Monthly Mind March 2012 - Germany, Israel and the Iranian nuclear bomb

Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger

Several years ago, Harvard professor and security expert Graham Allison described the conflict over Iran's nuclear program as “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion”.


Fortunately, the crisis is not – yet – as urgent and dangerous as the thirteen days in October 1962, when the world was on the verge of a nuclear war. Over the past weeks and months, however, the speed of the slow motion has accelerated. Iran has overcome important technical obstacles and might become a military nuclear power soon if no solution is reached at the negotiating table or if the nuclear program is not set back by a military strike.


When looking at the public debate in Germany about the escalation of this conflict, one might get the impression that this crisis hardly affects our interests. Members of President Obama’s staff have described 2012 as “the year of Iran” – in spite of the upcoming presidential elections and the state of global economy. This illustrates the dimensions in which the US administration is thinking. Have we in Germany, by contrast, understood what enormous consequences a war between Israel and Iran or a nuclear Iran might have, and what complex challenges we might have to face sooner or later?


Concrete plans and considerations on how the German government intends to respond to certain scenarios are necessarily kept secret. However, the debate about what options exist and what they might mean belongs into the public arena. We must not evade the most pressing issues.


These issues are now front and center mainly because the only good scenario – the success of diplomacy – has unfortunately not become more likely. There are, to be sure, encouraging voices: experts like Dennis Ross, until recently one of President Obama’s most important advisers on the Middle East, see signs that Iran, in the face of the current international pressure, is looking for a way out at the negotiating table and could eventually refrain from building a nuclear bomb. Moreover, according to recent reports by U.S. intelligence agencies, Iran has still not taken the decision to actually build the bomb. Thus, a negotiated solution avoiding the defeat of diplomacy is still possible. However, what happens if no such solution can be found?


Two questions are particularly pressing. Firstly, how do we act if Israel should attack? Secondly, would a policy of containment and deterrence be a better alternative if Iran should really build the bomb?


Chancellor Merkel answered the first question in her 2008 address to the Knesset. She described Germany's historical responsibility for Israel as “part of the German reason of state”: “For me as German Chancellor, Israel's security is never negotiable. And if this is the case, these words must not remain an empty phrase in the moment of truth.“

In an Israeli-Iranian conflict, Germany could hardly back down from this. The respected political scientist Harald Müller, no military hardliner, expressed his hope that in case of an Israeli military strike the West and Germany “would not put the blame on Israel. Ahmadinejad and the extremists surrounding him are inviting tragedy.”


It is difficult to assess what German support would mean in case of war. Nobody knows how intense and massive such a conflict could be, how far it could escalate, and which types of weapons would be employed. In any case, defensive support would need to be provided if requested by the Israeli government.


At the same time, however, we need to present alternatives to the war scenario – and identify weak spots in the line of argument of those advocating war. After all, war advocates in the United States are often identical with those who, ten years ago, expected the intervention in Iraq to be a cake walk. They base their ideas on an unrealistic “best case” scenario. It is by no means clear that Iran could be compelled by military strikes to permanently give up its nuclear ambitions. Many Iranian facilities are well protected. In just a few years Tehran might be able to restore their program to the level of today. In addition, we have to expect that Iran would strike back massively and on different levels – and that the Iranian population would rally around the regime. And everybody should have learned by now that wars never proceed according to plan.


That is why an attack could lead directly to the very policy war advocates seek to avoid – containment and deterrence. In fact, the supposed choice between ‘attack’ and ‘deterrence’ is a false choice: if Iran does not abandon its nuclear plans, ‘containment’ and ‘deterrence’ will be all the more needed after an attack – maybe for decades. Thus, should the sanctions policies fail, would pursuing a strategy of containment and deterrence be the right course?


One thing is evident: containment is not an option without serious problems. Containment is expensive and requires both staying power and the readiness to enforce formulated “red lines” for Iranian behavior – including, as a last resort, the use of force. Such red lines not to be crossed by Iran would include, for instance, the threat to employ nuclear weapons, conventional attacks against neighboring states and the transfer of nuclear material or nuclear technology.


Presumably, Iran would try to test every limit if it had already crossed the ultimate red line – the production of a nuclear bomb – without facing major consequences. Moreover, the United States would have to be prepared to carry most of the burden of containment, since Washington alone could guarantee regional security and develop a credible strategy of deterrence. In addition, even the best American strategy would not be able to entirely eliminate the risk of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel. The consequences of a miscalculation would probably be no less catastrophic than during the Cold War.


Thus, containment and deterrence hardly provide a perfect solution. But they would still be better than a military attack against Tehran. Incidentally, containment is not identical with appeasement. Even scholars of the conservative American Enterprise Institute have concluded in a study that with respect to Iran “containing and deterring [...] may be the least-bad choice”.


In any case, both scenarios – an attack of whatever type against Iran or Iran in possession of nuclear weapons – entail difficult obligations and complex dilemmas that need to be debated in Germany. It will be too late for these debates if the “Cuban missile crisis in slow motion” were to turn into a war in real time. That is why it is also paramount not to play down the risks and dangers of a military conflict artificially.


Every opportunity to reach a negotiated solution must therefore be seized. This is – and will continue to be – the difficult twin mandate of European foreign policy: To prevent both war and nuclear proliferation.



Wolfgang Ischinger was State Secretary of the German Foreign Office and Ambassador in Washington and London. He is now Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and an advisor to Allianz SE. A shorter version of this Monthly Mind was published in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on March 6.

03 April 2012, by Wolfgang Ischinger