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How to make sure Iran gets the bomb
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How to make sure Iran gets the bomb

Much has been said about the problems caused by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s scheduled speech to the U.S. Congress: How it politicizes the U.S.-Israel relationship, how it is disrespectful to the U.S. president, how it asks American Jews to make a choice between their president and Israel’s elected leader. 

I think these are all valid concerns, and they are compounded by some of Netanyahu’s other statements, suggesting that all European Jews should pick up and move to Israel (implying that there is no legitimate place in the world for Diaspora Jews) and his claim to speak for the Jews of all nations (and believe me, if American Jews, who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in the last two elections, were asked to elect their spokesperson, it wouldn’t be Netanyahu). All of these are legitimate concerns, but I think a big problem with the speech tends to get lost in all of this: what Netanyahu is likely to say if and when he speaks.

Netanyahu keeps emphasizing the importance of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but I think his approach, if adopted, would all but ensure that Iran does get such weapons.

First, let me say that I think negotiations like the ones going on now are the only real hope for heading off a nuclear-armed Iran, but it doesn’t matter what I think. I am no expert in such things, but those who are tend to see the situation similarly. For example, retired Israeli Brigadier General Uzi Eilam, who is also a former head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission and a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, spoke recently at the Century Foundation in support of the negotiations.

Will the negotiations succeed? No one knows, but the only way to find out is to pursue them to their conclusion and see what happens. 

Netanyahu says he fears a bad agreement coming out of the negotiations, but instead of working with the negotiators to make sure the agreement is sound, he seems determined to blow up the negotiations altogether. What would be the alternatives if this happened?

The first alternative would be even tougher unilateral United States sanctions than those that helped bring the Iranians to the negotiating table. The theory here seems to be that while they came to the negotiating table, their hearts weren’t really in it, and that tougher sanctions would make them negotiate more sincerely. 

There are several problems with this approach. First, while sanctions may influence people’s actions, are they really likely to affect their attitudes? If they do affect the Iranians’ attitudes, what reason is there to believe that the change would be a positive one? Isn’t it more likely to make them resentful and suspicious?

Second, sanctions are based on behavioral psychology, which tells us to reward behaviors we want to encourage and not to punish them. Coming to the negotiating table was what we wanted them to do. If that action were followed by tougher sanctions, we would be sending them the message that coming to the table was a bad idea.

Third, for sanctions to be effective, they have to be international in scope. If they are not, one country will just take advantage of the opening created by another country’s sanctions, rendering them useless. One of the remarkable aspects of the current sanctions is that a robust coalition of forces has endorsed them, including countries like Russia and China that seldom agree with the United States on anything. This deal would likely fall apart if one party unilaterally decided to toughen the sanctions.

In the absence of negotiations or effective sanctions, the United States and Israel would be left to consider military force. While neither country is willing to rule out the use of force, nor should they, prematurely resorting to this option under any immediately foreseeable conditions would likely be a disaster. Nobody is seriously maintaining that military force could prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons indefinitely. In fact, it would do no more than delay them for a few years, and the side effects of the action would be even worse. I would think a military attack would unite the Iranians behind the idea of pursuing nuclear weapons with a sense of urgency, convinced of the need to defend against, or at least deter, future attacks by the United States and Israel. Further, the moderates in Iran would be discredited and the hard-liners strengthened. We would be faced by not only a nuclear-armed Iran, but a much more hostile one.

So let’s be careful not only about the conditions of Netanyahu’s speech, but its content. It’s one thing to let the salesman get his foot in the door, but it’s worse to buy the spurious product he’s peddling.

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