TORONTO — Can a nuclear-armed Iran be tolerated?
That was the incisive and troubling question that four high-powered speakers addressed last week as they argued for and against the motion at the Munk Debates, held at Roy Thomson Hall before an audience of about 3,000.
Opposing the resolution were Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, and Charles Krauthammer, a Washington Post syndicated columnist.
Arguing for the motion were Fareed Zakaria, a CNN global affairs commentator, and Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Yadlin, one of eight F-16 pilots who obliterated Iraq’s nuclear reactor more than 30 years ago, said that Iran can’t be trusted with a nuclear arsenal because its leaders continually call for Israel’s destruction and deny the Holocaust.
Calling the Iranian regime “cruel and radical,” as well as the world’s chief sponsor of state terrorism, he declared, “”Current Iranian threats [against Israel] should be taken very seriously.”
Suggesting that Iran may pass on atomic devices or nuclear technology to terrorists and that a nuclear-armed Iran could touch off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, Yadlin said Iran’s nuclear program should be treated as an international rather than as an Israeli problem.
Claiming that Cold War-era deterrence will not work in Iran’s case, he said Iran is not a rational player in western terms and seeks domination of the region.
“This debate is not about attacking Iran, but preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. We don’t call for wars. We ask the world to wake up and stop Iran. Iran wants to destroy Israel, and we have to take threat this very seriously.”
Yadlin recommended that economic sanctions on Iran already in place should be tightened so that it is further isolated.
Zakaria, host of the program Fareed Zakaria GPS, said he truly understands Yadlin’s fears and concerns.
But asserting that Iran can in fact be contained and deterred, as the former Soviet Union was in the Cold War period, he said that a military strike aimed at destroying Iran’s nuclear sites would be disastrous and would rally Iranian public opinion around the Islamic regime.
Besides, he noted, a bombing campaign would set back Iran by only two to three years.
Iran, despite its theological and ideological underpinnings, can be deterred because it’s cool and calculated in its actions, he observed.
Neither Israel nor the United States have drawn “red lines,” the point past which a war with Iran would be touched off, Zakaria remarked.
“You want to keep the other guy guessing,” he said, adding that Israel and the United States continue to hew to a policy of ambiguity with respect to Iran.
Krauthammer, who also appears on TV as a Fox News contributor, argued that if Tehran is successful in acquiring a nuclear arsenal, Iran would become a hegemon in the Mideast, thereby encouraging Arab states to build their own nuclear programs.
This development would undermine the concept of nuclear non-proliferation, he noted.
Branding Iran the greatest and most aggressive exporter of terrorism, he said, “This is a regime that has threatened to annihilate Israel.”
Iran is a highly ideologically driven regime, and high up on its must-do list is Israel’s destruction, he added. He cited a comment by a former Iranian president in which he boasted that Iran, but not Israel, could absorb a nuclear attack.
Six million Jews in Israel can’t rely in deterrence, he said.
Deterrence was a tactic that worked when the United States confronted the Soviet Union in a tense standoff, but it won’t work with Iran because of its apocalyptic and messianic view of history, he warned.
Krauthammer said that while Israel has no intention of eradicating Iran or any of its Arab neighbours, Iran is dead set on destroying Israel, a United Nations member state.
Nasr, born in Tehran and the author of The Shia Revival and Democracy in Iran, conceded the world would be better off if Iran does not develop a weaponized nuclear program. But he acknowledged that Iran may yet succeed in fulfilling its ambition.
But he argued that like North Korea and the Soviet Union, Iran can be contained. “Iran is not impervious to containment,” he said.
Disputing the notion that Iran’s foreign policy is driven by messianism rather than cold national interest, Nasr noted that Iran last launched an attack on a neighbour in the mid-19th century.
He condemned the morality of the Iranian regime, but described it as a rational one.
He claimed that a nuclear-armed Iran could be deterred, just as the Soviet Union was at the height of the Cold War and Pakistan and India are today.
Americans, having endured wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, don’t have an appetite for another war in Iran, he pointed out.
Admitting that neither Iraq nor Syria retaliated after their nuclear installations were bombed by Israel in 1981 and 2007, respectively, Nasr claimed that Iran would respond aggressively to an attack, plunging the Mideast into a full-scale war.
In a pre-debate vote on the resolution – “Be it resolved the world cannot tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons capability” – 60 per cent of respondents voted yes, while 24 per cent voted no, while 16 per cent were undecided.
The post-debate tally was 58 per cent pro and 42 per cent con.