Among many letters to the editor printed in today’s NY Times was one which refers to the Iranian regime’s “genocidal ambitions” aimed at Israel. The writer of course was reflecting the widespread belief that Iran’s rulers are dedicated to the destruction of Israel, that Israel is “existentially threatened” by Iran. That Iran is dedicated to Israel’s destruction is is one of those mantras that get repeated so often people take it to be universally acknowledged fact. Since that mantra is at the heart of objections to the important prospective nuclear deal with Iran, it deserves closer examination than it typically gets. It’s one of those universally acknowledged “facts” that dissolve under scrutiny.
Yes, both the former Iraqi president, Ahmadinejad, and its supreme ruler have made statements in the past indicating that they would be happy to see the state of Israel disappear. That is a sentiment that they undoubtedly share with a large part of the rest of the Muslim world. But, as I have pointed out before, the political dissolution of a state in no way implies the physical destruction of its people. No Iranian leader has ever expressed genocidal aims with regard to Israel or any other country. Nor has any Iranian leader ever said that Iran would or should take military action to destroy the state of Israel. There is a huge difference between a concrete foreign policy objective and a wishful fantasy. The assertion that Iran is dedicated to the destruction of Israel conflates the two.
Of course, no nation can ignore expressions of hostility by another, and Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah certainly threatens Israeli interests. (Israel is far from innocent in these conflicts, but that’s another story.) Any nation would prefer that its enemies be weaker rather than stronger. So, it’s natural for Israel to be concerned about the prospect of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, it’s also natural for Bibi Netanyahu to inflate the calamitous implications of such a prospect. Let’s put aside the question of whether the impending deal makes that prospect more or less likely: what if Iran did get to build a bomb? If they were to contemplate using it against Israel, Iran’s leaders would also have to contemplate an Israeli nuclear arsenal of not one or two or ten weapons, but a couple of hundred. In other words, they would have to consider the certainty of overwhelming, annihilating retaliation. There is no evidence that Iran’s religious or political leaders are suicidally inclined. That, undoubtedly, is why former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo several years ago denied that an Iranian bomb would pose an existential threat to Israel. His successor, Meir Dagan, has expressed similar views.
So, the endlessly repeated claim that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel is an example of threat inflation—an ancient favored tactic of statesmen seeking to justify their own less than benign intentions. Bibi, a master of threat inflation, managed in his speech to Congress to compare the Iranians both to the Nazis and to Haman, the Persian viceroy who sought to wipe out the Jews 2,500 years ago.
Having disposed of one dubious truism, let’s tackle another—the universal assumption that Iran does certainly want to build a nuclear bomb. The fact is, we simply don’t know that that is true. There is no doubt that as a matter of national interest and pride Iran wants a nuclear capacity at least equal to the enrichment capabilities now possessed by dozens of countries, but it is not clear that possessing nuclear weapons would serve Iran’s interests. Iran’s supreme ruler has actually issued a fatwa (religious decree) banning nuclear weapons as inconsistent with Islam. We might be skeptical about his sincerity, but the fatwa is consistent with his predecessor’s refusal, based on religious objections, to respond in kind when Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran during their war in the 1980s.
It’s always comforting to demonize one’s enemies, and there’s no doubt that Iran’s people suffer under a scarily repressive theocracy. But we should at least consider the possibility that the regime in Teheran falls somewhere short of absolute evil.