Ignoring the most promising option on Iran

What is the best response to the Iranian nuclear threat, and what is the connection to regional disarmament of weapons of mass destruction and Israel’s refusal to end the occupation?

By Yuval Eylon

The following essay was originally published in Hebrew in August 2012.[1] It recently was selected given an award by the American Philosophical Association and is therefore being republished at this time.

Author’s note:

Over a year ago I published an opinion article about Israel’s policy towards Iran’s nuclear program. I argued that the most promising policy – namely, regional disarmament – is strangely absent from the public discourse. I claimed that this absence does not stem for any view of the Iranian threat and ways of dealing with it, but is ideological: the explanation for this conspicuous absence is that regional disarmament requires regional agreements, and therefore an end of the Occupation.

In the months that passed since the original op-ed was written, Iran held elections and the new president has reached an interim agreement with the United States and other powers that suggests an agreement in which Iran forgoes any effort to obtain “the bomb” and that recognized Iran’s nuclear program and capabilities is not far.

The possible agreement only serves to highlight how shortsighted Israel’s commitment to the “strike or bomb” framework was, and what waste of resources – diplomatic and financial – it entailed. Any agreement will provide an incentive to other countries and perhaps organizations in the region to develop or obtain nuclear capabilities. It seems that the only policy that can prevent a dangerous arms race is regional disarmament from weapons of mass destruction. As argued below, this policy depends on a complete turnaround vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Prima facie, the odds for such a policy are slim, and therefore, so are the chances for halting the Iranian nuclear program and preventing the development of other programs in the years to come.

In some cases it is completely unreasonable to do what seems rational, in the narrow sense of matching means to given ends. In particular, neglect of a value or over-zealousness in the pursuit of a value, could be extremely unreasonable. For example, no reasonable person would consider kidnapping passers-by in the street even in order to harvest their organs for his loved ones. In similar vein, uncritical devotion to an end can cause blindness: think of a loyal and rational soldier who continues to hide patiently in the jungle waiting for the enemy long after the war has ended. Thus, the values of a reasonable person determine the range of her options, and she is able to reconsider the courses of action open to her.

In other cases, the reasonable thing to do is the rational thing. If we find ourselves in such a situation, it is important that we recognize it for what it is and strip ourselves of our commitment to various values. On the face of it, Iran’s nuclear program presents us with such a question: the end – survival in the face of a major threat while avoiding or minimizing any risk to human lives – is a given and is accepted by all. Prevailing ideological differences on other issues are irrelevant to the evaluation of our options. What we should do is compare the expected outcomes of each possible course of action in terms of casualties over time (and at what probability) or the projected economical consequences of different actions, and select the best one.

Clearly, this is a difficult and complex task – many factors, some of which unknown, ought to be taken into consideration, and there is a high degree of uncertainty as to the consequences. But in principle, the task is no different than choosing from two possible routes to a designated destination.

Below, I will discuss the question whether the reasonable person and his values should actually be thus removed from the debate on the Iranian issue and be replaced by the rational person, or whether the proposal to do so is the result of a dubious – conscious or unconscious – moral decision.

Rationality and values

In an essay opposing an attack against Iran written in response to David Grossman’s essay, Professor Eyal Winter elucidated the proposal to remove the reasonable or moral persons from rational deliberation so they do not interfere. Winter explicitly assumes that the question of attacking Iran can and should be detached from the traditional divisions of Israeli politics. He concludes his essay:

Like Grossman, I believe that the Israeli government is not doing enough to move forward on an agreement with the Palestinians.

But when it comes to Iran, we must not allow our traditional positions to dictate our opinions. We must use the national intellect without bringing ideology into it, just as we do when we try to solve difficult problems in our personal lives. I will sleep much better at night if I hear Avigdor Lieberman argue against attacking Iran while Zahava Galon speaks in favor of it.

Winter implores us to use the “national intellect without bringing ideology into it,” i.e. to rationally examine our options. In particular, he warns against the adverse effect of values on our judgment. But why should the reasonable – the moral – person be barred from the discussion? Even if we accept that values are irrelevant to the decision we are facing, what damage can they cause? According to Winter, our moral commitments, political loyalties, and thinking habits incline us to support or oppose the military option: based on habit, the political right would support a strike while the political left would oppose it (actually, only the radical left would object – the establishment-left would probably support the attack initially and reconsider its position after a couple of weeks…).

Winter seems to have a point. Leaving Grossman’s essay aside, the Iranian question has the appearance of a textbook example of rational choice – the end is known, and what is required is to compare different means to attain it. Other values, which are not directly derived from the values of security or survival are irrelevant, and it would be unreasonable to let them influence the discussion.

Range of Options

Winter warns that ideological bias threatens to divert us from the choice we must make. But is this really the worst danger ideological bias poses in the Iranian context? Winter assumes that Israel has only two options: attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities – risking failure (at least in the long run) and war, or alternatively doing nothing – risking the horrifying scenario of a mutual nuclear deterrence. He warns against a psychological bias: while the risks of taking action are apparent, the risks of inaction can be elusive. Is this a fair description of the situation, or does the presentation of the problem in these terms expresses an unconscious moral decision?

Before we return to this question, it is important to note that Winter ignores a potentially more harmful bias in the opposite direction – a bias which stems from the idea of a “nuclear holocaust”, i.e., of infinite damage. The idea of infinite damage brings all rational discussion to an end, because it guarantees that the expected utility of any action whose probability of successfully preventing the damage is greater than zero, would also be infinite. But in that case, “all potential actions are equal” and therefore, it does not matter which one is chosen. The psychological escape (or evasion) from this impasse is to presuppose that only one possibility exists. And indeed, at least some statements in favor of a strike, particularly when faced with the argument that it might fail, amount to “so what do you suggest?” or “we have seen in Munich what happens when you do not strike” or as Netanyahu put it: “all dangers to the Israeli heartland are negligible when compared to another threat – Iran must never have nuclear weapons.”

Such comments express an abandonment of rational discourse altogether. By assuming that Iran’s nuclear program spells “holocaust,” and that the only way to prevent the holocaust is a military strike, the strike is rendered inevitable. Again: under these assumptions, neither the chances of the success of the strike nor the risks it entails matter – a strike is the only option. Inasmuch as it is possible to gauge the damage caused by irrational biases, I believe the bias resulting from the idea of a holocaust is both more common and more dangerous than the bias favoring inaction.

Now let us return to the main issue – is there an ideological bias in framing the choice as restricted to either a military strike or doing nothing? There is a third option, which appears to hold better prospects than a military strike of neutralizing the Iranian nuclear capability in the long run. Also, this option does not involve the risks of a strike and of war: initiating and pursuing effective regional disarmament of weapons of mass destruction (the upcoming Helsinki convention on a nuclear free Middle East is an appropriate opportunity to launch such an initiative).

Let me emphasize: first, this suggestion is not cost-free. Many will flinch at the idea that Israel give up its nuclear capability and rely solely on conventional deterrence and possibly an American nuclear umbrella. Secondly, this is not a magical solution whose success depends merely on wishing it – there is no guarantee that adequate arrangements can be attained and that such an initiative will be successful. However, one should keep in mind that a strike also comes at a cost – the risk of war. Additionally, it is far from certain that a strike or series of strikes would succeed, or that Iran would not redouble its efforts and rebuild its nuclear program within a few years. And of course, doing nothing also has a cost: Iranian nuclear capability (on top of the Pakistani capability, and who’s next?). It seems to me obvious that despite its shortcomings, regional disarmament – the overlooked option – is probably preferable to both a military strike and to doing nothing.

Extreme unreasonableness

So how come the “national intellect” Winter appeals to ignores this option altogether? How can it be that on such a crucial matter this option is rarely mentioned? Again: it is not that the option is discussed, considered and rejected. Rather, it is simply excluded from the discussion.

This is where ideology steps in and determines the range of available options. Since the mid-90s, a consensus which we can label “villa in the jungle,”[2] consolidated in Israel. This consensus is made of three principles: there is no Palestinian partner for peace, rejection of the Arab League’s peace initiative, and a staunch commitment to nuclear exclusivity. In contrast to either a strike against Iran or to doing nothing, regional disarmament of course requires both a peace process and progress toward ending the occupation. Although these are not strict preconditions for disarmament, clearly such an initiative requires genuine progress between Israel and its neighbors.

However, Israel strives to continue and deepen the occupation rather than end it. Consequently, both the Arab Peace Initiative and regional disarmament are rendered inconceivable. Thus, even before the rational person starts comparing possible actions, ideology – values (or in this case “disvalues”) – eliminates the most reasonable option. In fact, positing the choice as a choice between a strike and doing nothing in an ”ideology free” way is really an ideological decision: to ignore the most promising option because it is ideologically controversial.

The “strike or do nothing” dilemma was not invented by the current government. What we have here is a continuous and gross neglect of national security. It is only fitting that the architects of the “villa in the jungle” doctrine are the very persons  who intend to take us to war– Netanyahu and Barak, who objected to the Oslo Agreements, nullified them as successive prime ministers in the years 1996 to 2000, and engaged in expanding the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories instead of trying to take advantage of Rabin’s famous “window of opportunities” – the period between the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a nuclear Iran. Barak, much like the character in the old joke that murdered his parents and then pleads for the court’s mercy because he is an orphan, explained this week that a nuclear Iran poses a great threat to Israel, would undermine moderate forces in the region, and greatly limit Israel’s freedom of action.

Return of the reasonable person?

The call to discuss the Iranian issue in an ideologically-free way, appears to be a recommendation to ignore any other moral consideration and focus on one end: national security and survival. But on the basis of his own advice, Winter must consider and perhaps support disarmament. If security is all we care about, we must seek regional disarmament from weapons of mass destruction weapons before Iran attains nuclear capability, and therefore also strive to end the occupation and make peace. If security is all we care about, then we must do this not because the occupation is bad, but rather in order to address the Iranian nuclear threat. Ending the occupation is just a bonus.

Hence, it transpires that the existence of a common goal does not eliminate the relevance of the ideological controversy. It is possible, as Winter does in his essay, to ignore any ideologically controversial option, and thus give up on the most promising course of action – i.e., to ignore the disarmament option in order to maintain the occupation. This is an ideological decision, even if an unconscious one.

Alternatively, if we insist that security comes first then we must at least consider ending the occupation and striving for peace with the Arab world. This option, too, involves an important moral decision – and parts of the Israeli public are unaware of its relevance in this context, while others reject it.

In summary: the reasonable, moral and rational thing to do seems to be to initiate effective regional disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. The reason we are not pursuing this option – the reason we are not even considering it and are left with the options of an avoidable war or mutual deterrence is – how banal – the commitment to the occupation.

Dr. Yuval Elyon is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the Open University of Israel.

[1] This is the English version of a Hebrew op-ed published on the Haokets web magazine. The hyperlinks in the English version were added in translation.

[2] An idiom coined by Ehud Barak to describe Israel’s condition  in the region [the translator]