Last night, I noticed a Twitter followee, who shall remain nameless and is generally very sharp, comment that Israel and Iran were “two sides of the same coin”; he’d been watching Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s interview with Piers Morgan at the time. (He later said the interview was too soft, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who still wonders why Morgan is at CNN.) I have no doubt that others feel that way, and in light of President Obama’s comments on Iran at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), I’d like to address it.
Obama’s comments were as safe and predictable as possible: He’s willing to set a limit on attempting diplomacy with Iran (he didn’t) and is tired of their failure to prove that their nuclear program is peaceful. Had he used his speech as an opportunity to appease American defense hawks, he would have said what I’m about to say about the differences between Israel and Iran. But I have to give him credit for not using the UNGA as a rally.
Iran outright denies having nuclear weapons, although their clarity on whether or not they’re trying to get them is less than stellar. Israel is “widely believed” to have nukes, but refuses to fess up. I personally believe there would be no better way to intimidate Iran than to be honest about whatever they’ve got. “Yeah? We’ve had these for years. Bring it, beyotch.”
But it would be incorrect to say that the fact of their nuclear possession (if it is a fact) makes Israel a different side of a coin otherwise occupied by Iran. Consider intent to nuke. Bordering nations fire rockets into Israel on a regular basis; if they wanted to, they might have obliterated any one of those countries by now. More conventional weapons and sabotage technology have made that unnecessary. For Israel, the rumor of their nuke possession is enough to intimidate their enemies into keeping it (by regional standards) light. In short, they have them (maybe) so they need never use them.
As crazy as Ahmadinejad is, when the leader of a country with an uncertain nuclear status threatens to “eliminate” a country he just doesn’t like, it’s best to pay attention. Israeli leaders simply do not start international rows with words like that. Netanyahu has said a lot of things vis-à-vis Iran to which you might object, but that isn’t one of them – eliminate the regime, maybe; eliminate the nuclear capabilities definitely; but not the country, and not the people.
You might dismiss all of that as just rhetoric. But when you’re talking about weapons of mass destruction, and leaders with opposing interests and concern for their own, words mean things. Obama will have to strengthen his own words if he wants to prove to the world whose interests America would benefit from helping secure.