Using only a red felt-tip pen and a cartoon that seemed straight out of Danger Mouse or Wacky Races, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood on the podium of the United Nations General Assembly and drew Israel’s red line in the face of the grave strategic threat facing his country. If Iran enriched enough uranium to twenty percent or higher, making it too difficult to prevent a breakout to the bomb, Israel would strike. Netanyahu estimated that point would be reached, if diplomacy and sanctions failed, in the spring or summer of 2013.
He was deadly serious, but within hours a satirical response had exploded cross the Internet. The meme of Bibi-as-warmonger returned with a vengeance. Ami Kaufman at the anti-Zionist website +972 mocked “Bib E. Coyote” who “had a lot of people worldwide holding their stomachs with laughter as he held his Looney Tune ACME bomb.” The New Yorker initiated a competition to caption the image of Netanyahu standing at the podium with his felt-tip pen, the editor telling readers, “With the justification that the ridiculous deserves ridicule, I invite you to pile it on.”
Some of the responses to the editor’s invitation were quite funny. But there is an intellectual red line at stake here. On one side, there’s laughing at Netanyahu’s cartoon. On the other is laughing off the fact of the Iranian threat.
Many in the West have been on that side—the wrong side—for a long time. They remind me of the dreamy citizens of Oran in Albert Camus’ anti-fascist novel The Plague. Complacent, refusing to believe in either the plague (a metaphor for fascism) or the rats that bore it, the sleepy Oranians embraced instead the comforts of denial (“there are no rats”) and projection (turning on those who pointed out the rats were real). And they died accordingly.
Today, others, this time in the real world, refuse to face inconvenient facts. A year ago, Mehdi Hasan, the political editor of the UK left-wing political weekly the New Statesman, warned his readers, “Don’t listen to the nuclear nonsense.” Hasan was writing after the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported that it had “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program” and that “information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” Only a few weeks ago in the Jerusalem Report, Leslie Susser wrote, “There is no special need to sound public alarm bells now.”
Such denial makes the Israeli prime minister’s cartoon bomb look sensible by comparison.
The mirth-filled international reaction to the “Bibi bomb” showcased what Sigmund Freud called “the pleasure principle”—our tendency to relieve tension by hallucinatory wish-fulfillment. What Netanyahu did on the podium at the United Nations was to reassert “the reality principle”: the necessity of accommodating to the facts of the external world.
He confronted the world with six facts, to be precise:
Fact 1. Iran really is an eliminationist anti-Semitic regime that routinely threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demonizes the state of Israel and has called for it to be “erased from the page of time.” He calls Zionists “the most detested people in all humanity” and the murder of six million Jews during World War II “a myth.”
Iran and its proxies have attacked Israeli and Jewish targets around the world, from the 1992 terrorist attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and on the Argentine Jewish communal building in 1994 to attacks in February 2012 on Israeli diplomats in Georgia, Thailand, and India.
The Iranian regime’s core leadership is committed to an irrational messianic political religion that is, insofar as Israel is concerned, genocidal in nature.
Fact 2. This regime is close to having a nuclear capability. The IAEA concluded in August that Iran had more than ninety kilograms of twenty-percent enriched uranium, and was producing fifteen kilos of the same each month (you need two hundred and twenty-five kilos, give or take, to produce twenty-five kilos of high-enriched uranium—enough for one bomb). As more centrifuges are being installed, the red line Netanyahu drew on his cartoon will be reached by spring or summer of 2013.
The prime minister had history on his side. In 2002, the existence of major nuclear sites that Iran had kept hidden from the IAEA, in direct contravention of its international commitments, was disclosed, including underground uranium enrichment halls at Natanz the size of ten football fields and a heavy water reactor at Arak able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Neither facility was needed for Iran’s civil nuclear power program.
Seven years later, Britain, France and the US announced that their security services had discovered another hitherto secret uranium enrichment plant under a mountain at Fordow, near Qom, able to produce weapons-grade uranium. The IAEA has since produced a major report detailing Iran’s secret development of technologies for nuclear triggers and warhead designs.
Iran has spurned every offer from the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—Britain, the US, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany) to resolve the standoff, from wide-ranging cooperation in economic, political, and technological fields to a deal proposed by the IAEA and backed by the US, Russia, and France to swap its low-enriched uranium for fuel rods. Recent meetings in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow resulted only in an Iranian rejection of a deal to stop its higher enrichment program in return for a pause on sanctions.
Fact 3. Iran is absolutely not just Israel’s problem. The Iranian regime would use nuclear weapons not only in its death wish for Israel but also to pursue regional hegemony over the Gulf, the source of two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves, threatening global oil markets.
Fact 4. If Iran gets the bomb, the likely result would be a Mideast arms race as other Arab states would feel pressured to obtain weapons to deter Tehran. Saudi Arabia would likely be first, perhaps buying off the shelf from Pakistan. In 2011, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, said that his country might consider producing nuclear weapons if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon. Could the credibility of the international nonproliferation regime survive the defiance of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and clear US and European opposition?
Fact 5. It is widely argued that an Iranian bomb would throw a protective shield over its regional terrorist proxies. Hezbollah’s arsenal of forty to fifty thousand short- and medium-range rockets is supplied by Iran, as is the C-208 anti-naval missile, advanced anti-tank missiles, and anti-aircraft systems. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other armed groups in the Gaza Strip are all funded by Iran (although Hamas has distanced itself from the mullahs’ support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad). 122mm Grad rockets and advanced anti-tank missiles are smuggled from Iran into the Gaza Strip along with technological know-how to build improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Among the arms shipments intercepted in recent years were those aboard the Karine A in January 2002 (fifty tons of weapons from Iran and Hezbollah to the Palestinian Authority under Yasir Arafat, including short-range Katyusha rockets, anti-tank missiles, and high explosives), the Francop in November 2009 (thousands of medium-range 107mm and 122mm Katyusha rockets, armor-piercing artillery, mortar bombs, hand grenades, and ammunition for Kalashnikov rifles destined for Hezbollah), and the Victoria cargo vessel in March 2011 (forty tons of advanced weaponry, including anti-ship missiles destined for Gaza).
After acquiring nuclear-weapon status, Iran would be able to expand this kind of activity with relative impunity.
Fact 6. This one lies in the future. An Iranian regime able to combine a nuclear capability with an inter-continental ballistic missile threat would be a direct threat to Western Europe and North America. In 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron, reporting intelligence from his national security adviser Kim Darroch, told a parliamentary committee that “there are signs that the Iranians want to have some sort of intercontinental missile capability. So we have to be clear this is a threat potentially much more widely.”
In short, the “Bibi Bomb” at the UN did not stem from a desire to frighten Israelis on a daily basis, or embarrass President Obama, or provoke a needless war. The cartoon dramatized a genuine threat in terms that even a complacent Oranian from Camus’ novel might “get”: an unstable and ideologically extreme regime that threatens Israel with genocide, seeks regional hegemonic force, and pulses out hatred to the West is close to acquiring nuclear weapons capability. This threatens to change the balance of power in the region, extend Iranian control over the Gulf states, fire the starting gun on a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, and protect and embolden its terrorist proxies.
Nonetheless, there are some serious objections to Bibi’s red lines. Retired Brigadier General Michael Herzog, for instance, the former chief of staff to Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, acknowledges that there is a critical threat “that justifies drawing lines like these.” But Herzog also sees potential disadvantages to the Netanyahu presentation.
First, it seems to say to your opponent, you are permitted to advance to this point, ceding to him initiative and decision about when to push on further. Second, such a red line boxes you in: “If he goes beyond the red line you’ve set, you have to stop him or risk eroding your deterrence.” He argues it is possible to overcome both disadvantages but only if certain conditions are met: “The lines have to refer to a real strategic challenge; the person drawing them has to be determined to follow through even at the price of a military confrontation; and the other side must understand well, and believe, that if it goes beyond them, it will risk a confrontation of that kind.” In addition, “all the other relevant players—in our case, the United States and the international community—also have to see things in the same way.”
Herzog’s question is: are those conditions in place? His answer: probably not. It is unclear that Iran believes Israel has a usable deterrent—“especially in view of the public gaps between Israel and the United States with regard to the red lines.” And by making the red line public in the way he did, Netanyahu has ensured that a retreat will be a public humiliation for the Iranian regime. And by demanding Obama sign on to it, he forced the president to step away from him to retain his freedom to maneuver, widening the gap between the two allies.
Third, Herzog worries that drawing the red line at twenty percent uranium enrichment may have been a misstep. It could allow Iran to feel immune from attack if it continues to develop other “dangerous threshold capabilities” such as “the enrichment of uranium to a level of 3.5 percent; the building of additional sites; the fortifying of sites against attacks; operating a new generation of centrifuges; pushing forward on the plutonium nuclear fuel track (which has already advanced to a worrisome degree); and developing a weapons infrastructure.” Pointedly, Herzog asks, “Wasn’t it Israel that claimed to the United States, and rightly so, that the Iranians should not be allowed to continue developing a variety of threshold capabilities while remaining immune from attack, nor be allowed to choose the conditions for a breakthrough to nuclear weapons?” Furthermore, by drawing the red line at twenty percent nuclear enrichment, Israel may have weakened its justification for carrying out an attack on any other grounds.
These are serious objections. But are they decisive?
Interviewed this summer by Haaretz, Ehud Barak—thinly disguised as “the decision-maker”—made this observation: “If Iran goes nuclear, everything here will be different. Everything. We will shift into a different state of existence . . . If Iran’s nuclearization is not halted now, before long we will find ourselves in a Middle East that has all gone nuclear.”
That kind of thinking strikes a terribly discordant note in an international intellectual culture that values above all else the ironic, the relativist, and the pacific. And it is not likely to win first prize in the New Yorker’s caption competition. But it is no less true for all that.
I believe that a nuclearized Iran would return us to the world of Hans Morgenthau, the mid-century theoretician of international relations in a nuclear age. Despite his reputation as a Kissingerian realist, as William Scheuerman’s 2009 study of his work shows, Morgenthau was sensitive to the radical instability of deterrence and the structural unpredictability of “mutual assured destruction.” By taming the atom, Morgenthau thought, we had “rendered war no longer a rational instrument of foreign policy,” and blurred the line between interstate rivalry and incineration. An “unprecedented revolutionary force” had been unleashed by nuclear weaponry, although the actual use of force was likely to be strategically counterproductive, producing universal destruction. Nuclear weapons had “destroyed the protective function of the nation state” because deterrence was subject to miscalculation; its psychological dynamics were opaque and it was only a matter of time before they broke down, leading to a fatal miscalculation.
Morgenthau’s warnings about a nuclearized environment should sound alarm bells for what the manager of Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system program Uzi Rubin describes as a “tiny country with a small population surrounded on three sides by substantially larger states and overwhelmingly larger populations.” Rubin notes that Israel has, accordingly, “bred an offensive rather than a defensive military doctrine”—precisely the kind of doctrine that makes little sense in a world that is no longer defined by a stable, global, bipolar nuclear standoff but a chaotic regional proliferation of nuclear weapon states.
Of course, missile defense is needed to ensure “the survivability of the retaliation assets.” But can we really assume that these assets will prevent an attack in the first place once we can no longer rely on the logic of mutual assured destruction? Rubin believes we can, because Iran is not a “suicidal aggressor.” Perhaps Rubin is correct (though I doubt it). Yet according to Morgenthau’s thesis, that may not matter. What is going on in the heads of those fingering the nuclear trigger may matter less than the terrible destructive power of the weapons themselves and the instability and the psychological tensions built into the standoff they create between those who hold them.
In other words, as difficult as it is to defend Israel in a nuclear-free Middle East, Ehud Barak is correct: it really will be a “different world” if the region goes nuclear. That is why Israel struck the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981. It is why Israel took out Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear facility in 2007. And it is why—if sanctions, military threats, covert ops, and diplomacy do not stop the Iranian program and the Ahmadinejad regime crosses the red line Bibi drew in New York—Israel may, with or without the United States, have to strike again.
Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: For a deeper understanding of Israel and the region. He is a senior research associate at the London-based Foreign Policy Centre and a World Affairs blogger.