Benjamin Netanyahu is Wrong about Iran

by Benjamin Studebaker

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his long-anticipated speech before congress on Iran. If you’re interested, here’s the transcript. Netanyahu argues that the deal the Obama administration is trying to work out with Iran would endanger the security of Israel and the United States. His argument is remarkably weak. Here’s why.

Netanyahu argues that Iran is a security threat because of the kind of regime it is, comparing it to Nazi Germany:

Iran’s regime is not merely a Jewish problem, any more than the Nazi regime was merely a Jewish problem. The 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis were but a fraction of the 60 million people killed in World War II. So, too, Iran’s regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world. To understand just how dangerous Iran would be with nuclear weapons, we must fully understand the nature of the regime.

Netanyahu argues that Iran funds a variety of organizations that are hostile to Israeli or US interests (the Houthis in Yemen, Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah, etc.). This is all true. He also claims that Iran has taken a variety of symbolic actions that are hostile to Israel or the United States (military exercises against mock US vessels, calling America the “great Satan”, threatening to destroy Israel, etc). This is also all true. He then claims that on this basis Iran is the same as ISIS:

Don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America.

Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.

In this deadly game of thrones, there’s no place for America or for Israel, no peace for Christians, Jews or Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed, no rights for women, no freedom for anyone.

This is a sweeping claim that Netanyahu doesn’t justify. The true claims he makes prior to it do not in any way imply this conclusion. Netanyahu plays fast and loose with language–both Iran and ISIS claim Islam, but each conceptualizes Islam very differently from the other. Iran is a Shiite theocracy. ISIS is variation on Sunni Wahhabism, a radical form of Islam developed in Saudi Arabia. As I said the other day, Saudi Arabia and Iran are mortal enemies and their conceptions of Islam are very different. Indeed, ISIS would not recognize Iran as genuinely Islamic and vice versa. To say that Iran and ISIS are fighting for the same crown necessarily implies that the forms of Islam each practices are identical. This is so false that it could easily be considered bigotry by people familiar with Islamic teachings. The Iranian government does not destroy historical artifacts. It executes a couple hundred people per year for murder, treason, armed robbery, drug trafficking, rape, pedophilia, sodomy, kidnapping, and terrorism. This is bad (particularly for the unfortunate individuals executed under the sodomy law), but it is not ethnic cleansing or genocide. Iran recognizes alternative Islamic denominations, Zoroastrians, Christians, and even Jews. This is not to suggest that there is no religious discrimination or bigotry in Iran (there definitely is), but it is not state policy to kill or imprison entire demographics of people on this basis. There are a handful of seats reserved for minorities in the Iranian legislature and religious minorities have the right to vote. Don’t get me wrong–Iran is a theocracy. It’s quite repressive by western standards, but even Iran treats its minorities much, much better than ISIS treats theirs. To equate the two is ridiculous. If Iran took over the world, it would be bad for Christians and Jews, but life would go on. If ISIS took over the world, it would be a catastrophe. These people would be hunted down and killed.

Back to Netanyahu. The prime minister then claims that the deal Obama wants to cut with Iran will render Iran a threshold nuclear power. This is true–the administration wants Iran to agree to stay at least one year away from developing nuclear weapons. Iran wouldn’t be the first country in this situation, however. Japan could build a nuclear bomb in six months. There’s a whole list of abstaining powers–countries that could quickly build nuclear weapons but have refrained from doing so, for a variety of reasons:

Nuclear Powers

Any one of the abstaining powers could build nuclear weapons, but the United States would know six months or one year prior. Now, it’s true that Iran would be the first non-US ally to join the abstaining list, and it’s certainly possible that Iran could develop nuclear weapons anyway. It’s even conceivable that Iran could somehow develop nuclear weapons and keep it a secret from weapons inspectors and from US intelligence.

But if we look at this graphic, we also see that there are a variety of non-US allies that have nuclear weapons, including North Korea. Now, Netanyahu mentions North Korea in his speech, claiming that Iran could get the bomb the same way North Korea got it in 2006:

Inspectors knew when North Korea broke to the bomb, but that didn’t stop anything. North Korea turned off the cameras, kicked out the inspectors. Within a few years, it got the bomb.

Now, we’re warned that within five years North Korea could have an arsenal of 100 nuclear bombs.

Like North Korea, Iran, too, has defied international inspectors. It’s done that on at least three separate occasions — 2005, 2006, 2010. Like North Korea, Iran broke the locks, shut off the cameras.

But North Korea proves that even if Iran gets nuclear weapons, Israel and the United States have nothing to worry about. As Netanyahu points out, North Korea got nuclear weapons in 2006. For nine years, we’ve lived in a world where the Kim regime has nuclear weapons. This is the same Kim regime that starves its own people, constantly threatens South Korea and the United States with destruction, occasionally shoots at South Koreans, and imprisons and kills uncounted dissidents in gulags. The Kim regime is more bellicose, more crazy, and much more murderous than the Iranian regime. It’s had nukes for nine years. It hasn’t used them. It hasn’t given them to terrorists. Why?

Because even North Korea knows that attempting to use nuclear weapons offensively against other states that have nuclear weapons is a suicidal, stupid thing to do. If North Korea nukes the United States, the United States will nuke North Korea and there will be no more North Korea. If North Korea gives nuclear weapons to terrorists and those terrorists nuke the United States, the United States will figure out how the terrorists got the weapons, nuke North Korea, and there will be no more North Korea. And even if the United States can’t prove that the terrorists got the weapons from North Korea, do we really think the United States will require proof in this scenario? It will eliminate whoever it feels it needs to eliminate to feel secure.

The same reasoning applies to Iran. Iran can’t nuke the United States or give nuclear weapons to terrorists who will nuke the United States because it knows it will be destroyed. Israel also has nuclear weapons–Iran can’t nuke Israel for the same set of reasons. So what does Iran mean when it says it will “wipe Israel off the face of the map”? It’s lying. Its leaders know that their people like to hear them say it, but they know they can’t and won’t do it.

So why does Iran want nuclear weapons in the first place? Iran is petrified that the US, Israel, or some combination thereof are going to attempt regime change in Iran. For decades, the US has been trying to control who governs Iran, imposing and supporting the hated Shah who was overthrown in 1979 in favor of the current regime. The current regime believes the United States is out to get it and it believes that if it develops nuclear weapons it will be able to deter the United States from intervening militarily in Iran. If you look at the recent history in the region, it’s understandable that Iran would fear a US intervention–the US has intervened in multiple countries in Iran’s neighborhood. If Netanyahu tried for five minutes to imagine what the world looks like to an Iranian mullah, he might come up with something like this:

Click to Enlarge

Over the last decade and a half, the United States changed the regime in Iraq, Afghanistan, in Libya. It has also been involved in Yemen and supports a variety of other regimes in the region militarily or financially (Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, etc.) In the Libyan case, the United States changed the regime even after Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons. Logically and strategically, it makes perfect sense for Iran to pursue nuclear weapons for defensive deterrence purposes and to be very reluctant to surrender them. It makes perfect sense for Iran to interfere in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen to make its neighborhood friendlier.

Our inability to see this speaks to our inability to imagine the world from other peoples’ point of view. Just because we don’t agree with the Iranian point of view doesn’t mean we can’t understand it. It’s pretty easy to understand if we make any effort at all to try.

What’s going to happen to the United States or Israel if Iran gets nuclear weapons? Nothing. Iran will do what North Korea does–pander to its domestic audience with bellicose screeching while doing absolutely nothing with its nukes.

Netanyahu claims that if we play hardball with Iran, Iran will agree to a deal that leaves it yet further from the bomb. But Netanyahu thinks the Iranians want nuclear weapons because they are ambitious aggressors with plans to nuke Tel Aviv. He’s wrong–the Iranians are petrified of the west and want nuclear weapons to protect against regime change. The nuclear program is much more important to Iran than Netanyahu thinks it is, because its leaders believe that the program is essential to Iranian security.

But the wider point is that it just doesn’t matter if Iran gets the bomb because nuclear weapons are useless offensively against states that also possess nuclear weapons. The world didn’t stop when North Korea got the bomb. It’s not going to stop if Iran gets it. Netanyahu is afraid of the dark.