A modest proposal: A grand nuclear bargain between Israel and Iran

Israelis are considering attacking Iran. Maybe there is a different strategy for ending Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Israel mounted a huge military exercise involving more than 100 F15 fighters, tankers, and other support craft 900 miles from home over the eastern Med. This elaborate rehearsal for an attack on Iran might have been bluff or bluster. Maybe not. Even Israeli peaceniks are wondering whether their country should launch a preemptive strike against Iran’s budding nuclear program. I can’t blame them. Within living memory, one out of three Jews in the world were murdered while the world watched. When the vicious president of a budding nuclear power denies that this happened, and vows to wipe Israel off the map, Israelis take notice. Raise your hand if you’re sad that Israel destroyed Iraq’s (actual) nuclear program 27 years ago. For Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would be very dangerous and would be a big defeat for America, Israel, and many other nations.

Yet an Israeli attack to prevent this would be a disaster. We must do everything in our power to discourage such a strike. The likely consequences for the region, for our own efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be terrible.

At the same time, I am baffled about what we or Israel should really do.

Iran seems determined to develop a bomb, maybe not today, but not too far from now. I don’t see how we can really stop the Iranians, or what incentive the Iranians really have to remain a non-nuclear state. Everything we have done over the past seven years has eroded the carrots and the sticks we might deploy to prevent this outcome.

I submit that Israel should offer a grand bargain to Iran and other Middle Eastern states. We will give up our nukes—verifiably–if you do the same. I admit this seems crazy. One friend said that Israel will do this “when pigs fly.” Another suggested that Israel should not make concessions while it is under hostile fire from both Hamas and Hezbollah. We need to think differently.

Israel’s nuclear deterrent once served a useful purpose. When Arab states’ actions and rhetoric sought Israel’s destruction, Israel’s nuclear capability also gave hostile neighbors a face-saving way of accepting the reality of Israel’s existence. That time has passed. Israel’s commonly known but never officially acknowledged nuclear capability complicates every effort to prevent further nuclear proliferation. Since Israel is the obvious target of nuclear weapons held by rogue states or non-state actors. Israel has a unique stake in breaking the proliferation cycle.

Israel can respond by enhancing its second-strike deterrent capability on land, air, and under the sea. You’d already have to be crazy to attack Israel. This surely deters Saudi Arabia , Syria, and Iran. I’d hate to bet Tel Aviv–or New York–on Israel or America’s ability to deter, incapacitate, or kill every apocalyptic terrorist in the world. The more nuclear weapons exist, the more countries develop and house these weapons, the more likely it is that some crazy person or group will someday obtain one.

The scariest thing about nuclear weapons is that they are 1945 technology. Graham Allison and others note what every expert knows but ordinary citizens do not: There are no real “secrets” here. Your cellphone is more high-tech than the H-bombs in our nuclear arsenal. Any moderately advanced country &#8212 maybe even some nonstate actors &#8212 can build destructive weapons. Once one assembles a dodgeball-size lump of fissionable material, an atomic bomb is not that complicated. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima wasn’t even tested before it was used.

We need a new way to think about these questions. Some countries want nuclear bombs to deter our country or hostile neighbors. We must change these fears and incentives. Other countries go nuclear for prestige, to join the nuclear “club.” We must decouple national prestige from nations’ ability to make big explosions. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Brazil, Japan, and Germany do not. How much respect and prestige has Pakistan really gotten from that?

A national security strategy of deterrence must be modified to include the norm that it is simply unthinkable to explode a nuclear weapon or any weapon of mass destruction. Our own country can set an example by making real cuts in our nuclear arsenal and by pledging not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. As the world’s superpower, we can certainly do so. As I noted in an earlier post, Iranians are well aware of our power. Within a few weeks, our military mauled an Iraqi military juggernaut that fought Iran to a standstill over many years.

Israel can afford this, too. Its nuclear weapons do not address the threat it faces from Hezbollah and Hamas. Even without nuclear weapons, even without American security backup, a nation that can assemble 100 F15s in a live exercise 900 miles from home could launch a devastating, entirely conventional retaliatory strike.

Israel, the United States, and the world have a strong stake in Iran and other neighboring powers credibly renouncing nuclear weapons. We can no longer compel Iran to stay non-nuclear at an acceptable political and military cost. We and Israel must offer Iranians an honorable pathway to enhance their prestige by renouncing terrible weapons. It seems crazy to propose that Israelis negotiate away the prized capability they do not even admit to possessing. They should consider it.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.