KZ: With their sophisticated intelligence apparatus, the United States and its European allies should have come to the conclusion that Iran does not have the intention of building nuclear bombs nor does it have the capability to build one. Iran has repeatedly stated that it will publicly announce once it decides to build an atomic bomb because it is afraid of nobody. Is the pressure on Iran over its nuclear program part of an agenda to derail Iran’s status as a regional superpower and isolate it internationally, or is it really a matter of ignorance and unawareness on the side of the West?
AB: As I explained in my answer to your first question, gaining nuclear threshold status is not equivalent to having the capacity to manufacture a nuclear bomb, but it enables the states possessing such capacity to produce the essential ingredients for ultimate use in a bomb, should they choose to terminate their membership in the NPT. A number of American and also European political and intelligence officials have publicly acknowledged that Iran does not have the political will to manufacture nuclear weapons, but they insist that they cannot predict Iran’s future intentions.
Possessing nuclear threshold status or even developing nuclear arms is not a sufficient cause for international controversy over a state’s nuclear program. As I mentioned earlier, Iran’s political identity interacts with its nuclear threshold capacity to turn its nuclear program into a matter of concern for the West. When it comes to the motives of Western countries in their confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, we should note that the West is not a monolithic and united front. Both the United States and major European powers have an interest in preventing Iran from maintaining nuclear threshold status. But the role of political identity of Iran is more determining in its relations with the United States than with most European powers as the latter maintained largely normal commercial and political relations with Iran before its nuclear program came into the spotlight.
In contrast, Iran’s problems with the United States will not come to an end with the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue and the relations of the two countries will continue to be strained due to the long-standing crisis in their relationship. As in the past, other contentious issues will emerge in the relations of the two countries thus serving as a pretext for sustaining the deep-seated hostility between the two countries. Given the largely conflicting political identity of the two governments which in most contexts has defined conflicting foreign policy interests for the two countries, the United States views its relations with Iran as a zero-sum game and will thus struggle to contain Iran’s growing power and influence in the region, even if this would mean swimming against the tide and creating unnecessary costs for its foreign policy in the region.
KZ: Israel is said to be the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. With a declared policy of deliberate ambiguity, it has prevented the international community from investigating its arsenals, and the global organizations such as the UNSC in turn have shown little interest in focusing on Israel’s dossier. Why can Israel enjoy immunity from international law and be exempted from being held accountable before the public opinion?
AB: As you indicated, it is an open secret that Israel possesses a formidable nuclear weapons arsenal. There are multiple reasons why Israel has escaped international scrutiny over its nuclear program. The apparent reason is legal. Israel has refused to become a member of the NPT and is thus not bound by its rules. This has in part provided a shelter for Israel from international criticism over its nuclear program. As you have also brought up, Israel’s policy of strategic ambiguity with regard to its nuclear weapons program has also contributed to this immunity from international scrutiny. Unlike India and Pakistan, Israel has not openly tested any nuclear device for various reasons and this has also helped its nuclear weapons program go largely unnoticed.
But above all, the unconditional and unwavering U.S. support for Israel at the UN Security Council and other international forums has effectively blocked international calls for investigation into Israel’s nuclear program. There is no hope for introducing any resolution in the UNSC on this matter as the United States stands too ready to veto any resolution which happens to be slightly critical of Israel. The fact that Israel is not a member of the NPT has also facilitated the task of the United States in preventing the issue of Israel’s nuclear arsenals from appearing on the agenda of relevant international organizations by supplying it with a convenient legal justification.
Despite this prospect, any call for international probe into Israel’s nuclear program should primarily come from Israel’s neighboring countries as, more than any other country in the world they are endangered by Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. However, autocratic Arab rulers have historically placed the survival of their regimes above their national interests and popular preferences. Given the lack of democratic accountability in the Arab world, conservative authoritarian Arab regimes have refrained from seriously pushing for international scrutiny into Israel’s nuclear weapons program and calling for nuclear disarmament in the Middle East region, as demanded by their publics. These regimes have instead defined their interests in close harmony with Israeli and U.S. interests in the region by calling for international pressure on Iran’s IAEA-monitored nuclear program.
KZ: During the recent years, Israel has been incessantly threatening Iran against a nuclear strike and a preemptive war. The United States also has repeated the same slogans with a different frequency. Don’t these threats exemplify violation of the UN Charter and Geneva Convention? Do you take seriously these threats? Overall, do you think that either of these two stalwart allies will finally attack Iran?
AB: As you have also suggested, issuing unprovoked military threats against a sovereign state constitutes a breach of various instruments of international law governing peace and security. These threats should be taken seriously and condemned by the international community as they set a dangerous precedent in international relations. Yet they do not represent a genuine military threat against Iran and remain largely as a propaganda tactic. Israeli leaders understand both the risks and futility of any such military adventures against Iran. There are several factors which discourage the execution of such military threats against Iran. First, there is the feasibility problem in the sense that there are serious challenges for Israel in executing such a military threat against Iran. The long distance between the two countries poses various obstacles for carrying out such a military adventure, including flying over unfriendly countries, refueling problem for attacking aircrafts, Iran’s effective air defense and so on.
Second, any such military attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities will largely be ineffective and futile. Most nuclear facilities of Iran are protected with passive defense arrangements, since they are buried deep in mountains or underground and are also scattered all over the country. Under the best circumstances, any hypothetical attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities will only exert minimal damage on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and thus delaying its nuclear progress for only a short time. Iran has achieved self-sufficiency in most elements of its nuclear program and will be able to rebuild its nuclear facilities within a reasonable amount of time drawing on its indigenous capacities.
Third, the fallouts from such a military adventure will be unbearable for Israel. Iran will definitely retaliate against Israel with full force in the event of such an attack on its nuclear facilities. Iran’s regional allies will also play their own part in carrying out such retaliation against Israel. This in turn will raise the prospect of an all-out regional war, and Israel is all but willing to endure such costs. Cool-headed Israeli politicians grasp the extent of calamities that such a military adventure against Iran would unleash for Israel and have thus strongly warned in public against considering such an option.
Other fallouts from such a military adventure may include Iran’s withdrawal from the NPT and terminating the IAEA inspections on its nuclear facilities. This would not necessarily mean that Iran will revise its attitude towards nuclear weapons and would rush to build atomic bombs, even though it might be forced to go down that path in the aftermath of such an attack, but would largely signify Iran’s frustration with international organizations to guarantee the security of its peaceful nuclear activities. Taking these consequences into account, I think as long as rationality guides national security decision-making in Israel, such military threats will never materialize against Iran.
The United States is even more averse to considering a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities than Israel. The United States is already bogged down in two wars in the neighborhood of Iran and is well aware of its vulnerabilities in these countries, should Iran decide to seriously challenge it in those arenas. To this, one should add a host of domestic problems facing the U.S. government and a public weary of military adventures abroad. For similar reasons, U.S. policy-makers are also convinced of the futility and ineffectiveness of a military option against Iran.
Despite these realities, Israeli politicians tend to repeat their military threats against Iran in part to pressure the United States and other Western powers to intensify their pressure on Iran and in part to divert international attention form their own nuclear weapons arsenal and their continued occupation of the Palestinian lands and their other atrocities against Palestinians.