Like many of you, I’m sure, I read Bill Keller’s op-ed piece in the Times last Sunday, “Nuclear Mullahs,” with the greatest interest. He’s a smart guy, that Keller. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter. For eight years, he was the Times’ executive editor. He has a very good vocabulary. And he is clearly an intellectual force in American journalism to be reckoned with, and far more than a merely astute observer of the American scene. So why, I find myself asking slightly nervously, do I disagree so strongly with him about almost everything he wrote regarding the reasonability of settling back and just accepting the inevitability of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons?
The basic argument, the one around which the rest of everything Keller wrote revolves, has to do with the notion that the doctrine of mutual deterrence is a reasonable one to promote in this context. I’ll let Keller speak for himself: “If the U.S. arsenal deterred the Soviet Union for decades of cold war and now keeps North Korea’s nukes in their silos, if India and Pakistan have kept each other in a nuclear stalemate, why would Iran not be similarly deterred by the certainty that using nuclear weapons would bring a hellish reprisal?” That sounds so reassuring! Surely, even vile, anti-Semitic crackpots like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wouldn’t want to be responsible for their own people suffering the inevitable reprisals that a nuclear attack on Israel (or any other country, including especially our own) would trigger. It sounds so reasonable, so thoughtful…and, ultimately, so much what all of us want to think. I almost bought it.
And then Keller made the mistake, at least as far as I myself personally am concerned, by bringing the Shoah into the equation. “Despite the incendiary rhetoric,” Keller wrote with reference to the way Iran’s leaders know no bottom line when it comes to insulting the Jewish people and particularly Israelis, “it is hard to believe the aim of an Iranian nuclear program is the extermination of Israel. The regime in Iran is brutal, mendacious and meddlesome, and given to spraying gobbets of Hitleresque bile at the Jewish state. But Israel is a nuclear power, backed by a bigger nuclear power. Before an Iranian mushroom cloud had bloomed to its full height over Tel Aviv, a flock of reciprocal nukes would be on the way to incinerate Iran. Iran may encourage fanatic chumps to carry out suicide missions, but there is not the slightest reason to believe the mullahs themselves are suicidal.” And that is precisely where we part company, Bill Keller and I.
As I read him, Keller wants Ahmadinejad to be Khrushchev, not Hitler. I would also like that. Who wouldn’t? Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union from the year of my birth until my eleventh year, was an erratic leader prone to megalomania, swagger, and bombast. (I was only in second grade when this happened, but I’m sure many older readers remember clearly when Khrushchev removed his shoe and started banging it on the podium at which he was speaking at the United Nations, presumably to make a point he would have had to make less forcefully with his shoes still on his feet.) But, in the end, he wasn’t crazy enough to start a nuclear war with the United States and its allies, and our leaders knew it.
The Cold War was at its most intense during his years in power. Khrushchev was, among other things, the Soviet leader who presided over the U-2 crisis in 1960 when pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down while on a routine reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union. He was the Soviet leader who supported, and possibly who ordered, the construction of the Berlin Wall. And he was the Soviet leader who brought nuclear missiles into Cuba and then blinked when President Kennedy stared him down during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. But, in the end, and for all of his endless anti-American and anti-Western posturing, Khrushchev was also the leader of a country that had lost 25,000,000 citizens during the Second World War, a number that translates into an almost unimaginable 14% of its entire population, which figure in turn needs to be compared with the less than one-third of one percent of the population of our country that died in World War II or the nine-tenths of one percent of the population of the United Kingdom that perished during the war. (For what it’s worth, the only countries who lost a larger percentage of their populations than the Soviet Union during the Second War were Poland and Lithuania. Even Germany only lost 10% of its population, about 7,000,000 people. Japan lost even less than that, about 4% of the total pre-war figure equaling about 3,000,000 people.)
It was a gamble. It was, actually, a big gamble. But the so-called Doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, known by its acronym as MAD, worked…because, in the end, none of the key players was truly crazy. And also because the whole concept rested on certain principles that were more or less universally accepted: that no one could actually win an all-out nuclear war because the only way to do so would be for an attacked nation not to be able to respond but that this, practically speaking, was an impossibility; that no political leader would gamble the actual existence of his or her country on the theoretical chance successfully of eliminating the possibility of a so-called “second strike” by an aggressed-against nation following a nuclear attack against it; and that the fantasy-possibility of winning a nuclear war before the other side even realizes that it has been attacked and can respond in kind is nil. All those points are debatable, and all were debated intensely. Some were even mocked. Stanley Kubrick’s great 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove, viciously and very effectively savages almost all of the above suppositions. But, in the end, Kubrick was wrong and MAD worked effectively for the entire length of the Cold War.
This is the doctrine that Bill Keller wants to invoke in explaining why a nuclear Iran would not constitute a true existential danger to Israel and should therefore be deemed something perhaps undesirable but ultimately tolerable. Of other arguments against tolerating the reality of an Iranian bomb—that the possession of such a bomb would surely encourage Iran to meddle even more aggressively in the affairs of neighboring states; that Iran’s success in acquiring nuclear weapons would almost certainly encourage other states and organizations in the religion, and particularly Saudi Arabia and terror groups like Hezbollah or Hamas, to want to have nuclear bombs of their own; and that a nuclear Iran would by its very nature destabilize a region that is already more than unstable enough by encouraging radicals to imagine they can bully Israel and other Western states into making concessions that they would otherwise never dream of making—Keller makes short shrift, choosing (if I am reading him correctly) to address himself principally to the proposition that, as he said and as I quoted him above, that there is no reason to suppose that the Iranian leadership is suicidal.
But is that actually the case? The longest war of the twentieth century was the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. It began with Iraq invading Iran, but Iran pushed back and regained all lost territory within the first two years of the war. Iran then went on the offensive for a subsequent six years, eventually costing the lives of up to three–quarters of a million of their own soldiers and another hundred thousand civilians’ lives, and costing the economy of Iran half a trillion dollars. It’s true that the Iraqis also paid a horrific price, but the key here is that the Iranians had basically won the war by 1982. Yet they kept fighting, sending in human waves of unarmed civilians to clear the way for armed troops. These were not people who seemed to care even slightly about the fact that there were no further military objectives to be won after 1982. Nor did they care that they were sacrificing their own people for the sole purpose, apparently, of teaching the Iraqis a lesson. That, they surely did—the number of Iraqi military and civilian dead is thought to have been just shy of half a million souls—and that was a war undertaken against fellow Muslims. (The apparently ineradicable tension between Sunni Muslims and Shias is part of this too, obviously. But, in the end, it was a Muslim against Muslim war.) Are we really supposed to imagine that a nation that would sacrifice hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of its young men to punish a neighboring Muslim state, not for weeks or months but for years and years, that such a state would not accept the death of a few million citizens for the sake of murdering another six million of the world’s Jews, the Jews of the State of Israel, a country it routinely labels as satanic, as a stain on the escutcheon of humanity, as so much human garbage, and as filth? I wish I didn’t think so.
And then, if that weren’t enough food for thought, there is the possibility of the finger on the button not belonging to an Iranian hand at all, but to one attached to the body of a member of Hezbollah or of Hamas. Are we to assume that the Iranians, who routinely share their weaponry with their clients, would for some reason never share this specific variety of weaponry? These are people who cultivate a cult of martyrdom, who celebrate suicide bombers as heroes, who proudly send in their own people to die for the sake of murdering children dancing in a discotheque or eating lunch in a pizzeria. Even if Bill Keller is right about the Iranian leadership not being insane enough to risk an out-and-out nuclear war for the sake of destroying Israel, can he say the same about the leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas?