Efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands are likely to fail, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks. Speaking to a large and largely Jewish audience at a New York synagogue, Brooks mirrored my own long-held belief that ultimately, Iran will get nuclear weapons. Short of going to war to keep that from happening, I don’t see how it could be otherwise.
Technology, for better and for worse, spreads. That’s just how it is. Whether it was gun powder in the late Middle Ages or nuclear weapons today, eventually nations get the weaponry they want. And that will likely be the case in Iran. In fact, it is actually a little dangerous to pretend that anything short of a massive military intervention will keep the Iranians from getting the nukes that the mullahs do deeply desire.
Does that mean that we should not do what we can to slow the process? Of course not. We may even succeed in keeping the nukes out of Iranian hands. Should we go to war over their getting nukes? I hope not. I keep hearing arguments in favor of just that solution though, from many in the Jewish community. In fact, those attending Mr. Brooks’ lecture relate to a nuclear Iran as an almost apocalyptic event.
While there is no moral equivalence between the two governments, I do find it ironic that the only nation to have ever use nuclear weapons against other human beings is the most aggressive in keeping others from having them. It’s not that I disagree with the value of a non-nuclear Iran, but a little self-awareness could go a long way in our not seducing ourselves into the wisdom of going to war to keep others from having what we already possess.
So, if we are not going to war and efforts at long-term prevention are likely to fail, what to do? We need to begin laying the groundwork for how to operate in a world in which Iran has nuclear weapons. Like every other unpleasant situation, we would rather pound our chests and make grand proclamations about “what we will never allow to happen” and how “evil must be stopped”. It’s all very emotionally satisfying, but it never really helps. In fact, it’s a kind of moral/political crack which we need more and more of and the more we consume, the worse off we are.
Apocalyptic thinking is rarely good thinking and never a good policy making tool. I know that Jews are especially practiced in the arts of forecasting destruction, particularly our own. But we need to lay off, whether it’s about Iran or a host of other issues.
Vigilance is crucial. Clear-eyed realism about the threats we face even more so. But planning for a future which we may not want will stand us in better stead than making dire predictions about how that reality will spell the end of the world. If history is any guide, the making of such predictions brings their fulfillment as much as anything else.
But figuring out how to live in new realities, even hated ones, actually works. Many great examples of this approach can be plucked from history, but given the holiday season, two from the first century come to mind. First, we might consider the success of early Rabbis who wasted little time mourning the loss of the Temple or its cult and instead got on with the business of living with integrity in the Roman Empire. Then there were the early Christians who figured out that even if Jesus was not returning immanently, they could build communities which embodied his teachings.
Comparing these two responses with the disappearance of both the Jerusalem priesthood and the Essenes who lived at the Dead Sea, sort of proves the point. We can waste time insisting that the world looked as we wished it did and cursing those who keep it from being so, or we can work to make whatever reality we face a little bit better, a little bit safer, and a little bit healthier. We need to decide which approach to take with Iran.