An important op-ed piece has appeared in The New York Times regarding the Iranian nuclear issue. Authored by Bill Keller and entitled “Nuclear Mullahs,” the op-ed column does not question the view of all serious actors involved in the issue, which is that Iran’s nuclear program is a weapons program. Rather, Keller focuses on the central policy question connected with Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions; should Tehran acquire a nuclear arsenal, can it be deterred in the manner of the former Soviet Union and United States during the cold war? In the words of Keller, “Why would Iran not be similarly deterred by the certainty that using nuclear weapons would bring a hellish reprisal? “
As the former executive-editor of The New York Times as well as being a current op-ed columnist, Keller’s voice will likely be interpreted as a reflection of mainstream thinking on the Iranian nuclear issue by policymakers who are influenced by his newspaper. The views of The New York Times still carry some weight in certain circles on Capitol Hill, so for that reason the views expressed by Keller are highly relevant. What is it, therefore, that Keller espouses on this menacing issue?
After warning that, “Anyone who has a glib answer to this problem isn’t taking the subject seriously,” Keller than does precisely that. He raises the salient points that have been analyzed by decision makers in several countries concerned with the potential threat posed by Iran being transformed into a nuclear-armed state, then dismisses them with simplistic rationalizations devoid of substance or deep analytical thought. Here are some examples.
Keller accepts that a nuclear-armed Iran would be emboldened to create more mayhem in the Middle East through its puppets, such as Hezbollah, but then quotes a former diplomat who suggests that an Iran deprived of nuclear weapons through military means would be even more meddlesome. On the surface, this is a self-contradicting argument. Then, Keller raises an often-mentioned risk identified by strategic experts; an Iranian nuclear weapon would unleash the proliferation genie, creating a nuclear arms race in a region already beset with instability and political volatility. While acknowledging that Saudi Arabia would seek nuclear arms, and may purchase such weapons from Pakistan (”not a pleasant thought,” muses Keller), he then ignores the implications while dismissing the other Middle East actors as having “strong reasons not to join the race,” without specifying those reasons or taking into account the deep Sunni antagonism and fears towards Iran’s Shiite ideology and perceived ambitions for regional dominance.
On the matter of Israel’s perception that a nuclear-armed Iran represents an existential threat, Keller writes, “The regime in Iran is brutal, mendacious and meddlesome, and given to spraying gobbets of Hitleresque bile at the Jewish state. ” Yet, Keller in his piece maintains an iconoclastic belief bordering on religious messianism that Iran’s nuclear weapons program cannot possibly represent a danger of annihilation to Israel. To buttress his conviction, he resorts to claiming that history proves that nuclear-armed states somehow behave more rationally.
The question I would put to Bill Keller is this; would Nazi Germany have behaved more rationally if it had become nuclear-armed? Would Imperial Japan have refrained from attacking Pearl Harbor if it had possessed atomic bombs?
The central flaw in Bill Keller’s op-ed on the Iranian nuclear issue is that it totally ignores the character and substance of the Iranian theocratic regime, its grand strategic vision and world view, and how nuclear weapons fit in with their ideology. This is a barbarous, ruthless regime with extreme ideological imperatives dominating its tactical and strategic thinking. To have hope that acquisition of the ultimate weapon of mass destruction would somehow transform such a regime into a responsible regional actor contradicts all historical parallels. It reminds one of the policy of appeasement adopted by the Western democracies in the 1930s towards Nazi Germany. It was hoped back then that allowing an ideologically driven dictatorship to rearm and expand would somehow moderate its extremist views and lead to more rational behavior. Among the strongest supporters of the policy of appeasement back in the 1930s were the major newspapers of the Western world.
Now, it is The New York Times that is suggesting, through Bill Keller’s piece, that preventative military means be taken off the table in regards to the Iranian nuclear issue. He doesn’t want a nuclear-armed Iran, but is unwilling to use force to prevent such an outcome, and ends his piece with calls for diplomacy and a “Nixon-to-China” moment. As in the 1930s, the world is approaching a moment of truth, and just as back then, important voices within politics and journalism are desperately groping for unattainable answers short of military confrontation, not realizing until it is too late that the diplomatic option with an extremist totalitarian state was illusory.