We may have a winner in the contest for the most distressing op-ed ever run by The New York Times. Benny Morris, a revered left-leaning Israeli historian, explains, in a certain tone, how upcoming Israel-Iran brinkmanship will play out. First, Israel will launch a conventional air strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, probably before the U.S. presidential inauguration. It probably won’t be enough to fully halt Iran’s presumed bomb progress. And Iran will retaliate against Israel, striking cities (maybe with nasty chemical or biological weapons) and egging on terrorists. So, with both countries badly battered, and Iran’s program ongoing — and perhaps hastened — what comes next?
Such a situation would confront Israeli leaders with two agonizing, dismal choices. One is to allow the Iranians to acquire the bomb and hope for the best — meaning a nuclear standoff, with the prospect of mutual assured destruction preventing the Iranians from actually using the weapon. The other would be to use the Iranian counterstrikes as an excuse to escalate and use the only means available that will actually destroy the Iranian nuclear project: Israel’s own nuclear arsenal.
Given the fundamentalist, self-sacrificial mindset of the mullahs who run Iran, Israel knows that deterrence may not work as well as it did with the comparatively rational men who ran the Kremlin and White House during the cold war. They are likely to use any bomb they build, both because of ideology and because of fear of Israeli nuclear pre-emption. Thus an Israeli nuclear strike to prevent the Iranians from taking the final steps toward getting the bomb is probable. The alternative is letting Tehran have its bomb. In either case, a Middle Eastern nuclear holocaust would be in the cards.
No matter what, “Middle Eastern nuclear holocaust”! Sounds great.
That is, unless Iran doesn’t have a leadership corps of, quote, “fundamentalist, self-sacrificial … mullahs” willing to exchange their lives, and those of millions of innocent Iranians, for the sake of destroying Israel. So this ultimately unknowable question—is Iran deterable?—remains the biggest on the table. But if they are, Morris’s first scenario, as unpleasant as a volatile region balanced on the uneasy tightrope of mutually agreed destruction may be, clearly has a lot more to speak for it.
So let’s see a new round of serious press exploration of that topic in both the opinion and hard news arenas. (One template could be this clear-headed look at the true power of President Ahmadinejad vis-a-vis the ruling Ayatollah Khamenei that the Times ran on the eve of the former’s New York visit.) If Morris’s predicted timeline is anything close to right, Americans need the information to make up our minds as best we can. And we need it urgently.