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Playing Dice With Israel

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From my conversation with Professor Daniel Drezner yesterday:

HH: Do you believe Ahmadinejad, in possession of a nuke, would use it against Israel? Do you, Professor Drezner?

DD: No, because I don’t think Ahmadinejad could actually launch the nuke. And this is a key thing. It’s not that he wouldn’t want to. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m not sure,  there’s a tendency, within the West in particular, to blow up Ahmadinejad as being more powerful than he actually is. The guy that you care about in Iran is Ali Khamenei, who’s the grand cleric.

HH: Actually, I care about Yazdi, because Khamenei might be on his way out, right?

DD: Right, right. I mean, it’s a question of who replaces him. But I mean, the fact that Ahmadinejad got killed in the municipal elections that were just held suggests to me that in fact, you know, hopefully, his power is on the wane. And the fact that there were protestors at the Holocaust conference that he held, and the fact that those protests were shown on state television, is really what’s particularly telling.

HH: Now Benjamin Netanyahu said today in Tel Aviv, told 60 foreign ministers that they aim for a one thousand year Islamic reich. If you’re wrong, aren’t you gambling with the existence of Israel by suggesting containment might be, or that some of the grand policy…not you, but some of these theorists are out there pushing realism at the expense of Israel’s viability, and an existential threat across striking distance?

DD: No, I think it’s a risk. There’s no question about that, and realists have to be appropriate about this. They have to say look, we are acknowledging that there might be the risk that someone like Ahmadinejad might get control of nuclear weapons, and might act in an irrational manner, because let’s face it. If Iran launches nuclear weapons against Israel, nuclear weapons are going to get launched against Iran.

HH: Oh, you bet.

DD: I don’t know who’s going to do it. So this again, is the logic of mutually assured destruction. Surely, the Iranians would not therefore do it, because they recognize what the consequences are…

HH: Unless they’re millennialists who believe it brings the occulted imam back.

DD: No, that’s correct. If you’ve got someone who really does not care about the corporeal world, as it were, then yes, it’s an interesting possibility, and it’s something that realists have to acknowledge as a potential pitfall to their strategy.

HH: Are they? That’s really what I come back to. My great frustration with my friends in the realist camp is that they just don’t seem to me to ever want to engage seriously with the idea that they are playing dice with Israel.

DD: I think again, usually, the realists that I would talk to will usually give one of two answers. The first one is, the one I said before, is that it’s not clear that even if Ahmadinejad is crazy, that he actually has the power to do this. Politics in Iran is such that it’s not clear that this is the guy who’s actually got his finger on the button. And so therefore, to some extent, he’s less relevant than all this sort of blatherings about the Holocaust, and about wiping Israel off the map, suggest he is. I mean, certainly, it’s disconcerting that he’s the president and saying all this stuff. But if he doesn’t have his finger on the button, then it doesn’t matter.

Professor Drezner’s candor is reassuring and his grasp of the realist’s thinking is complete.

But what if he or the realists are wrong about Ahmadinejad’s power, or about Khamenei’s or Khamenei’s successor’s intent? 

Not only would that error lead to a devastating blow against Israel, and perhaps the U.S., but most certainly to devastating counter-strikes by Israel against its enemies, beginning with Tehran. 

The casualness with which realists dismiss the horrific consequences of a miscalculation on their part is the most persuasive argument against trusting them.  Every argument about what to do with Iran that does not begin with a recognition of the risks involved with Iran going critical is a waste of time, like debating Hitler’s trade policies in 1938.



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