ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Here's a sentence that could have not escaped Barack Obama's attention as he prepared to visit Israel: Israel will almost surely attack Iran's nuclear sites in the next four to seven months. Those were the opening words of an op-ed piece in last Friday's New York Times. The author was Israeli historian Benny Morris, who joins us now from Israel.
And Professor Morris, first, in a nutshell, why would Israel preempt whatever diplomatic efforts might be under way to prevent Iran from going nuclear?
Professor BENNY MORRIS (Middle Eastern Studies, Ben-Gurion University): Well, I think diplomacy has been going on for the past five years as well as some economic sanctions, and they don't seem to be working. I think Iran is bound for nuclear weaponry, I think they are resolved to get it, and I think that if they get it, there is every chance that they will use it against Israel. And that's why Israel feels threatened.
SIEGEL: Why the time frame four to seven months?
Prof. MORRIS: Well, I suppose that's a conjecture on my part. It's partly to do with the advances in the nuclear program itself. The closer it gets to a sort of a point of no return, the more Israel must consider the military option. But I think, also, Israel is reliant on American cooperation — maybe support political, in some ways military — and they will get that from Bush, who is a very true and trusted friend. And they, perhaps in Israel, don't know what to expect from the next American president.
SIEGEL: You describe this as a view, a view of the Iranian threat, that's shared by Israelis of nearly all political stripes. I mean, why wouldn't Israelis assume instead that their own nuclear arsenal could deter Iran's potential nuclear arsenal?
Prof. MORRIS: Israel's nuclear arsenal, which has probably existed for about 40 years, has never been directed at anybody, has never been used against anybody, and Israel has never threatened any country with destruction. The Iranians, on the other hand, even before they have the capability, are busy threatening Israel and have been threatening Israel with destruction for the past few years.
So Israel expects that the Iranians - who are driven by religious fanaticism, their leadership, their regime - may not be deterred like rational people have been by the threat of mutual destruction. And I think Israel's leaders, if they are to be responsible, can't depend on deterrence working. It might work, but it might not. And if you were in Israel's position, you wouldn't leave it to chance.
SIEGEL: How do Israelis answer - well, for example, this argument: The Chinese acquired nuclear weapons. In the days of Mao Tse-Tung, there was talk about destroying the West. Nobody called it rational. Policies the Chinese pursued at home were understood, or understood now to have been terribly murderous, but China turned into a member of the nuclear club, and deterrence has worked. Perhaps Iran, if it actually acquired a nuclear weapon, would behave differently.
Prof. MORRIS: Well, the Chinese at the time, and the Russians at the time, were completely murderous, but they were also rational. They weren't going to allow themselves to be destroyed in order to destroy the West. The Iranian regime is completely different. It's driven by a religious orthodoxy which believes in messianic redemption, which believes that Allah will guard them. So I wouldn't rely on deterrence working because these people are not rational by our light.
SIEGEL: But there is a more rational interpretation of Iranian behavior, which is they've seen non-nuclear neighbors - Iraq and Afghanistan - both invaded. Nuclear Pakistan treated very differentially by the United States. Nuclear North Korea even given some diplomatic respect. The lesson - the rational lesson learned is: Get nuclear weapons, and you'll be treated a lot better.
Prof. MORRIS: I am sure an element of self-defense enters into the Iranian nuclear project as one of its driving forces. They want to be a powerful state in the neighborhood and powerful in a deterrent way. But I suspect that they also look offensively and aggressively at places like Israel, and they want to overrule it and ultimately to destroy it. We know it; they say that every day. So there's no reason to disbelieve them.
SIEGEL: Can you imagine anything happening between now and next January that would make this unlikely that, as you wrote, Israel will almost surely attack Iran's nuclear site in the next four to seven months? Is there something that could underscore that almost, and it might turn Israel around?
Prof. MORRIS: Well, there's two things. One, that the Americans will do the job. They're much more capable of doing it because of, as I said, they have greater air power, they have closer reach. And the other is the Iranians will halt their nuclear production process, but then I fear that both are unlikely.
SIEGEL: Well, Professor Morris, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Prof. MORRIS: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: That's Benny Morris, who is an Israeli historian and professor of Middle Eastern history at Israel's Ben-Gurion University.
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