Iran, Israel and deterrence

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Is the Obama administration starting to think about policy for meeting the challenge of an Iran that has already gone nuclear?

In an interview this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested the United States would extend a defense umbrella “over the region” if  Iran does  develop nuclear weapons (read a VOA news report on her comments here).

That’s the clearest statement yet that Washington is  starting to think about strategies for how to deal with a nuclear Iran, and it apparently didn’t go down well in Israel.

Today Ha’aretz reported that Dan Meridor, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, said this:

“I heard, unenthusiastically, the Americans’ statement that they will defend their allies in the event that Iran arms itself with an atomic bomb, as if they have already reconciled with this possibility, and this is a mistake.  Now, we don’t need to deal with the assumption that Iran will attain nuclear weapons but to prevent this.”

Some Iran experts have been critical of U.S. officials for not working to develop containment strategies if current efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear don’t pay off.

But a few weeks ago a Jewish activist involved in the Iran issue told me this:  “Of course the deterrence issue is being talked about at State and Defense; they’re not idiots, they want to be ready if all our efforts fail. But they’re also not going to talk about it publicly at a time when they still think there’s a chance Iran can be stopped before they cross the line.”

But a deterrence policy doesn’t exactly thrill tiny Israel, where a single nuclear attack could wipe out a high proportion of the country’s population and which fears Iranian nukes could end up in the hands of terrorists – an enemy not as susceptible to the deterrence threat.

Many leading Iran experts say the mullahs in Tehran are pragmatists,  not suicidal nutcases, and unlikely to launch a nuclear attack when they know the results would be their own country’s annihilation.

But some pro-Israel activists point to apocalyptic statements by Iran’s leaders and argue there’s no assurance they wouldn’t, in fact, commit national suicide in pursuit of their version of redemption.

Iran was much on the mind of Netanyahu when he talked to leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Tuesday via teleconference. A call that some expected would be dominated by the intensifying debate over Jewish building in East Jerusalem focused mostly on the Iran threat and the broad issue of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Iran sanctions are also a top topic for members of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), in town for their annual Washington summit and a day of Capitol Hill lobbying.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.