Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington and former Mossad Chief Meier Dagan appeared on 60 Minutes to warn that war with Iran would be a mistake. Meanwhile, it has been pointed out by numerous commentators that no country which has acquired nuclear weapons since World War II has used them, and that nuclear arsenals are instruments of peace rather than war, because the prospect of mutually assured destruction enforces stalemate. The prime examples cited are the US and the USSR, which never actually fought a nuclear conflict, and Pakistan and India, which fought three wars prior to acquiring nuclear weapons, and have not fought since.
At present, the great powers have been at peace with one another for over sixty-five years, a record in modern times. War seems as absurd now as it did in 1913. But the danger now is at least as great as it was then.
There are six nuclear powers who could become involved: the US, the UK, France, Russia, China and Israel. If it turns out that Iran actually does have the bomb, which is an outside possibility, that would be a seventh. But why would all these powers potentially be involved? How could such a fantastic conflict, seemingly completely impossible, break out.
Let's do a little analysis. First, why did Netanyahu come to Washington? What does he want? Israel has gone to war before without asking for American approval, and surely he cannot expect to receive that from the least pro-Israel president in modern times. However, Israel cannot succeed against the Iranian nuclear sites, not on its own. This is because it does not possess massive ordinance penetrating bombs, or bunker busters. Last September, the United States took delivery of twenty such weapons. Their precise capabilities are not known, but there is evidence that they have void-sensing fuses, which are designed to detonate the weapon after it has penetrated an unknown density of stone and senses a void.
Israel possesses neither such weapons nor the means to deliver them. The only delivery platforms that can do the job are the B-52 Bomber and possibly the B-2.
Now, why would Israel be so desperate for the US to use these bombs, and make no mistake, it's not a collegial debate. Netanyahu would not have come here unless he wanted a US attack on Iran, and Dagan would not have spoken out unless he knew for certain that this request had been made.
The fact that the request was made can only be for one reason: either Iran already has a prototype, or is about to have one. But why is this so dangerous to Israel? Wouldn't an Iranian bomb have the same regional stabilizing effect that the Soviet, Pakistani and Indian bombs had? That was Dagan's argument, but it is not the belief of the Israeli military, nor of Mossad at this time.
Looking across the reaches of Iranian history, the Israelis see a culture with a three thousand year long tradition of belief that death in war leads to life in heaven. Ever since Darius the Great sent his legions against the army of Athens at Marathon in 490 BC, this belief has been more or less present in Iranian culture. (At the time of Darius, it was believed that a warrior fighting on behalf of truth would be drawn into heaven by Ahura Mazda if killed. The infamous promise of eternal bliss for suicide bombers, which emerges through the long Islamic tradition that we know today originated that far back, and is thus is even more deeply engrained in Iranian culture than it is in that of the rest of the Muslim world.)
They also see another and very dire reality: Israel is a small country. In fact, a tiny country. Iran already has missiles that can reach any part of Israel, albeit without particularly accurate guidance. The problem is that even a single nuclear weapon, detonated essentially anywhere over Israeli territory, is going to do vast damage, much of which will be irreparable for years to come. If by chance there was a direct hit on Tel Aviv, a bomb the size of the ones that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki would ruin the country.
The worry is that the fact that this would lead to the destruction of every major city in Iran might not be a deterrent. The theocratic extremists within the Iranian government might even see it as a religious triumph, a holy sacrifice. In any case, the Iranian regime draws its power mostly from its rural constituency and sees its urban populations as dangerous hotbeds of anti-regime sentiment.
Obviously, this is a terribly dangerous situation, and it has probably been made more dangerous by a paucity of good intelligence coming out of Iran. After the 2007 'outing' of CIA non-official cover Valerie Plame, there was a profound loss of an important source of direct intelligence from Iran. This is because she was associated with a sham company called Brewster-Jennings, which had deployed agents on the ground in Iran who were able to determine by testing air from exhaust vents near underground facilities which were emitting radiation consistent with the production of fissionable material and which were not. Once her actual role was made public, the Brewster-Jennings operation in Iran was destroyed, and for an unknown period of time it was impossible for US intelligence to keep track of activities at these facilities.
I have always regarded the revelation of this NOC as an act of high treason, and felt, as I have said before, that it was so profoundly destabilizing that it is difficult to believe that the parties responsible were not hoping to set the stage for an eventual nuclear war in the middle east. Of course, such a war is consistent with the beliefs of Christian extremists such as John Hagee, who imagines that such a war might bring on Armageddon and the Rapture. It is because of this belief that Hagee Ministries in Texas have been so accommodating to Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spoken at their church there. At the time that the NOC was exposed, of course, the US president was a Texan with avowed fundamentalist beliefs.
So, in the deeper background on both sides there are people who believe that such a war will open the gates of heaven to them, which is probably at least as dangerous a part of the problem as the Israeli's more realistic fears.
But surely such a conflict would be contained. Israel and Iran might both be destroyed, but there it would end. Surely.
Or perhaps not. In July of 1914 there was not a single great power that had any idea that events in the Balkans were going to lead to a catastrophic conflict in the very heart of western civilization. Even when the Austrians and the Germans began mobilizing, it did not immediately occur to other governments of the peril that presently existed. Not until the French military informed the government that, in view of the German mobilization, it could not guarantee the safety of the country unless it, also, mobilized at once was the peril realized. But by then it was too late.
If the US and Israel attack Iran now, it will be hoped that this will be a pre-emptive strike that will set back the Iranian nuclear program not for three years as is being publicly stated, but for ten or twenty or fifty years, or permanently. If this is not wishful thinking, then the strike could succeed, but it will nevertheless be an extremely dangerous gamble, for precisely the same reason that the Austrian move into the Balkans was far more dangerous than it appeared.
Russia and China both have an enormous but also tenuous stake in the middle east. Their primary allies are Syria and Iran. Obviously, it's not a very comfortable position for them. For China, Iran is an important oil resource. In February, China and Iran agreed that Iran would export half a million barrels of oil a day to China. This is an appreciable percentage of China's 10 million barrel per day consumption, and there is evidence that it is enabling China to expand its all-important strategic reserve.
So China, and to a lesser extent Russia, have a stake in Iran remaining at peace. At the same time, they cannot deny their ally what appears to be a reasonable desire to insure its own safety by creating a nuclear deterrent, and both countries have been supportive of Iranian ambitions, but only up to a point.
However, if there is an attack in Iran, it is possible that there could be a surprising response from an unknown party, possibly Russia, more likely China, even, remotely, Iran itself.
In November of 2010, the vapor trail of a submarine launched missile appeared off the US west coast. At the time, it was dismissed as the contrail of an incoming airliner, but this was not the case. The most likely power to have launched it was China, but as no accurate accounting has ever appeared, there is no way to be certain whose it was.
In any case, if a nuclear weapon was detonated in near space above the US west coast, it could potentially destroy all exposed electronics in the western third of the country, causing the collapse of everything from communications to vehicle mobility to water and power systems, and the destruction of financial records and the functionality of banks and all forms of electronic transaction. During the years it would take to restore systems, there would be fantastic human suffering and vast economic disruption. Without directly affecting a single individual, or even being detectable except by its effects, it would be the single most destructive military action in the history of the world, and, in terms of cost, the cheapest.
It might or might not bring retaliation from the United States. The country, already reeling from such a surprise attack, might be unwilling to risk a further nuclear exchange.
Now, I cannot even begin to predict what might or might not happen in the event of a conflict with Iran. What I am saying is that such a conflict is going to be highly unstable, and subject to unexpected escalation. There could be extraordinarily dangerous consequences that will probably be so asymmetrical that they will be a complete surprise, and one that is very difficult to deal with. Quite frankly, the United States could suffer a defeat of world-historical proportions during such a conflict.
If it happens, it is to be hoped that the worst that occurs is a rain of non-nuclear rockets falling on Israel, and China and Russian staying neutral, and, above all, that western assessments of Iran's military capabilities are accurate.