Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Shared Iranian-Israeli National Security

Just imagine an Iranian-Israeli diplomatic meeting in which each side says, “Tell me how I can help you feel more secure. Let’s just see how far we can go.” This earthshaking little idea was broached here and slightly expanded here. Note also the perspective of former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami on “Owning Up to Israel’s Bomb” and my comment to that article. Further thoughts follow.

In a simple-minded zero-sum competition, anything good for you is bad for me. In a nuclear world, we need decision-makers smart enough to realize the madness of such a competition. When we pile up weapons even as we raise the probability of nuclear war, our "security" is declining. Simply put, we can each eat our own little "security pie" (filled with nice, crunchy tanks and missiles but lacking protection against nuclear chaos) or we can share a single much larger security pie that includes nuclear security.

In a positive-sum competition, we can both win. Can Israel and Iran both win?

If the goal is military hegemony over the Mideast, then the answer is obviously “No.” Is there some less ambitious goal that might satisfy the leaders of those two states? That is a tough question to answer, not the least because the ruling coalition is constantly evolving and the opinions of the individuals in it may be as well. Even if some leaders adamantly demand hegemony (or some fundamentalist “end of days” carnage), their power depends greatly on the degree to which normal desires for national security can be addressed by some less extreme approach.

So, can Iran and Israel both truly enhance their long-term national security simultaneously?

If one side wants to dominate, then it will oppose anything that strengthens the opponent. For example, to the degree that Israel wants to dominate the Mideast, it will oppose Russian short-range, ground-to-air missiles being placed around Iranian nuclear sites to protect those sites from attack. By the same logic, to the degree that Israel wants to dominate the Mideast, it will oppose Iran’s call for an international agreement to avoid attacking nuclear installations. But protecting Iranian nuclear sites from attack does not affect Israeli national security. Indeed, a world in which all nuclear sites are safe from attack would be a world safer from nuclear fallout and would address the Israeli need to protect its own nuclear infrastructure. Moreover, it would diminish international tensions by reassuring insecure Iranians. Any Iranians intent on war would see their political support undermined.

This argument seems pretty elemental, but there are several possible explanations for the willingness of politicians to pursue confrontational paths of incredible danger. Some politicians clearly cannot resist the personal career benefits of waving the bloody flag of fear. In Iran, some may feel they are so surrounded by implacably hostile and vastly stronger enemies that they have no choice. In Israel, some may calculate that they have no need to compromise when they enjoy Washington’s blank check (with the ironic result that American friends of Israel, by virtue of the unrestrained nature of their support, end up undermining Israel’s long-term national security).

So the mutual commitment to a suicidal zero-sum vision continues.Yet there clearly is another way, and I can't help but wonder what some current or future Iranian leadership team might offer in return for international acceptance of some measure of Iranian national security.

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