The United States, Israel, and Iran: Defusing an "Existential" Threat

By Chuck Freilich

Iran is an existential threat to Israel. This apocalyptic warning call has become a mantra continually repeated by virtually all Israeli leaders and defense officials and has been adopted by much of the U.S. national security establishment. President George W. Bush even warned that Iran’s declared intention of destroying Israel could lead to World War III.

There is no doubt that Iran poses a severe threat to Israel, not only in the nuclear field, but what kind of danger does its nuclear program constitute? Is Israel’s future in imminent danger if Iran goes nuclear? The answer is probably not. Although somewhat reassuring, this response is less than satisfying.

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נעמן said...

A sober and comprehensive analysis

Martin Senn said...

Although Chuck Freilich attempts to set himself off from the “mantra continually repeated by virtually all Israeli leaders and defense officials”, he ends up repeating the very same mantra, although in a more cautious tone.

The argument that “Iranian rationality … may simply be different than that of the West” confounds two dimensions of decision-making: mode and contents. If rationality is defined as the establishing of a internally consistent hierarchy of values and value-maximizing behavior on the basis of this hierarchy, then it is not rationality per se that is different but the contents of the hierarchy of values. It would be perfectly rational to destroy Israel and to accept retaliation and destruction of Iran as a functioning society, if the latter has a higher value than the existence of the Islamic Republic. It is therefore not a question of differing rationality or irrationality but of goals/values that are not shared by Israel, the USA, and others. Still, the past has shown that the ultimate value of Iran’s leadership is the preservation of the Islamic Republic as a divine and revolutionary experiment. This, in turn, casts doubt on Freilich’s assessment of the leadership as being apocalyptic.

Moreover, the “element of doubt” concerning the leadership’s rationality is not confined to the Islamic Republic. As was shown by a number of scholars, rational decision-making is inhibited by perceptional errors, stress and a number of other factors. Hence, this “element of doubt” also has to be (and is) taken into account in the case of “other” nuclear weapons states. The past has shown – and this is also acknowledged by Freilich – that Iran’s leaders have been engaged in rational decision-making that attaches greater value to national than to religious interests. So there is no basis for the assumption that Iran’s leaders are more likely to be constrained in their rationality.

Finally, the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-state actors or other state actors seems very unlikely. What would be the added value of proliferating its most valuable weapon? Moreover, the usage of a nuclear weapon by Hezbollah would immediately be attributed to Tehran and there are also technical means to trace the origin of material used in the nuclear charge. It is reasonable to assume that Iran’s leadership is aware of the prospect that a nuclear attack by Hezbollah would eventually strengthen those demanding regime change in Tehran.

נעמן said...

If the hirarchy of values dictates that the avenues in Teheran be built now to accept the imminent coming of the Mahdi, I cannot accept it as rational thinking. Certainly not when it creates doubts regarding their ability to make sober cost-benefit calculations when it comes to what for us are existential matters

Robin said...

Do I detect a hint of bias in this article? There are just too many statements made as if fact with little evidence for me to dissect the whole article whilst at work, however, suffice it to say, Israel is the only power in the region to have invaded every one of it's neighbours... Iran has not. Israel is considered a de facto nuclear power... Iran is not. I could go on and on.

Anonymous said...

Dear Chuck,

your article here works on the premise that Iran being concerned on a tit for tat (WMD) basis would likley be to concerned to pursue an armagedon scenario totally misunderstands the Iran/Islamic mentality that permeates its hiararchy. Chuck, Iran is quite capable of sacricing a significant chunk of its people and nationhood for the wider Islamic good. Their leaders do not 'seriously' care about Iran itself but the wider islamic revolution and that in their eyes Must first involve the destruction of Israel before it can genuinly begin. As long as the Iranian leadership are rendered safe to carry on another day, then the destruction of Tehran et al is certainly worth the destruction of Israel. It is dipensable for the wider Islamic good. Remember they were comfortable losing over 2000000 people in the Iraq/Iran war of the 80's. To destroy Israel is infinately more crucial then that feeble war. you will need to get away from your Western mentality of how things would normally work to truely understand what is really happening here.

GregP said...

This article shows little understanding of some basic facts about the Iranian leadership:

1) Iran's rhetoric against Israel is just that, rhetoric, and nothing more. It is done to appeal to the 'Arab street', not to the domestic population, who generally couldn't care less.

2) Ahmadinejad has no power over the armed forces whatsoever. All this talk of 'apocalyptic' and 'messianic' governments is simply wrong. Ahmadinejad would not be involved in use of the armed forces nor, if they possessed any, nuclear weapons. These decisions are made by Khamenei alone, who is considerably more restrained.

3) The Iranian government has NOT said it wanted to actually destroy Israel. Ahmadinejad's "wipe Israel off the map" is a mis-translation of a mis-quoting from an old Khomeini quote. Khomeini said something to the effect of "remove Israel from the pages of history", i.e. disband the state of Israel and return the land to the Palestinians. Ahmadinejad has improperly quoted Khomeini, which has in turn been mistranslated into English as 'wiping off the map'. Calling for the disbandment of a state is quite a bit different from ACTUALLY threatening to use nuclear weapons to physically destroy another country, and this confusion has made this issue orders of magnitude bigger than it should have been.

4) Even if Ahmadinejad harbors 'apocalyptic' views - his limited power, and the Iranian regime's utmost concern being their own survival and continuity, completely rules out Iran using nuclear weapons in an offensive sense ... they just quite simply do not have any good reason to use them.

All this talk of an 'apocalyptic' government is inaccurate, overblown, exaggerated, and muddies any attempt at really analyzing the regime, rather than making anything more clear.

נעמן בלקינד said...

Mein Kampf was also considered just "Rhetoric". See what happened in its wake
No one knows which of the factions will be in power when Iran gets the bomb; The Khatemi group, ("Peace Lovers" and "moderates") Rafsangani's ("Extremist" but "pragmatist"), Khameini's (Who floats above all), or Akhmadinejad's (The "crazy" one). One thing is certain: The revolutionary guards who are responsible for the development of the ballistic missiles and the nuclear warheads will have control of the nuclear weapons. This is a terrifying vision, because they are even more extreme than any of the leaders mentioned above, and may announce their independence of these leaders when the time comes.