand. ‎
There are other demands being voiced, such as ones involving the future of the underground ‎facility at Fordow, that if made an inflexible part of Western negotiating positions also might ‎be deal-killers. It is not reasonable to expect Iranian leaders to accept an agreement ‎specifically structured to maximize damage to his country’s facilities should the United ‎States, Israel, or anyone else later decide, notwithstanding the agreement, to launch an aerial ‎attack.‎

It is unclear to what extent those in the United States talking about such demands mistakenly ‎think Iran would agree to them, or instead are only interested in declaring negotiations to be a ‎failure. Probably it is some of each, depending on who exactly is talking. It also is unclear to ‎what extent such hardline posturing is shaping the negotiating positions of the Obama ‎administration or any of the other P5+1 governments. At a minimum it is a complicating ‎influence, especially amid a U.S. presidential election campaign.‎

There are ample grounds - not yet explored - for Iran and the P5+1 to reach an agreement ‎that will satisfy Iran’s interest in a peaceful nuclear program while satisfying the West’s ‎interests in maintaining sufficient safeguards against diversion of that program to military ‎purposes. It will take time to explore those grounds, with technical and detailed negotiations ‎about inspection arrangements and the like. That process has barely begun. There is good ‎reason to be optimistic about the results of negotiations as long as they are not short-‎circuited by impatience, inflexibility, or actions aimed at scuttling them.‎

You seem to readily accept the claim of those arguing that “an Iranian nuclear weapon ‎would not pose an existential threat to Israel” and reject those claiming the opposite. ‎Why?

Why is it that the country whose nuclear weapons capability is only a fearful gleam in ‎someone else’s eyes is spoken of as posing an existential threat to the country that already ‎has an arsenal of nuclear weapons that, by most outside estimates, number in the hundreds? ‎An Iranian nuclear weapon would not pose an existential threat to Israel mainly because ‎Iranians know that any use of such a weapon would result in a response that would incinerate ‎Iranian cities. That an Iranian nuclear weapon would not pose an existential threat to Israel is ‎not just one of a couple of competing “claims” but has been attested to by former and ‎current senior members of the Israeli security establishment.‎

You once wrote that “The Iranian nuclear issue only reconfirms the noncongruence of ‎U.S. and Israeli interests that should have been apparent from other issues. Most of those ‎issues revolve around the continued Israeli occupation and colonization of disputed land ‎inhabited by Palestinians.” This might raise the suspicion that your thinking on Iran might be ‎mired in your more general criticism of Israeli policies (some would probably suggest that it ‎is not criticism but general lack of sympathy). How would you respond to such a claim?

One of the chronic tendencies in public debate in the United States about any issue involving ‎Israel is that inputs to the discourse get pigeon-holed as coming from “pro-Israeli” or “anti-‎Israeli” quarters and are discounted, praised, or condemned as such. One unfortunate aspect ‎of this tendency is that there are important disagreements - which are debated more openly ‎and vigorously in Israel than in the United States - about what is or is not in Israel’s interests ‎and thus what merits the label “pro-Israeli”. Another unfortunate aspect is that the pigeon-‎holing is essentially an ad hominem form of argumentation that overlooks the merits and ‎weaknesses of whatever is being said specifically about the issue at hand, whether that issue ‎is the Iranian nuclear program or anything else.‎

As a U.S. citizen, I do not apologize for making U.S. interests the basis for the policy ‎analysis I offer. That analysis recognizes that U.S. interests are never congruent with the ‎interests of any other foreign country - not just Israel, but any country - and that it would be a ‎mistake for U.S. foreign policy to be shaped by passionate attachment to any foreign ‎country. But what I have written regarding the Iranian nuclear issue has also referred to Israeli ‎interests. Specifically I have noted - in agreement with figures within Israel whose dedication ‎to Israeli security cannot be questioned - that launching a military attack on Iran would be a ‎big mistake from the standpoint of Israel’s interests. It would stimulate the very Iranian ‎decision to build a bomb that we supposedly are trying to prevent, and it would lead Israel ‎ever more painfully down a path of regional isolation and perpetual warfare.‎

Similar principles apply to the other issue mentioned: the conflict with the Palestinians. What I ‎have written on this subject again starts with U.S. interests and with how the United States ‎does or does not have a stake in particular outcomes of this conflict. But I have also noted—‎again, in agreement with respected figures within Israel—that for this conflict to fester ‎unresolved is not in Israel’s own long-term interests. It is impossible for Israel to remain a ‎Jewish state and a democratic one if it clings to all of the land between the Mediterranean ‎and the Jordan River.‎

You invest a lot of effort explaining to your readers that Iran’s president never vowed to ‎‎“wipe Israel off the map”. Is it just about making sure the language that is used is accurate, ‎or do you really not see any evidence that Iran’s political leaders would like to see Israel ‎disappear and are willing to make a contribution to such an outcome?

Accuracy in language is important because inaccuracies - as they have in this case - lead to ‎outright falsehoods and broad public misunderstandings about what sort of problem we are ‎dealing with. Iranian leaders and especially President Ahmadinejad evidently see political ‎mileage to be gained, domestically and regionally, through their anti-Israeli invective (at least ‎as long as the conflict with the Palestinians and the issue of occupied territory, which ‎constitute the single biggest reason such invective strikes a chord, is unresolved). But ‎rhetoric is a lot different from policy or national interests.

Beyond the rhetoric, what indication ‎is there - in terms of either evidence of actual intentions, or imputation of intentions from ‎presumed interests—that Iranian leaders would want to eliminate Israel (if they could ‎somehow do that, which they can’t, without getting incinerated themselves)? If anything, the ‎incentives for those leaders work in the opposite direction. It is more politically ‎advantageous for Ahmadinejad to have Israel to kick around rhetorically than for him not to ‎have it. Similar incentives apply for Iran’s ally Hezbollah, which owes the position it has ‎achieved today in Lebanese politics in large part to being able to pose as the protector of ‎Lebanon from Israel.‎

In your recent provocative Washington Monthly essay you stated that “we can live with a ‎nuclear Iran”. Can you explain how, and do you also think Israel could “live” with a nuclear ‎Iran?

Israel can live with a nuclear Iran the same way the United States and others have lived for ‎decades with nuclear-armed adversaries more potent and more fearsome than Iran, such as ‎Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. It’s called deterrence. At its peak during the Cold War ‎the USSR’s nuclear arsenal had about 45,000 warheads, which was more than enough to ‎obliterate the United States several times over, despite a land area much larger than that of ‎Israel. If mere possession by an adversary of nuclear weapons is enough to raise questions ‎about livability, then bearing in mind the strategic realities of arsenals in the Middle East - and also considering who has been threatening to attack whom - it would make at least as ‎much sense to ask how Iran can live with a nuclear Israel.‎

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