In his most recent Washington Post column, Chalres Krauthammer offers a sobering proposal for deterring an Iranian nuclear attack against Israel.
Invoking memories of John F. Kennedy's famous words during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dr. Krauthammer suggests that President Bush offer a similar policy statement on Iran. Call it the Holocaust Declaration:
"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear attack upon Israel by Iran, or originating in Iran, as an attack by Iran on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon Iran."
The statement, he continues, should be followed with a simple explanation: "As a beacon of tolerance and as a leader of the free world, the United States will not permit a second Holocaust to be perpetuated upon the Jewish people."
Krauthammer believes the declaration is needed for rather obvious reasons. First, contrary to the "findings" of the recent National Intelligence Estimate, Tehran has not abandoned its efforts to build nuclear weapons. Just last week, Iran announced that it is installing 6,000 additional centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility, and suggested that the new centrifuges have an expanded production capability. That will allow Iranian scientists to increase their output of enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons--once the required purity level is attained.
As the columnist notes, the world yawned in reaction to Iran's latest admission. Making matters worse, diplomatic efforts to halt Iran's bomb program have been colossal failures:
The latest round of U.N. Security Council sanctions, which took a year to achieve, is comically weak. It represents the end of the sanctions road.
At home, the president's efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program were irreparably undermined by November's National Intelligence Estimate, whose "Moderate Confidence" that Iran has not restarted nuclear weaponization--the least important of the three elements of any nuclear program--has promoted the illusion that Iran has given up the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yet uranium enrichment, the most difficult step, proceeds apace, as does development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
The president is out of options. He is going to hand over to his successor an Iran on the verge of going nuclear. This will deeply destabilize the Middle East, threaten the moderate Arabs with Iranian hegemony and leave Israel on hair-trigger alert.
Given those realities, Dr. Krauthammer believes the "Holocaust Declaration" is our best hope for deterring Iran. While acknowledging that Tehran is hardly a rational state actor, he thinks the threat of a massive U.S. nuclear strike, in response to a nuclear attack against Israel, will be enough to make the mullahs think twice. Moreover, he writes, the policy holds little risk for the United States, since Iran's crude nuclear devices and delivery systems pose no threat to the CONUS--although they could target U.S. military forces in the Middle East and portions of Europe.
While we can't disagree with his assessment of Iran's nuclear program, or the failure of current deterrence efforts, the proposed Holocaust Declaration is premature, at best. Attempting to provide a military rationale for the policy, the Post columnist claims that Israel's nuclear arsenal could be easily wiped out, eliminating its deterrent--and counter-strike--value. We disagree.
Fact is, Israel has the largest nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, totaling more than 200 tactical and strategic warheads. For argument's sake, let's say an Iranian attack achieves operational surprise, and the initial strike eliminates one-third of Israel's nuclear arsenal. That still leaves Tel Aviv with almost 150 warheads for a retaliatory attack. We should also note that Israeli weapons are much more powerful than those initially available to Iran. In other words, Israel's nukes carry a far bigger punch and they would inflict far more damage and casualties--against more targets--than Iran's first strike.
Additionally, Tehran faces the daunting challenge of pinpointing and accurately hitting Israel's nuclear arsenal. True, Iranian intelligence knows the location of Israeli fighter bases and its primary missile installation, but their ability to track dispersed aircraft and missiles is severely limited. That task is further complicated by the IDF's extraordinary skills at military denial and deception. Virtually every successful campaign waged by Israeli forces has been accompanied by a detailed deception campaign, giving the IDF strategic or tactical surprise. Given that history, it's quite possible that Israel would beat Iran to the punch (with its own preemptive strike) or inflict a devastating counter-strike, utilizing aircraft and missiles that survived Tehran's initial onslaught.
Krauthammer also ignores the fact that Israel has steadily expanded its nuclear options, acquiring delivery platforms that are more survivable. In the late 1990s, the Israeli Navy bought three modern diesel-electric submarines from a German shipyard, and hired another German firm to modernize its existing Gal-class boats.
All of these vessels are equipped with torpedo tubes as large as 650 mm, raising speculation that Israel will deploy--or has deployed--nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on its submarines. Former officials with the State Department and the Pentagon reported in 2002 that Israel had conducted successful cruise-missile tests in the Indian Ocean. Operating from the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea or even the Persian Gulf, Israeli submarines offer another platform for a nuclear strike against Iran.
It's also worth remembering that Israel is the only country in the world with a layered, over-lapping missile defense system, deployed primarily against the Iranian threat. Currently, Israeli Arrow II and Patriot batteries offer a high degree of protection against Tehran's only viable nuclear delivery option--medium-range ballistic missiles.
While no system is 100% effective, Israel's existing missile defenses have the ability to knock down most of the Iranian missiles aimed at Israel. Defending against terrorist rockets fired from Lebanon or the Gaza Strip is a different matter; however, those systems lack the payload capacity to carry a nuclear warhead.
By comparison, Iran has no missile defenses. Any nuclear warhead delivered by an Israeli Jericho II ballistic missile or a cruise missile would almost certainly reach its target. Israeli Air Force (IAF) jets, flying long-range strike missions against Iran, also have a high probability of reaching their destinations.
At this juncture, Israel has more than enough nuclear options--and defensive capabilities--to theoretically deter an Iranian attack. We emphasize that words for the same reasons outlined by Charles Krauthammer. Tehran is not always given to rational deeds. Some Iranian leaders, anxiously awaiting the return of the 12th Imam, would probably welcome a nuclear exchange with Israel, believing it would hasten their desired Armageddon.
As for the United States, there are clear geopolitical problems that would come with a Holocaust Declaration. At a minimum, the White House would be pressed to extend similar coverage to other allies in the Middle East, raising the question of who should--and should not--be covered by our nuclear umbrella.
We will give Dr. Krauthammer credit for broaching an extremely sensitive, yet important, subject. If Iran is left unchecked, the declaration he advocates may one day become necessary. By the end of the next decade, Tehran will possess a significant nuclear arsenal and large numbers of ballistic missiles with more advanced decoys and counter-measures. That will increase the likelihood of Iranian missiles penetrating Israeli defenses, inflicting far greater casualties.
Facing that threat--not to mention possible Iranian nuclear "proxies" in Syria and Lebanon--Israel will be forced to expand its own nuclear arsenal and spend even more on missile and civil defense programs. With American taxpayers picking up much of that tab, a future U.S. president may find it necessary, perhaps imperative, to extend our special relationship with Israel.
Still, the odds of that happening are distant. With Iran on an apparent collision course with its adversaries, the issue of its nuclear program (and how to deal with it) will be resolved sooner, rather than later.
On a related note, the U.K. Independent reports that the U.S. and Iran have been engaged in "back channel" talks on its nuclear program for the past five years. Turns out that the U.S. negotiators are academics and former diplomats. The paper reports (correctly) that such talks have been useful in the past, we rather doubt this effort will bear fruit. Not only have these discussions been going on for a long time, but the initiative seems fatally flawed. The talks apparently focus on the idea of letting Iran enrich uranium on its own soil, while promising not to divert nuclear fuel for military purposes. Tehran's track record in keeping such promises is second only to North Korea.