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Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons

Andrew Sullivan has a post on the argument for and against Israel attacking Iran. There is sufficient reason for Israel to feel threatened by Iran, and Iran's allies that border Israel. And for some reason, Iran feels threatened, or maybe just doesn't like Iran. Israel has nuclear weapons and the support of the biggest military in the world. So it never made sense that Iran would directly attack Israel.

But Iran seems dedicated to obtain nuclear weapons. And Israel seems to be firm in the belief that it would be very bad if Iran did so, which is why there is so much speculation on whether Israel will attack them. But is Israel correct to assume that it would be a bad thing? I don't think the answer is clear.

If you side with Israel, your thinking is either that Iran will use nuclear weapons or they will use the increase of power the weapons would give them in order to be more aggressive in the region. If you think Iran will actually use its nuclear weapons, give them to terrorists, or not guard them enough so as to keep them away from terrorists, you basically think Iran is so fanatic that it doesn't care about its own wellbeing and will commit suicide. Israel probably has a sufficient stockpile in order to ensure mutually assured destruction. And the US would surely retaliate if something happened. I don't think Iran is that crazy. So I think the latter is more likely.

Though even then I don't think its certain Iran would become more aggressive and seek to start destructive conflicts. I think it could be just as easily the case that obtaining nuclear weapons moderates Iran's militaristic efforts. If they aren't willing to use their nuclear weapons to directly strike Israel, then that suggests they don't want to risk being attacked themselves. The same logic of not wanting to risk nuclear destruction would arise if Iran started a conventional war with Israel. And the political science literature shows that when two nuclear powers engage in conflict with each other they are very cautious to escalate things. Two examples off the top of my head are the US/Soviet conflict and the India/Pakistan conflict.

Andrew does a good job of pointing out the likely problems with Israel preemptively striking Iran in order to prevent them from obtaining nukes. What he doesn't mention is that I think a Israeli strike would further embolden Iran and make them want nuclear weapons even more. What better way to keep Israel at bay than to get nukes? All in all, I don't think a preemptive strike would be a completely terrible deal. If it worked, and that's a big if, it could keep Iran from getting nukes for quite a while. But it could probably just as easily backfire. And I think other options could work just as well.