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War Between Israel and Iran Isn’t Inevitable

Unless Israel wants to guarantee that Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it won't attack Iran.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrongly imagines that war between Israel and Iran is “almost inevitable”:

And here is a sad truth: An Israeli war with Iran has become almost inevitable, and the Obama administration has played a big role in us getting to that point.

Gobry makes a fair point that the Libyan war probably made reaching a final nuclear deal with Iran harder. This is one of the things that critics of the Libyan war said at the time, and Gobry has made this point before. Even so, the Libyan intervention did not prevent the negotiation of the interim deal from happening, and it didn’t stop negotiations from continuing after that. If the Libyan war gave Iran’s government another reason to doubt that the U.S. would honor its agreements, that hasn’t stopped negotiations from proceeding.

The argument gets weaker from there. Gobry cites the Ukraine crisis as another disincentive for Iran to accept a deal on the nuclear issue:

Even though there’s not much the West can or should do about Ukraine, the lesson of the Ukraine drama is that Ukraine should not have given up its nukes.

There are a few reasons why this is incorrect. First, Ukraine couldn’t have afforded to keep or maintain its own nuclear arsenal, so keeping these weapons was never a real option. Agreeing to get rid of their nuclear weapons was the only realistic course of action for Ukraine’s government at the time. Second, even if Ukraine had somehow managed to hang on to its nukes and properly maintained them this would not have guaranteed protection against Russian interference and incursions. As Robert Farley points out in an interesting article on the lessons of the Falklands War, possessing nuclear weapons is no guarantee against conventional aggression by a neighbor. He also cites the experience of Israel in 1973, and he could just as well have added the 1999 Kargil war between Pakistan and India. In all of those cases, the attacking states were defeated by conventional means, but the nuclear-weapons states were not protected from conventional attack by possessing nuclear weapons.

A nuclear-armed Ukraine would not have been less vulnerable to the sort of subversion and interference that Russia has engaged in over the last six months. It is not as if Ukraine would launch a nuclear first strike on Russia over its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, since such a course of action would represent insane overkill and would lead to overwhelming retaliation that would destroy the country. Indeed, if Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons it would probably have caused Russia to be quicker to interfere in Ukraine’s affairs because of the fear of such weapons in the hands of what Moscow considered to be a hostile government. The Ukrainian and Iranian cases are a poor match overall:

The size alone of the Ukraine arsenal circa 1990s makes it a poor analogue to nonproliferation efforts vis-à-vis pre-nuclear or tipping point states, e.g., Iran, even at breakout.

On top of all this, there is no evidence that the Iranian government interprets the Ukrainian case as a cautionary tale against making a deal on the nuclear issue. So it’s not at all obvious that Iran has been so discouraged by these examples that it won’t conclude a comprehensive deal.

That brings us to the question of whether Israel will attack Iran anyway. Gobry bases most of this part of his argument around the frankly preposterous idea that the Iranian government may be prepared to commit national suicide:

Well, sometimes, people really are that irrational and fanatical. We don’t know if Iran’s leaders fit that description, but the Iran doves — think European diplomats and Western columnists — who categorically assume Iran’s leaders cannot possibly be this crazy are forgetting history.

Some people may be so self-destructive, but the reality is that no state has ever been this irrational and fanatical. It is one thing to say that there have been aggressive governments that waged overly ambitious conventional wars that have resulted in their destruction, and it is an entirely different thing to say that a government would knowingly invite its own annihilation–and that of its entire nation–for the sake of destroying another country. No government–not even the much more nightmarish government of North Korea–is so irrational or fanatical. The Iranian regime desires one thing above all else, which is to stay in power, and it can’t very well do that by starting a nuclear war that would definitely result in its destruction. Gobry is basing his analysis on an ideological fantasy and ignoring the evidence of what nuclear-weapons states have actually done for the last seventy years.

Gobry goes on to insist that no responsible Israeli government could take the chance that this is wrong. I don’t think that’s true, but the more relevant question is whether Israel could achieve anything by attacking Iran. The answer to that seems fairly clear: unless Israel wants to guarantee that Iran definitely acquires nuclear weapons and sooner rather than later, it won’t launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel would be extremely foolish to attack Iran when such an attack would almost certainly result in the outcome that the attack is supposed to prevent. Since I don’t assume the Israeli government to be especially irrational, either, an Israeli attack on Iran is not inevitable, and I would go so far as to say that I don’t think it all that likely.