August 19, 2019

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

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.‎