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Expert Argues For Accepting Nuclear Iran

Riedel has close ties to Obama administration

Marc Tracy
August 27, 2010

Your weekend reading assignment is this essay by Bruce Riedel, an intelligence, security, and foreign affairs expert who though officially in the world of think tanks has close to ties to the Obama administration (he has been a crucial player in its Afghanistan strategy). “The United States needs to send a clear red light to Israel,” Riedel writes. “There is no option but to actively discourage an Israeli attack.”

His argument is premised on the notion that, between the unattractiveness of a military attack on Iran and the general inevitability of the Islamic Republic’s becoming a nuclear power, we ought to accept this and go about increasing Israel’s own nuclear deterrence by arming it with more sophisticated weapons and placing it under our nuclear umbrella.

Writes Riedel:

The era of Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East is probably coming to an end. Israel will still have a larger arsenal than any of its neighbors, including Iran, for years if not decades. It will face threats of terror and conventional attack, but it already faces those. With American help it can enhance its deterrence capabilities considerably. It has no reason to lose its self-confidence. But to avoid the potential for all-out war not only between Israel and Iran but also between the United States and the Islamic Republic, Washington needs to act now. Only by enhancing Israel’s nuclear capability will America be able to strongly and credibly deter an Israeli attack on Tehran’s facilities.

Because such an attack, Riedel adds, “is a disaster in the making”: For Israel, which would face a combination of direct Iranian retaliation and indirect retaliation via proxies Hezbollah and Hamas; and for America, which would see an uptick in Shia insurgency in Iraq and the need for vastly more troops to pacify a suddenly restive western Afghanistan.

You should truly read the whole article. Below, a quick cheat sheet for whether or not you should agree with Riedel.


You believe the status quo is acceptable pending some sort of major regional shift (like a Palestinian deal or regime change in Tehran). With enhanced deterrence, Riedel argues, the status quo would continue even should Iran go nuclear: Not even during the first Gulf War did even Saddam Hussein launch chemical weapons at Israel, due to American threats; and Iran has only used them when attacked by them first. The fact is, Israel has never been attacked by WMD, and it is highly likely that, with the right deterrence in place, that track record should continue.

You believe that an Israeli military attack on Iran would be extremely difficult (Riedel goes to great lengths to demonstrate this) and on top of that would merely postpone, not decisively eliminate, Iran’s nuclear program.

You believe the blowback to a military attack would be massive and disastrous, for both Israel and the United States (which even most supporters of an attack concede).

You believe Iran is ultimately a rational, non-suicidal actor (“Contrary to Netanyahu’s cries, Iran is not a crazy state”). Riedel purports to demonstrate that this historically has been the case.

You believe more broadly in the concept of nuclear deterrence as an ultimately stabilizing force—and let’s recall that there have been no hot world wars in the atomic age and that no two countries have ever engaged in nuclear warfare against each other.

You are okay with providing Israel with yet more sophisticated (and expensive) military assistance.


You believe a nuclear Iran is likely to launch a first strike against Israel.

You believe a nuclear Iran is likely to be a proliferator that could allow nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists who would use them against Israel or other Western targets.

You believe a nuclear Iran is likely, pace Lee Smith, to provoke the widespread nuclearization of the region, and moreover that this will create undue instability.

You believe a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, period (which is different from thinking it would be a really bad development). While Riedel is certainly not against sabotage, sanctions, and the like—he would certainly prefer that Israel retain its nuclear monopoly in the region—his argument is very much one for allowing Iran to go nuclear, not because we want it to but because the alternatives are worse.

If Israel Attacks [The National Interest]
Related: Prolific [Tablet Magazine]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.