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Ehud Barak thinks Iran is a rational actor
This post was originally published on November 17, 2011.

Ehud Barak once said that if he were a Palestinian of the right age he would join a terrorist organization. Last week he went one step further. Asked by Charlie Rose if he too would want a nuclear weapon were he in the shoes of the Iranian leadership, the Israeli defense minister answered affirmatively.

More interestingly, in the nearly 15 minutes that Barak discussed the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, his arguments against Tehran’s proliferation efforts were focused entirely on preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring the deterrence power a nuclear weapon would give it. He did not, as Health Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has tirelessly argued, charge that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks to annihilate or “wipe Israel off the map.”

“I don’t delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel,” Barak explained.

The Iranians look around and see that their neighbors, Pakistan, India, Russia and China, all have nuclear weapons, he continued, “and they look westward and see that Saddam [Hussein] tried it, Gaddafi tried it… and Israel allegedly has it.”

Barak’s argument was two-fold: (a) Iranian nuclear proliferation would lead to a regional nuclear arms race, and (b) should Tehran decide to invade any of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf, nobody would dare stop it as the world did when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

“I once asked [an American leader] what would have happened with the liberation of Kuwait if Saddam had had a few crude nuclear devices,” the defense minister recalled, saying that the unnamed official threw up his arms and admitted the 1991 Gulf War intervention would never have happened.

There is another implication of the decision by the Israeli defense establishment’s top official to focus on deterrence rather than offense as the main factor motivating Iran’s nuclear program. If Barak believes that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence, it means he also believes that Tehran’s leadership can be viewed a rational actor.

In contrast, Netanyahu regularly portrays Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei as irrational madmen hell-bent on perpetrating a second Holocaust of the Jewish people.

The difference in the two analyses cannot be understated.

Nevertheless, Barak was clear that he does not believe the theory of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which defined much of the Cold War, would apply to an Israeli-Iranian standoff dangerously augmented by nuclear weapons on both sides. “Whoever thinks that by acquiescing to Iran turning nuclear and [it] getting the automatic immunity that comes with such a situation, that the world will be a simpler place to live in – or a place where the risk of finding yourself in a real clash with them is simpler – is totally wrong,” he asserted, “That’s not the case.”

In other words, a nuclear-armed Iran is dangerous for the already-volatile region regardless of its reasons for proliferation.

But at a time when speculation is rife that Israel is two steps away from launching a military campaign against Iran, it is highly consequential that the civilian commander of the IDF – and one of the most influential men in the room where the decision to attack would be made – does not appear to believe Tehran is an existential threat to Israel.

One theory amid the frenzied media speculation surrounding a possible Israeli strike on Iran is that Jerusalem is merely attempting to manipulate the West into doing its dirty work by confronting Tehran on its behalf. If one interview can provide insight into to such speculation, this one suggests that Israel’s projected war footing is no more than an attempt to grab the attention of the countries it needs on its side to prevent the world’s first Persian nuke.

Follow Michael Omer-Man on Twitter: @ConflictedLand

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