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Israel, Iran, Joe Klein, and Andrew Sullivan

In a recent post, Andrew took Joe Klein’s side in his fight with nearly everyone at Commentary – a fight that will only end when I invite all these squabbling Jews (and at least one honorary M.O.T.) to my seder, … Read More

By / September 12, 2008

In a recent post, Andrew took Joe Klein’s side in his fight with nearly everyone at Commentary – a fight that will only end when I invite all these squabbling Jews (and at least one honorary M.O.T.) to my seder, where we’ll hash out the whole arid you’re-a-traitor-no-you’re-the-traitor dispute over two-liter bottles of Manischewitz blackberry wine. Andrew asks if neoconservatives believe that there is any area "in which it is even possible to conceive of America’s interest being different from Israel’s," and he suggests that this question is becoming frighteningly relevant, as Israel embraces the idea that existential self-interest demands that it pre-empt the Iranian nuclear program militarily. "The world and the West can live, after all, with a deterred and contained nuclear Iran. Israel cannot," Andrew writes. I know Andrew as a supporter of Israel, a Zionist, even, and so I do not read much into his exclusion of Israel from either "the West" or "the world." Suffice it to say that I believe that Israel is the West’s responsibility – Europe’s in particular, for all the most obvious reasons – so I’m not fond of the suggestion that Israel should stand alone against theocratic fascism. But I would rather grapple with one of Andrew’ governing assumptions; that Israel is the country far-and-away the most threatened by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel is certainly threatened, but so, too, are other direct American interests throughout the Middle East, and beyond. It is not meaningless that Iran is the only country in the world that has "Death to America" as its foreign policy, but what interests me more are the consequences of the chaotic nuclear proliferation that will almost definitely follow the successful testing of an Iranian nuclear device. Iran’s traditional adversaries, the Saudis, as well as the Turks, will surely develop nuclear weapons, as will, quite possibly, the Egyptians and the Algerians. The Syrians, of course, have already tried.  The Saudis are probably more agitated by the Iranian program than the Israelis.  Can we really live with a Middle East that has eight or ten nuclear powers? And will our allies succumb to Iranian pressure and one day line-up against us? Right now, we have enormous influence in the Gulf states, influence that helps us fight terrorism and assure the smooth flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. All this changes if Iran becomes a proven nuclear power. Our Gulf allies will have to make impossible choices, between the country that has guaranteed order in their region, and the rising Shia power. Something else changes: Terrorist groups that threaten, or have threatened, American targets – terrorists in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon – will come under the protection of the Iranian nuclear umbrella. Hezbollah’s rockets have helped the group establish a local deterrent to Israeli attack; an Iranian bomb would strengthen Hezbollah in Lebanon, and well beyond Lebanon.

An Iranian bomb would also set off new tension between India and Pakistan, an ally of Saudi Arabia that would almost certainly turn to Pakistan for help with its program, making the Indians, who are already distressingly close to Iran, exceedingly nervous. As I said, I’m opposed to the idea of bombing Iran for any number of reasons. One of them is that I don’t think the West has deployed truly effective sanctions against Iran yet. I don’t know why we should skip past a tougher sanctions regime and move right to bombing. I also want to see the American experiment in Iraq succeed, and it will fail if either America or Israel bomb Shi’ite Iran. It will fail, ultimately, of course, if Iran becomes a nuclear power, but I’ll take that theoretical failure, for the moment, over the obvious and immediate failure that comes on the heels of an attack on Iran. I also don’t want to see Iran’s pro-American population turn anti-American, which is what will happen following an attack by either America or Israel. Ultimately, what I’m arguing about is something that runs against the grain of Jewish narcissism that is on display whenever neo-conservatism is discussed: For Joe, and the left, and for the neo-conservatives on the right, this argument has become about Israel and its future. But it is actually about a great deal more than Israel. Of course, Israel’s national security is an American interest, and I was glad when John McCain told me that, "The United States of America has committed itself to never allowing another Holocaust," and I was just as happy when Barack Obama told me that he wants to "make sure that the people of Israel, when they kiss their kids and put them on that bus, feel at least no more existential dread than any parent does whenever their kids leave their sight." But a full discussion about Iran’s nuclear program could be held without anyone making a single reference to Israel. It would be a great thing to try to do one day.

[Cross-posted from The Atlantic]

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