Charles Krauthammer has accused President Obama of not being seriously concerned about Israel’s security because the President seems disinclined to make hard military threats against Iran. It is surprising that Mr. Krauthammer could make such accusations when he is calling for aggressive military brinksmanship that would expose Israel to the gravest strategic risks.
Game theory teaches us the importance of looking at any potential conflict from the perspectives of all the parties involved. If Israel’s security depends on Iranian decisions, then anyone who really cares about Israel must try to look at the international situation from Iran’s perspective as well.
There are good reasons why Iranians should prefer not to have nuclear weapons. First, as Thomas Friedman has noted, Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons could provoke other neighboring countries to get their own nuclear weapons, to preserve the regional balance of power. The resulting regional proliferation of nuclear weapons would make everyone in the region less safe. Second, if Iran had nuclear weapons then Iranians would face risks of nuclear retaliation to a terrorist nuclear attack against Israel, even if the terrorists might have gotten their nuclear weapon from somewhere else. These are two very significant reasons why Iranians could become less secure by acquiring nuclear weapons. So what could be the advantages of nuclear weapons for Iran?
One potential advantage is that nuclear weapons might open some opportunities for profitable expansionism, perhaps taking control of some weak oil-rich neighbor in a moment of political instability. If Saddam Hussein had had nuclear weapons when he invaded Kuwait in 1991, he might have been able to hold Kuwait by threatening that any counter-attack would escalate into a nuclear war. Such potential for opportunistic expansionism would diminish, however, as other countries in the region acquired their own nuclear capabilities to defend the status quo.
The more important advantage is that nuclear weapons could make Iran immune to foreign invasion. This is a serious concern that needs to be recognized. In the past decade, the United State has invaded two countries that border Iran. American politicians and public opinion leaders have regularly insisted that the possibility of military action against Iran should be “on the table.” Keeping it “on the table” means making it something that Iranians have to worry about. And as long as they have to worry about even a small chance of an American invasion which could have been deterred by nuclear weapons, the people of Iran, even opponents of the current regime, have at least one very significant reason to want their country to acquire nuclear weapons. (Or at least to create some ambiguity about their nuclear capability.)
So when prominent critics of President Obama, such as Mr Krauthammer, call for America to threaten military action against Iran, they are actually reinforcing Iran’s political determination to get its own nuclear arsenal. If they were truly concerned about security for Israel or anyone else in the region, they would not be so eager to make such dangerously destabilizing threats.
Once we recognize the potential motivations for a country like Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, we can begin to look seriously for deterrent policies that address these motivations. A more effective way for America to deter Iran from getting nuclear weapons would be to (1) announce that America would offer broad military security agreements to Iran’s neighbors if Iran acquired nuclear weapons and (2) offer real American friendship to Iran if it complies with international standards of nuclear nonproliferation. A rapprochement between American and Iran would open up the possibility of cooperation for shared interests in stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq, and it would eliminate Iran’s only real reason to make trouble for America’s ally Israel.
Although they have no common border, the security of Israel and the security of Iran have come to depend on each other. Efforts to assure the security of both nations deserve bipartisan support in America.