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Don’t Scold Israel for Doing Us a Favor

Israel’s clandestine campaign against the Iranian nuclear program is doing more for peace than any diplomatic rigmarole.
April 23, 2021
Don’t Scold Israel for Doing Us a Favor
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting on talks in Vienna and nuclear deal in Tehran, Iran on April 20, 2021. (Photo by Iranian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The world’s most powerful countries are trying to bribe Iran to live by the promises it already made as a state-party of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And yet all the same countries, along with Iran, are all disgruntled with Israel. Go figure.

Just as the group of nations that negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran are trying to restart talks, Iran’s foreign minister has accused Israel of causing a blackout at the underground nuclear facility at Natanz, which enriches uranium. Israeli and American government sources have all but acknowledged that the incident was an act of sabotage carried out by the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency. The head of Iran’s civilian nuclear agency decried the “nuclear terrorism” and another official called the episode a “crime against humanity.”

These objections have been echoed, in more muted terms, by prominent figures in the West. German foreign minister Heiko Maas lamented that the attack was not a “positive contribution” to ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna. President Obama’s former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes asserted that Israel’s action was “not the right way to solve the problem.” Noting that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel for a two-day visit shortly after the attack, Joe Cirincione of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft went even further, tweeting, “Israel humiliates SecDef while he is visiting Israel by launching an illegal attack on facilities in another nation. It is not at war with that nation. But these attacks threaten to scuttle Joe Biden [sic] talks with that nation and drag us into war.”

Such assiduous concern for international law is surprising from self-declared “realists.” But every serious theory of sovereignty and non-intervention has made exceptions for systematic violations of human rights and grave threats to international security. Michael Walzer, the renowned liberal just war theorist, has argued that old legal standards against preventive war look “different when the danger is posed by weapons of mass destruction, which are developed in secret, and which might be used suddenly, without warning, with catastrophic results.” Whatever the legality of Israel’s active and abiding interference in Iran’s “internal affairs,” its legitimacy is only questioned by those who, in Walzer’s judgment, are “not ready for real life in international society.”

But legal considerations aside, what about the suggested imprudence of Israel’s mounting strikes against Iran’s nuclear program? The notion that attacking the Islamic Republic and impeding the mullahs’ tireless quest for a nuclear bomb will hasten war is bizarre. After all, Israel has previously engaged in discrete forms of sabotage against Iran’s uranium enrichment without prompting a wider war. (Israel also destroyed the nuclear programs of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, both in more spectacular ways than in their campaign against the Iranian program, without sparking a larger conflagration.)

The argument that efforts to thwart Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry heighten the risk of war reflects a severe misunderstanding about the logical and probable consequences, for the Middle East and the wider world, of the Iranian dictatorship successfully crossing the nuclear threshold. The great danger is not that sabotage will spark a war, but that Iran will develop a bomb. The dreadful coincidence of a messianic regime and apocalyptic weaponry would shift the regional balance of power in favor of the revisionist regime currently undermining almost all of its neighbors.

If Iran were permitted to go nuclear, there would be little reason to expect its war against the regional order—and against the Pax Americana that guards the peace—to stay contained. The kind of savage struggle that made Yemen a plaything for outside powers could be replicated across the region, from Iraq to Lebanon. The Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf could find themselves theaters of war. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, rendered obsolete if the world’s premier rogue state flouts its commitments with impunity, would hardly bind Iran’s rivals. Hyperproliferation would flourish as Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others raced to secure their own nuclear deterrent. The possibility of a nuclear exchange would rise appreciably.

Israel’s actions have not hastened war, and do not threaten to “drag” the United States into war. On the contrary, its efforts to cut off Iran’s march to the bomb are the best chance of averting war. The use of clandestine sabotage may spare the United States––and many other nations besides––the scourge of a conflict in which Iran would have a formidable position.

This used to be understood in the West. In 2008, Sen. John McCain posited that the only thing worse than a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a nuclear-armed Iran. The principle of preventing the clerical regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon has lately been reaffirmed in a bilateral meeting between U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat.

Elsewhere, however, such resolve shows signs of flagging. It’s fashionable in Washington (to say nothing of certain European capitals) to imagine that a regime with implacable hostility to the international order be accommodated even as it becomes a nuclear power. From this vantage point, any move to arrest or forestall Iran’s most aggressive ambitions only emboldens the hard-liners in Tehran. Hence a limited attack that throws obstacles between the Revolutionary Guards Corps and a fission chain reaction is evidence of warmongering and “not productive.”

For years, Israel has prosecuted a covert campaign of computer bugs, assassinations, explosions, and other forms of sabotage to impede Iran’s nuclear program. It can’t be said with any precision how much time these measures have bought the world. But the plain fact is that the Iranian theocracy, after spending untold sums to acquire the bomb (and depriving itself of additional untold sums as a result of suffocating sanctions), has so far been stymied.

The Israelis no doubt realize that words are cheap—and on the subject of Iran, Sec. Austin completed his trip to Israel without uttering a single one. They know from prior experience that politicians’ public outrage doesn’t necessarily reflect their true feelings: The Belgian-French journalist Jean-Pierre Van Geirt, who first exposed how French President Jacques Chirac helped Saddam Hussein secure a French-built nuclear reactor at Osirak, reported that despite public protestations, Chirac was privately relieved when some nifty flying by the Israeli Air Force and a few thousand pounds of high explosives rid him of a terrible headache.

No doubt, as the Israelis ingeniously and doggedly confound Iran’s quest for a weapon of mass destruction, some tut-tutting Europeans feel the same way. They, and Biden, should at least be polite enough to say so in public.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.