NIALL FERGUSON: ISRAEL AND IRAN ON THE EVE OF DESTRUCTION
Jerusalem—It probably felt a bit like this in the months before the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israellaunched its hugely successful preemptive strike against Egypt and its allies. Forty-five years later, the little country that is the most easterly outpost of Western civilization has Iran in its sights.There are five reasons (I am told) why Israel should not attack Iran:
1. The Iranians would retaliate with great fury, closing the Strait of Hormuz and unleashing the dogs of terror in Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq.
2. The entire region would be set ablaze by irate Muslims; the Arab Spring would turn into a frigid Islamist winter.
3. The world economy would be dealt a death blow in the form of higher oil prices.
4. The Iranian regime would be strengthened, having been attacked by the Zionists its propaganda so regularly vilifies.
5. A nuclear-armed Iran is nothing to worry about. States actually become more risk-averse once they acquire nuclear weapons.
I am here to tell you that these arguments are wrong.
Let’s take them one by one.
The threat of Iranian retaliation. The Iranians will very likely be facing not one, not two, but three U.S. aircraft carriers. Two are already in the Persian Gulf: CVN 72 Abraham Lincoln and CVN 70 Carl Vinson. A third, CVN 77 George H.W. Bush, is said to be on its way from Norfolk, Va.
Yes, I know President Obama is a noble and saintly man of peace who uses unmanned drones only to assassinate America’s foes in unprecedented numbers after wrestling with his conscience for anything up to … 10 seconds. But picture the scene once described to me by a four-star general. It is not the proverbial 3 a.m. but 11 p.m. in the White House (7 a.m. in Israel). The phone rings.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Mr. President, we have reliable intelligence that the Israeli Air Force is in the air and within an hour of striking suspected nuclear facilities in Iran.
POTUS: Damn. What should I do?
CJCS: Mr. President, I want to recommend that you provide the Israelis with all necessary support to limit the effectiveness of Iranian retaliation.
POTUS: But those [expletives deleted] never ran this past me. They went behind my back, goddammit.
CJCS: Yes, sir.
POTUS: Why the hell should I lift a finger to help them?
CJCS: Because if the Iranians close the Strait of Hormuz, we will see oil above $200 a barrel.
POTUS [after a pause]: Just a moment. [Whispers] How am I doing in Florida?
David Axelrod [also whispering]: Your numbers suck.
POTUS: OK, General, line up those bunker busters.
The eruption of the entire Muslim world. All the crocodiles of Africa could not equal the fake tears that will be shed by the Sunni powers of the region if Iran’s nuclear ambitions are checked.
The double-dip recession. Oil prices are on the way down thanks to concerted efforts of Europe’s leaders to reenact the Great Depression. An Israel-Iran war would push them up, but the Saudis stand ready to pump out additional supplies to limit the size of the spike.
The theocracy’s new legitimacy. Please send me a list of all the regimes of the past 60 years that have survived such military humiliation. Saddam Hussein’s survival of Gulf War I is the only case I can think of—and we got him the second time around.
The responsible nuclear Iran. Wait. We’re supposed to believe that a revolutionary Shiite theocracy is overnight going to become a sober, calculating disciple of the realist school of diplomacy … because it has finally acquired weapons of mass destruction? Presumably this would be in the same way that, if German scientists had developed an atomic bomb as quickly as the Manhattan Project, the Second World War would have ended with a negotiated settlement brokered by the League of Nations.
The single biggest danger in the Middle East today is not the risk of a six-day Israeli war against Iran. It is the risk that Western wishful nonthinking allows the mullahs of Tehran to get their hands on nuclear weapons. Because I am in no doubt that they would take full advantage of such a lethal lever. We would have acquiesced in the creation of an empire of extortion.
War is an evil. But sometimes a preventive war can be a lesser evil than a policy of appeasement. The people who don’t yet know that are the ones still in denial about what a nuclear-armed Iran would end up costing us all.
It feels like the eve of some creative destruction.
Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His Latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, has just been published by Penguin Press.
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