One of the arguments often made in favour of bombing Iran to cripple its nuclear program is this: The mullahs in Tehran believe it is their consecrated duty to destroy Israel and so are building nuclear weapons to launch at Tel Aviv.
It’s beyond a doubt that the Iranian regime would like to bring about
the destruction of Israel. However, the mullahs are also men
determined, more than anything, to maintain their hold on absolute
Which is why it’s unlikely that they would immediately use their new
weapons against Israel. An outright attack on Israel - a country
possessing as many as 200 nuclear weapons - would lead to the
obliteration of Tehran, the deaths of millions, and the destruction of
Iran’s military and industrial capabilities.
The mullahs know this. But here’s the problem: It may not matter. The
threat of a deliberate nuclear attack pales in comparison with the
chance that a nuclear-armed Iran could accidentally trigger a
cataclysmic exchange with Israel.
The experts who study this depressing issue seem to agree that a
Middle East in which Iran has four or five nuclear weapons would be
dangerously unstable and prone to warp-speed escalation.
Here’s one possible scenario for the not-so-distant future:
Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, launches a cross-border attack into
Israel, or kills a sizable number of Israeli civilians with conventional
rockets. Israel responds by invading southern Lebanon, and promises, as
it has in the past, to destroy Hezbollah. Iran, coming to the defense
of its proxy, warns Israel to cease hostilities, and leaves open the
question of what it will do if Israel refuses to heed its demand.
Dennis Ross, who until recently served as President Barack Obama’s
Iran point man on the National Security Council, notes Hezbollah’s
political importance to Tehran.
“The only place to which the Iranian government successfully exported
the revolution is to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Ross told me. “If it looks
as if the Israelis are going to destroy Hezbollah, you can see Iran
threatening Israel, and they begin to change the readiness of their
forces. This could set in motion a chain of events that would be like
‘Guns of August’ on steroids.”
Imagine that Israel detects a mobilization of Iran’s rocket force or
the sudden movement of mobile missile launchers. Does Israel assume the
Iranians are bluffing, or that they are not? And would Israel have time
to figure this out?
Or imagine the opposite: Might Iran, which will have no second-strike
capability for many years - that is, no reserve of nuclear weapons to
respond with in an exchange - feel compelled to attack Israel first,
knowing that it has no second chance?
Bruce Blair, the co-founder of the nuclear disarmament group Global
Zero and an expert on nuclear strategy, told me that in a sudden crisis
Iran and Israel might each abandon traditional peacetime safeguards,
making an accidental exchange more likely.
“A confrontation that brings the two nuclear-armed states to a
boiling point would likely lead them to raise the launch- readiness of
their forces - mating warheads to delivery vehicles and preparing to
fire on short notice,” he said. “Missiles put on hair-trigger alert also
obviously increase the danger of their launch and release on false
warning of attack -- false indications that the other side has initiated
Then comes the problem of misinterpreted data, Blair said.
“Intelligence failures in the midst of a nuclear crisis could readily
lead to a false impression that the other side has decided to attack,
and induce the other side to launch a preemptive strike.”
Blair notes that in a crisis it isn’t irrational to expect an attack,
and this expectation makes it more likely that a leader will read the
worst into incomplete intelligence.
“This predisposition is a cognitive bias that increases the danger
that one side will jump the gun on the basis of incorrect information,”
Ross told me that Iran’s relative proximity to Israel and the total
absence of ties between the two countries make the situation even more
“This is not the Cold War,” he said. “In this situation we don’t have
any communications channels. Iran and Israel have zero communications.
And even in the Cold War we nearly had a nuclear war. We were much
closer than we realized.”
The answer to this predicament is to deny Iran nuclear weapons, but
not through an attack on its nuclear facilities, at least not now. “The
liabilities of preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear program vastly
outweigh the benefits,” Blair said. “But certainly Iran’s program must
be stopped before it reaches fruition with a nuclear weapons delivery
Ross argues that the Obama administration’s approach -- the
imposition of steadily more debilitating sanctions -- may yet work.
There’s a chance, albeit slim, that he may be right: New sanctions are
just beginning to bite and, combined with an intensified cyberwar and
sabotage efforts, they might prove costly enough to deter Tehran.
But opponents of military action make a mistake in arguing that a nuclear Iran is a containable problem. It is not.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national
correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)