We've heard it in the 12 years since Iran's advanced nuclear program was revealed and we heard it again Tuesday in Benjamin Netayahu's speech to Congress: Iran is this close to having nuclear weapons and that's terrifying because Iran is a threat to regional stability in the Middle East, as well as an existential threat to Israel.
But this thinking is wrongheaded, and from start to finished it pervaded Netanyahu's speech. As a result, it was marred by hypocrisy, exaggeration, and obliviousness.
Iran is a signatory to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which only five signatories may have nuclear weapons: the United States, the U.K., France, China, and Russia. That means Iran pledges not to pursue nuclear weapons, but it has the right to pursue nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Yet at last week's AIPAC conference, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice unwittingly provoked raucous applause when she said, “I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forgo its domestic enrichment capacity entirely.” But every country has this right as guaranteed by the NPT, and for pro-Israel lobbyists to insist that Congress demand this of Iran shows just how unserious they can be.
Only four states haven't signed the NPT: Israel, India, Pakistan, and South Sudan. (North Korea signed but withdrew.) In his speech, Netanyahu noted that Israel is the Middle East's only "true democracy," but he omitted that Israel is also the region's only nuclear power. In fact, the Israeli government has never acknowledged its nuclear program, preferring instead to adopt a position of opacity. So when Netanyahu decries Iran's lack of transparency in disclosing its nuclear activities to weapons inspectors, he's lobbing a giant boulder from the roof of his glass Beit Aghion.
"The greatest danger facing the world," said Israel's prime minister, "is the marriage of militant Islam and nuclear weapons." On this he's correct, and no doubt conservatives will be elated to finally hear a world leader use the term "militant Islam." But Netanyahu also deployed all sorts of apocalyptic hyperbole, including a reference to the Holocaust, complete with a cameo by Elie Wiesel in the gallery, and the prime minister's promise of "Never again."
It's true that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an unwelcome development, but the doomsday scenario painted by Netanyahu, Republicans, and even many Democrats is divorced from reality. For them, there's little difference between ISIS and Iran. But just because Iran's official name is the Islamic Republic of Iran, doesn't mean it's in any way comparable to say, the Islamic State (ISIS). In fact, one of Iran's biggest concerns is Sunni radicalism of the sort embodied by groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. So alarmed are Iran's leaders at the rise of ISIS near their border, they've taken to bombing ISIS inside Iraq with the quiet approval of the U.S.
Unlike ISIS militants, the mullahs in Iran do not want to martyr themselves or their country on the altar of Allah. In its 36 years of existence, the Iran hasn't carried out a single overt act of aggression against another country. To find the last such act of any Iranian regime, you'd have to go back a couple of hundred years when the nation was called Persia. Furthermore, Shia Islam, which is the prevailing strain of Islam in Iran, hasn't been poisoned by the violent and jihadist tendencies of Salafism that have crept into the Sunni of the Mideast's Gulf States.
For these reasons, it's hard to see why a policy of containment wouldn't work even if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran knows it wouldn't be able to conduct a nuclear (first) strike on a U.S. ally without being bombarded and perhaps virtually annihilated with nuclear weapons by the U.S. and/or Israel. It can and has been argued that Iran would be more likely to use a proxy such as Hezbollah to carry out such an attack, but this strains credulity. As international securities expert Barry Posen has explained in a noteworthy analysis titled, "We Can Live With A Nuclear Iran,"
"If a terrorist group used one of Iran’s nuclear weapons, Iran would have to worry that the victim would discover the weapon’s origin and visit a terrible revenge on Iran. No country is likely to turn the means to its own annihilation over to an uncontrolled entity."
It can also be added that if Hezbollah were to acquire a nuclear bomb on the black market to use against Israel or the U.S., and if Iran were to become privy to this fact, it's quite likely that Iran would do everything necessary to stop it -- certainly not out of love for Israel or the U.S., but out of a desire for self-preservation. With any attack of that sort, Iran would immediately be a prime suspect, whether it actually perpetrated the attack or not.
During his speech, Netanyahu declared that Iran has a "voracious appetite for aggression" and that it "poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world." But of all the states and organizations that have destabilized the Middle East since the hysteria began over Iran's nuclear program in 2003, Iran isn't even close to being the worst offender. Without question, that dubious distinction goes to the U.S., which in 2003 invaded Iraq. Subsequently, every two-dinar jihadist in the Middle East flocked to Mesopotamia to live out their lifelong fantasy of dying for Allah while fighting American infidels.
That invasion gave rise to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has now morphed into ISIS, whose reign of terror is about to serve as the impetus for Iraq War 3: We Hope It's Just a Trilogy.
Make no mistake, the Iranian regime is corrupt, oppressive, and supports terrorism. But these facts hardly make Iran unique. In fact, it would be in good company even among U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which, as is becoming increasingly clear, are complicit in the funding of terrorist activities, including those of ISIS. While Iran is dangerous, what's even more dangerous is overstating the threat it poses. We've been down that road before in 2002 and 2003, and it led to the most catastrophic American foreign policy debacle in 40 years.
And it's one that Iraqis and Americans are still paying for.