Red, Red Lines

(…) As Iran's nuclear progress continues, the risk of an Israeli preventive strike grows. Given ongoing talks between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P5+1), an Israeli attack may not be imminent. But after inconclusive negotiations in Istanbul in April and Baghdad in May, we can expect the drums of war to beat even louder in Jerusalem if the third round of talks, scheduled to begin in Moscow on June 18, fails to produce results.

As we argue in a new report published by the Center for a New American Security, some of the potential dangers to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran have been exaggerated. For example, despite the abhorrent threats by some Iranian leaders to "wipe Israel off the map," the actual behavior of the Islamic Republic over the past three decades indicates that the regime is not suicidal and is sufficiently rational for the basic logic of nuclear deterrence to hold. Iran is therefore unlikely to deliberately use nuclear weapons against Israel or enable a terrorist group to do so.

At the same time, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a much more dangerous adversary. Believing that its nuclear deterrent immunized it against retaliation, the Iranian regime would probably increase lethal support to proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas and commit more brazen acts of terrorism abroad. The already-tense Israeli-Iranian rivalry would become more crisis-prone, and these crises would entail some inherent risk of inadvertent nuclear war.

Preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons should therefore remain an urgent priority. Rushing into preventive war, however, would risk making the threat worse. Until Iran appears poised to weaponize its nuclear capability, the emphasis should remain on using economic pressure and diplomacy to convince the Iranians to change course. All options, including preventive military action, should remain on the table. But force should be seen as a last resort; it should be contemplated only by the United States, and it should be employed only under stringent conditions.

In recent weeks, Israel's leadership has been less vocal about the possibility of a military strike on Iran. But this may be the calm before the storm.

Colin H. Kahl is an associate professor at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Melissa G. Dalton is a visiting CNAS fellow from the U.S. Defense Department, and Matthew Irvine is a research associate at CNAS.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on June 7th, 2012.

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  • Seán Ó Maoildeirg [Éirneannach]

    Is it the contention of 'Now Lebanon'" that it is the duty and the right of the United States to act as the unelected or self appointed police force of the planet when it says "But force should be seen as a last resort; it should be contemplated only by the United States, and it should be employed only under stringent conditions." Democracies get their power from it's people. Which people or countries have elected the USA to their exalted position of Governors of Planet Earth?

    June 8, 2012