Averting doomsday: My obsession with stopping a war on Iran

Imagine: Israel is cranked up to bomb a country that likely has chemical and biological weapons to go with its missiles. Imagine: It is planning a future of one such ‘pre-emptive’ war after another. 

I’ve been preoccupied for several years with the prospect that Israel would bomb Iran, and what started it was something that people don’t talk about much, certainly not now that an attack seems to be imminent: the possibility that Iran will hit back with chemical or biological weapons. Experts on WMD say it’s a good bet Iran has both these weapons. (Syria is known to have chemical weapons, and we all know what Israel’s got.) Missiles carrying chemical warheads can kill thousands, while missiles carrying biological weapons – which have never been fired by anyone – can kill more than thousands.

I found it strange that Israeli leaders – not just Netanyahu, but across the board – considered an attack on Iran less dangerous than letting Iran go nuclear, when such an attack meant risking literally millions of lives – Israeli lives, Iranian lives, maybe Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian lives, maybe others. Bombing Iran meant opening the door not only to a regional war, but to a regional WMD war.

And everyone was aware of this. In 2007, I had an informal debate with Michael Oren (before he became ambassador to the U.S.) on an American public radio show, and while he didn’t explicitly argue for war as a last resort, he very clearly leaned that way, even while acknowledging that if Iran struck back with WMD, at least some Israeli cities would be left “in smoking ruins.”

In that same year I asked Dany Shoham, an expert on WMD at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center, a generally hawkish think tank, about this threat, and he said that before striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israel would have to first knock out Iran’s missile launchers or depend on the Arrow and notoriously undependable Patriot anti-missile missiles to protect it from a possible fate that he wouldn’t even describe because he “didn’t want to terrify the readers.” Mind you, Shoham wasn’t saying the Iranians would definitely use chemical and/or biological weapons in response to an Israeli strike, just that they might. At any rate, if Iran’s nuclear project could not be stopped any other way, it would be best, he said, for Israel to try to destroy it militarily because if Iran got the Bomb, a nuclear war with Israel would erupt sooner or later because there was too much mutual fear and uncertainty to avoid one.

In other words, even though Israel has an estimated 200 to 300 nuclear bombs, even though the Iranians know their country of 75 million people would be wiped out if they tried to nuke Israel, we have no choice but to try to pre-empt Iran’s nuclearization even though it means risking multiple genocides, including our own.

Seeing that this was the dominant way of thinking among Israel’s decision-makers and opinion-makers, I became pre-occupied with the issue. Lately, this pre-occupation has become almost an obsession, an overhanging dread.

These days, the possibility that Iran would retaliate for an Israeli attack with chemical or biological weapons isn’t discussed, and if it is, it’s dismissed as being unrealistic. The Iranians wouldn’t fire such weapons, the argument goes, because they’re afraid of Israel’s response. I love the logic here: We have to bomb the Iranians’ nuclear facilities because they might not be deterred later on by the prospect of their own annihilation – but we don’t have to worry about them shooting back at us now with chemical or biological weapons because, after all, they know they’d be annihilated.

I understand why people don’t think about missiles loaded with poison gas or bubonic plague landing on Israel; I don’t think about it much anymore, either, because it’s become too close. Instead, I think more about the less-than-doomsday scenarios: a conventional missile war lasting weeks, spreading beyond just Israel and Iran. I think about those 200,000 missiles pointed at Israel, and about what sort of blood account the Muslim Middle East is going to have with this country after we launch a war to defend, for the third and by far most dangerous time, our exclusive “right” to nuclear weapons in this part of the world.

I imagine the day after the smoke clears, for however long it clears, when Israelis count their dead and realize they’re going to have to do it again in another year or two or three, and I wonder what it’s going to be like in the interim. I try to imagine a future in which Israel, believing it has no choice, starts one war after another after another whenever some Middle Eastern country decides it wants a fraction of one percent of the weaponry Israel has had for decades.

I try to imagine such a future, and I can’t. My image of Israel is of a teenager who decides to run across the freeway, makes it, decides to try again, makes it again, and then just does it over and over, thinking he’s immune from catastrophe, until one day the law of averages catches up with him.

I lived through the end of the Cold War in America; I remember the scare headlines about the Russians, the drop drills in school, the Cuban missile crisis. Then one day Americans realized that the Russians didn’t want to die, either, and they began to calm down. That’s the problem – I can’t imagine Israel calming down, not anytime soon. It would require people here to realize that the Muslims don’t want to die, either, and there seems to be too much demonology about Muslims in the Israeli mind for that to happen.

Can this terminal future be averted – for starters, by averting an attack on Iran? Until about a week ago, I thought that maybe if enough Meir Dagan types came out of the closet and went public with their opposition to the war, a backlash might build. So I made inquiries to a couple of well-placed Meir Dagan types; I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Maybe Obama will read Israel the riot act. That’s the only chance I see left. Otherwise, I’m hanging my hopes on my spotty record as a fortune-teller. I’d much rather be proven wrong than see these foreboding images in my mind come true.