One point of agreement unites supporters and opponents of the Iranian nuclear arms treaty: We can't permit Iran to get the bomb. A nuclear-armed Iran would transform Israel into a smoking, radiating ruin, the thinking goes. The only way to prevent this second Holocaust is presumably to prevent Iran from joining the club of nuclear nations.
But instead of keeping Iran out of the club, maybe we should invite them in. History shows that fear of mutual destruction keeps nuclear-armed enemies from going to war.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union never engaged in a direct conflict. Each side knew war would be suicidal, since each country possessed sufficient nuclear weapons to inflict unacceptable damage on the other. When the two countries found themselves staring down the barrel of the nuclear gun during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, mutual self-interest led to a peaceful conclusion.
Republicans and Democrats alike have pledged to go to war with Iran, if that's what it takes to keep the Iranians from getting nuclear weapons. Although President Obama now has a veto-proof majority in the Senate for the treaty, assuring its passage and all but guaranteeing that Iran won't have the capability to produce nuclear weapons for at least 15 years, these threats are sure to continue.
Anyone who claims a nuclear-armed Iran has to be prevented at any cost has a responsibility to explain why the Cold War balance of terror doesn't apply to Iran and Israel, which is widely assumed to already have nuclear weapons.
There is no doubt the Iranian leadership deeply hates Israel and has repeatedly threatened to level Tel Aviv and Haifa. Democrats and Republicans alike take this at face value and believe that Iran, if permitted to have the bomb, would use it to destroy Israel.
Would they, really? The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently estimated that Israel has 80 nuclear warheads. Other credible estimates put the number at about 200. Whatever the correct number, Israel's nuclear arsenal is precisely what it is designed to be. A deterrent.
An Iranian nuclear attack against Israel would result in Iran's certain destruction. In other words, the conventional wisdom is that the Iranian leadership is totally irrational and inexorably bent on national suicide. In short, Iranians are crazy.
This would be something the world has never seen before. A zealot nation. Instead of an individual fanatic willing to blow himself to smithereens to take any number of infidels with him, imagine 78 million Iranians strapping on suicide belts and simultaneously pushing their detonator buttons. That's what it would be like for Iran to launch a nuclear strike against Israel.
And if Iran is so hell-bent on annihilating the Jewish people, why aren't they already launching conventionally armed rockets at Israel's major cities? What are they waiting for? It would seem they'd already be at it, waiting only to finish Israel off for good once they got the means.
Iran must also be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the Middle East, according to conventional wisdom. The idea is that if Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia will follow suit. But here too, proliferation opponents fail to explain why national self-interest would not prevent war.
The spread of nuclear weapons poses real risks. Miscalculation, accidents, and lax security can lead to catastrophic results. My novel, The Madman Theory, vividly illustrates these risks by way of an alternate history of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Before advocating war with Iran to keep it from getting nuclear weapons, proliferation opponents have a responsibility to explain why these risks cannot be mitigated and defend their assumption that deterrence does not apply in the Middle East.