One would think, certainly by now, that foolish optimism about Iran should have been swept completely away. One would now assume, with altogether good reason, that Iran has absolutely no intention of abandoning its nuclear program, and that it does not display markedly genocidal stripes only for Islamic public consumption. Rather, it should now be evident to anyone who can read or watch the TV news that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully intends to become a regional superpower, and that he plans to do this on the vaporized collective corpse of the exterminated Jewish state.
So, we might ask as Jews, “What else is new?” At the same time, we do need to inquire seriously: “What is to be done?” There is, of course, no easy answer to the question of ongoing Iranian nuclearization. All remedial options are manifestly unattractive, and all will have substantial costs. Oddly enough, diplomacy still seems to be the preferred path to crisis resolution, but only because polite conversation and empty threats will seemingly protect all parties from assorted political risks.
In the matter of Iran’s ambitious and genocidal program for nuclear weapons, further diplomacy has absolutely no chance of success. None at all. No UN sanctions will have any effect on the pace and substance of Tehran’s illegal operations. Whether we like it or not, unless there is a near-term defensive first-strike at pertinent elements of Iran’s expanding nuclear infrastructures, that country will become a member of the nuclear club.
Such membership would pose a genuinely existential hazard, especially to Israel. A nuclear Iran would not resemble any other extant nuclear power, and there could be no stable “balance of terror” involving that martyr-frenzied Islamic republic. Unlike the Cold War, which was always governed by mutual assumptions of rationality, a world with a nuclear-armed Iran could explode at any moment into apocalyptic chaos. Although it is possible to suggest a postponement of preemption until Iran was more openly nuclear, the collateral consequences of any such delayed self-defense could be staggering.
The very idea of an apocalypse was born in ancient Persia. There, the Zoroastrians first conceived of a stark polarity between Good and Evil, between Light and Dark. Their dualistic faith was called Manicheanism. Precisely how this faith ultimately found its way into contemporary Islamic eschatology, and into certain Islamic expectations of a cataclysmic war to bring forth the missing 12th Imam, is a question for further scholarly examination. But for now, all that we really need to know is that Iran’s leadership genuinely believes in the coming of the Mahdi, the Islamic redeemer, and that a total war against “The Jews” would meet all pertinent criteria of their own scriptural prophesy.
So, in the best-of-all-possible worlds, diplomatic settlement with Iran could still be taken seriously, and military solutions would be happily out of place. But we surely don’t live in such a world, and we now have little choice but to compare the costs of prompt preemptive action against Iran with the costs of both: 1. inaction; and 2. delayed military action. Here it would be apparent that all available options are going to be costly, and that putting our heads back in the sand will only make us blind.
Iran’s president maintains that his country’s nuclear program is intended only to produce electricity, but there is no reasonable argument or evidence to support this disingenuous statement. Ahmadinejad blames Israel for war and terror in the Middle East, but it is Iran that calls for “wiping Israel off the map.” From the standpoint of codified international law, this call is more than an expression of exceptionally bad manners. As I have made clear in some of my earlier columns here in The Jewish Press, it is also an egregious violation of the Genocide Convention of 1948. For its part, Israel has never threatened any other state with nuclear weapons, and – indeed – does not acknowledge that any such weapons even exist.
Iran must be stopped immediately from acquiring atomic arms, and this can only be accomplished through anticipatory self-defense. An appropriately precise set of defensive attacks against Iran’s nuclear assets could be distinctly legal. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, authorization for preemptive action against Iran would not have to come from a collective decision by the UN Security Council. At this point, the United States and/or Israel could choose to act on behalf of the entire international community, and could do so lawfully without wider approvals.
The right of self-defense by forestalling an attack appears in Hugo Grotius’ classic, The Law Of War And Peace (1625). Recognizing the need for protection against “present danger” and threatening behavior that is imminent, Grotius – who was influenced by the Torah − indicates that self-defense is permitted not only after an attack has already been suffered, but also in advance, “where the deed may be anticipated.” Continues Grotius: “It be lawful to kill him who is preparing to kill.”
Emmerich de Vattel takes a similar position in his The Law Of Nations (1758). Here, he argues that it is lawful to resist and even to anticipate attacks by other nations so long as aggression is truly forthcoming: “The safest plan,” says Vattel, “is to prevent evil, where that is possible. A Nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.”
Some current scholars will argue that the specific language of Article 51 of the UN Charter overrides the customary right of anticipatory self-defense. In this view, Article 51, which speaks of self-defense only after an armed attack has already been absorbed, fashions a more restrictive statement of self-defense. This narrow interpretation ignores that international law is not a suicide pact. When Israel launched a successful preemptive strike against the Iraqi Osiraq nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981 (“Operation Opera”), neither the UN Security Council nor the General Assembly censured the attack.
There is little time left to deal with Iran. In fact, the operational success of any essential preemption against Iranian military targets is already in doubt. To make matters worse, any action against Iran would likely entail large numbers of civilian casualties. This is because of the Iranian policy of deliberately placing military assets in the midst of civilian populations – a policy called “perfidy” under international law. Still, further postponements will only multiply the number of casualties from any future preemption, or – in the worst-case scenario – permit Iran to become fully nuclear. In that eventuality, Israel could face the unimaginable post-Holocaust prospect of literally millions of prompt fatalities.
Copyright The Jewish Press, March 30, 2007. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). Professor of International Law at Purdue, he is the author of many books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, and is Chair of “Project Daniel.” Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.