If We Will It, It Is No Dream
Rabbi Richard A. Block
The Temple – Tifereth Israel
Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio
Yom Kippur 5773/2012
It is said that when Adolf Hitler came to power, he consulted an astrologist who told him, “You will die on a Jewish holiday.” “Which holiday?” Hitler asked. Replied the astrologist, “Whatever day you die will be a Jewish holiday.” The same might be said of another would-be perpetrator of genocide: Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Iran is a nation run by rabid anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, totalitarian Islamist thugs and extremists who brutalize and oppress their own citizens, Iran, despite denials, is well on the way to developing nuclear weapons that could be used to exterminate the Jewish State.
Hear what Ahmadinejad has to say about Jews, words worthy of Adolph Hitler: “For some 400 years…a horrendous Zionist clan has been ruling…world affairs…in political, media, monetary, and banking organizations…” On the Holocaust: “The Zionist regime’s establishment was based on numerous deceptions and lies and one of the biggest lies was the Holocaust.” On Israel: “Anyone who loves freedom and justice must strive for the annihilation of the Zionist regime.” Just yesterday, he declared that Israel will be “eliminated,” and we can expect more such obscenities when he addresses the UN General Assembly tomorrow on, of all days, Yom Kippur. Listen to the boast of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “This bogus and fake Zionist outgrowth will disappear from the landscape…” Consider the candid admission of Walid Sakariya, who represents Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy, in Lebanon’s parliament: “This nuclear weapon is meant to create a balance of terror with Israel, to finish off the Zionist enterprise.”
Neither this topic nor this danger is new. Iran’s covert nuclear program had been underway for nearly two decades when it was first exposed, in 2002. Since then, the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has reported that Iran is engaged “in activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device,” including research on uranium cores and detonators for nuclear weapons, acquiring nuclear weapons development information from a clandestine supply network, developing an indigenous nuclear weapons design and testing the components, computer-modeling nuclear explosions and logistics for nuclear testing, and engineering studies to adapt its missiles for nuclear warheads.
Since 2002, the UN Security Council has demanded six times that Iran suspend enrichment of uranium and provide verification of its cessation, to no avail. For several years, the US, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK have attempted to negotiate with Iran, with no results. The UN, US, and EU have imposed an escalating series of economic sanctions on Iran, recently extended to the banking and energy sectors. Slow to be enacted, openly disobeyed or quietly
evaded, and hedged about with exceptions, waivers and loopholes, these measures have impacted, but not crippled the Iranian economy, nor have they persuaded Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Highly sophisticated, covert cyber-attacks against Iran’s nuclear program have done some damage, but have not fundamentally retarded the deadly weapons trajectory.
On the contrary, the Iranian response to all of these efforts has been delay, dishonestly, denial, and defiance, combined with ever-increasing secrecy, efforts to make its facilities impervious to military attack, and the acceleration of its program, which is advancing faster than previously thought. The IAEA reports that Iran has produced enough enriched uranium to fuel five bombs if enriched further. Even more ominously, Iran is enriching uranium to 20%, which is 90% of the way to the level of bomb fuel, a threshold that could be reached with a mere three weeks of further enrichment. Iran has stockpiled twice the amount of this 20% enriched uranium since January, and in just the last three months, Iran has doubled the capacity to enrich uranium to that level. This activity is being undertaken in a bunker buried in a mountain on an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Base. This facility is right-sized for the production of nuclear material for weapons, but not for civilian applications.
The IAEA reports Iran has also carried out extensive concealment activities at its Parchin military base, demolishing five buildings, scraping the earth, and removing power lines, fences, and roads. Why? Because that’s where they conducted nuclear detonation tests, experimenting with triggering nuclear
explosions. With Iran speeding the enrichment of nuclear fuel, beyond the level needed for any peaceful purpose and close to that required for nuclear bombs, the day of reckoning draws ever nearer.
One and only one thing has proved effective in causing the Iranians to suspend their march toward nuclear weapons. In 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, in the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the Iranians, who were actually developing nuclear weapons, feared they would be invaded next and halted the program for a few years. When the fear passed, it was resumed. Neither UN demands, nor sanctions, nor the prospect of Israeli military action, nor repeated US assertions that Iran will not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons and that “all options are on the table,” have yet had the desired effect.
Iran’s leaders seem to believe that Israel alone cannot destroy their nuclear weapons facilities and they know there is widespread disagreement in Israel as to whether the enormous risks of a unilateral attack are worth taking. The Iranians are also keenly aware of recent statements by high-ranking US officials that there is still “time and space” for sanctions and negotiations to succeed. It is apparent to all, including Iran, that, rightly or wrongly, the US is doing everything it can to dissuade Israel from acting alone.
Above all, Iran knows that the American and Israeli governments are not in accord on the boundary they say cannot be crossed. US leaders state that we will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Israeli leaders insist they cannot live with an Iran that has nuclear weapons capability. The difference between “nuclear weapons” and “nuclear weapons capability” is not semantic; it is substantive. A nuclear weapon is an assembled device, ready to be activated, delivered, and detonated. Nuclear weapons capability is something short of that, ranging from possessing the know-how, tools and materials necessary to create bombs, to having all the component parts required, but not assembling them, to partially assembled devices one step from completion. Israel and the US are not at the same place on this spectrum.
It is understandable, even natural, that the two nations we love would assess differently the security risks posed by Iran’s weapons program or disagree about the best way to oppose it. While the US and Israel share deeply held values and security interests, and cooperate closely in military and intelligence areas, they differ tremendously in size, location, vulnerability, history, and power. The risks that Iranian nukes would pose to the US are strategic in nature; they would endanger America’s vital interests and assets in the region and the world, and make a peace agreement with the Palestinians even harder to achieve. The risks Israel faces are not just strategic; they are existential. The very continuation of the Jewish State is potentially at stake.
What is surprising, then, is not that the US and Israel assess the dangers, tactics, and trigger points differently, but that the US and Israel have aired their differences so publically, to the detriment of their common concerns. This is an unfortunate development for which the leaders of both nations share blame.
Several weeks ago, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff asserted that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would “delay and not destroy” Iran’s nuclear program and would “thwart” what he called the “international coalition” against Iran, adding, “I don’t want to be complicit if [the Israelis] choose to do it.” Shortly thereafter, it was reported that the US had downsized a joint US-Israeli ballistic missile exercise aimed at pressuring Iran, cutting the number of U.S. troops participating by more than two-thirds and reducing the number and quality of missile interception systems to be used.
All this came against the background of a recent gathering in Tehran of 120 “non-aligned” nations. Attendees included the new Egyptian and North Korean heads of state, the Prime Minister of India, which opposes the sanctions against Iran, our erstwhile ally, President Karsai of Afghanistan, and the UN Secretary General, Ban Ke Moon. Although Moon, to his credit, used the occasion to denounce Holocaust denial, claims that Israel does not have the right to exist, and describing Israel in racist terms, his presence at the gathering undercut his words. The attendance could hardly have left Iran feeling it faces a unified international coalition.
On September 3rd, the New York Times reported that the U.S., seeking to “calm Israel,” was considering “a range of steps short of war that it hopes will forestall an Israeli attack, while forcing the Iranians to take more seriously negotiations that are all but stalemated.” These include a new radar system in Qatar “that would combine with radars already in place in Israel and Turkey to form a broad arc of antimissile coverage.” “The message to Iran,” The Times reported, “would be that even if it developed a nuclear weapon and mounted it atop its growing fleet of missiles, it could be countered by antimissile systems.” But such systems do nothing to deter the Iranian weapons program itself. They might even be taken to signal that we’re prepared to live with a nuclear-armed Iran and see that as inevitable. And keep in mind that missiles are not the only possible means of delivery. A nuclear weapon could also be delivered by cargo ship or smuggled in by tunnel from the increasingly lawless Sinai.
The Times also reported an ongoing debate within the American administration over whether to give Israel “a stronger public assurance that [the US] is willing to take military action, well before Iran actually acquired a weapon” and whether the US needs to set clear “red lines” for Iran, steps beyond which the United States would not allow [Iran] to go. Soon after that report, Secretary of State Clinton reiterated our determination to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, but stated we would set neither red lines nor deadlines.
Such comments and actions are unhelpful and counter-productive. As Chemi Shalev, a columnist for Israel’s left-leaning newspaper, Haaretz, observes, an overwhelming majority of Israelis believe that military force is the only way the Iranian nuclear effort can be stopped. “But most Israelis,” Shalev writes, “are rightly afraid of the consequences, especially if they go it alone. And they know full well that the US will do a much better job. So long as they believe that…the US might carry out the task, or at least lend its formidable hand to an Israeli
strike, they are willing to give more time to diplomacy and sanctions.” But if statements and actions by America’s military and political leaders lead Israel to believe that it “cannot rely on the US and…that Israel must take its fate into own hands,” it will feel compelled to do so “before it’s too late.” The sad, alarming irony is that the United States apparently fears an attack by Israel upon Iran’s weapons facilities more than Iran does.
In response to the series of unwise public statements of American leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made unhelpful statements of his own, leading Jeffrey Goldberg, a respected columnist, to opine, on Meet the Press, that the prime minister has mismanaged the relationship with the American administration. In heated comments made in Israel in English, the prime minister said, “The world tells Israel, ‘Wait. There’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” While I am deeply sympathetic to the substance of these remarks and to the frustration that must have led to them, their public utterance risked damaging Israel’s indispensable relationship with the US. It also led some in both countries to infer that the prime minister was attempting to influence the US presidential election. Notably, Jeffrey Goldberg is not among them, arguing that Netanyahu’s criticism was motivated by genuine concern, not to interfere in the election. Nonetheless, if that was not his intent, and I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, as a keen observer of US politics, he should have realized his words could be interpreted that way. That impression, true or false, is profoundly detrimental to Israel’s interests, because the bedrock of US support for Israel is its bi-partisan character, which elevates it above politics and ensures that, whichever party controls Congress or the Presidency, that support will remain rock solid. The last thing Israeli leaders or friends of Israel should want, whatever their party affiliation, is for Israel to become a political football, a litmus test of ideology rather than a matter of America’s national interest. And I want to add, lest I be misunderstood, that this sermon has no partisan agenda and is not intended as an endorsement of any candidate or to signal how I intend to vote. While I have clear political preferences, I don’t consider the pulpit a kosher place to express them.
Politics aside, public disagreement between American and Israeli leaders over Iran undermines the pressure they are trying to bring on the Iranian regime. The fundamental problem, according to Graham Allison, a Harvard expert on nuclear conflict, is our “questionable credibility.” The US and our allies have allowed Iran to cross numerous prior “red lines” over 18 years, with few consequences. The use of military force must truly be a last resort. But only a credible threat – the real, deadly serious prospect of a successful attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities – can make such an attack unnecessary. The less Iran fears that will happen, the more they doubt the US means what it says, the more arrogantly and recklessly it will behave.
It would not take dozens of nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. One would suffice. Nazi Germany had a nuclear weapons program during WWII. Imagine what the world would look like today if Hitler had acquired them before we did! Would Iran’s leaders be crazy enough to start a nuclear war with Israel? I don’t know. Do you? Does anyone? Some argue that Ahmadinejad and company are not crazed messianists, but posturing blowhards, cynical manipulators, or clever propagandists who would be too rational to actually use nuclear weapons. Or that possessing nuclear weapons would somehow make Iran behave more responsibly, rather than less. Perhaps this view is right, but would you bet your life and the lives of your children and grandchildren on it? If you were the Prime Minister of Israel, would you stake the existence of your nation on Iranian rationality? Perhaps Israel’s fear of an Iranian nuclear strike verges on paranoia. But even paranoids can have real enemies. If history teaches us anything, it is this: When people with the power, desire, and means to kill Jews threaten to do so, consider them deadly serious.
The possibility that Iran would attack Israel with nuclear weapons is real, but that is not the only dangerous scenario and Israel is not alone in being deeply worried. Among the Wikileaks documents in 2010 were cables from Arab leaders imploring the United States to strike Iran. According to one dispatch, Saudi King Abdullah repeatedly asked the US to “cut off the head of the snake” before it was too late. In another, King Khalifa of Bahrain advised General David Petraeus, then head of the US Central Command, “That program must be stopped…The danger of letting it go is greater than the danger of stopping it.”
Consider this. For decades, Israel has reportedly possessed nuclear weapons, yet no Arab state has sought them. It is not Israel’s nuclearization they fear, but Iran’s, because it would shift the regional balance of power decisively. As the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates observed in a public forum in 2010, “There are many countries in the region who, if they lack the assurance that the US is willing to confront Iran, will start running for cover towards Iran. Small, rich, vulnerable countries in the region do not want to be the ones who stick their finger in the big bully’s eye if nobody’s going to come to their support.” He said further, “[T]alk of containment and deterrence really concerns me. Why should I..believe that deterrence or containment will work? Iran doesn’t have nuclear power now, but we’re unable to contain them and their behavior in the region. What makes me think that once they have a nuclear program, we’re going to be more successful in containing them?”
The point is that even if Iranian nuclear weapons were never used, they would enable Iran to intimidate, terrorize, attack or invade its neighbors under a nuclear umbrella. If Iran’s nuclear weaponization succeeds, it will ignite a race by a half dozen neighboring states, already threatened by its ambitions, to obtain such weapons themselves. That would increase exponentially the risk that low-level conflicts and regional or civil wars could spiral into nuclear catastrophes or that the weapons would come into the hands of terrorist organizations.
Iranian nuclear weapons would transform the dynamics of every present and potential confrontation in the Middle East, the world’s most volatile region – from the slaughter in Syria being perpetrated by Iran’s ally, President Assad, to Iran’s claim that Bahrain belongs to them, to its threats to take over Saudi Arabia and its oil fields, close the Straits of Hormuz and cut off the world’s oil supply, and more. A nuclear Iran would promote international terrorism with even greater impunity. And as Iran’s missile program gives it progressively farther reach, over European capitals and Moscow, and ultimately, the United States, our options for dealing with Iran will diminish substantially.
Is it not astonishing, horrifying, even obscene, that within the lifetime of survivors of the Holocaust, another holocaust is threatened? However appalled we may be, we should not be surprised, for the Passover Haggadah reminds us, Lo echad bilvad amad aleinu l’khalotenu. Elah, sheh b’khol dor vador omdim aleinu l’khaloteinu. Not just one enemy has arisen to attempt our destruction. Rather, in every generation there are those who seek to annihilate us. Just as WWI, the so-called “war to end all wars” failed in that objective, the rallying cry that emerged from the Holocaust, “Never Again!” has not put an end to genocide. “Never again” could yet prove to be a fragile, endangered hope or an empty slogan, rather than an inviolate commitment and a moral certainty.
What can we do about this, other than shrai gevult? Where Iran is concerned, the key thing is for each of us to understand the issues and be able to articulate them. We must support vital organizations like AIPAC and The Israel Project that advocate for Israel’s security and for an enduring strategic relationship between the US and Israel. And if, ultimately, the United States and Israel determine they must resort to force to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or if Israel feels compelled to act alone, we need to be ready to explain and defend that fateful decision.
No matter how daunting the dangers, we are not helpless or powerless. On the contrary, the Jewish People has never had so much to defend or so many resources to employ. In the prophetic words of Theodore Herzl, “Im tirtzu, eyn zo agadah” If you will it, it is no dream. This, then, is our watchword, our summons, our calling: To demonstrate that we possess the unbreakable, unquenchable will of prior generations, and cherish the timeless, eternal dream that sustained Jews for millennia. Im tirtzu, eyn zo agadah. If we will it, it is no dream.