The obsession of the American foreign policy community, as well as most American (and a good many international) politicians, by the myth of Iran’s “existential” threat to Israel, brings the world steadily closer to another war in the Middle East.

The debate over Iran takes for granted that the country soon will have nuclear weapons and would use them. The debate back in 2002-’03 over Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of nuclear weapons did the same. After the United States had gone to war against Iraq, no such weapons were found to exist.

The actual winner of the war that followed the American invasion of Iraq was Israel, which saw Iraq, its principal regional rival, destroyed at no cost to itself. The military victor of the war, but politico-strategic loser, was the United States, which destroyed Iraq, a country in no position to harm the United States, at a trillion-dollar cost, enormous human suffering and waste, and the effective transfer of Iraq to Iran’s zone of military and strategic influence.

The present debate over Iran’s nuclear program, like the pre-2003 debate concerning Iraq’s nonexistent WMD program, has never extended to the most important question in the matter: What difference would it make if Iran did have nuclear weapons? What could it do with them, considering the nuclear deterrent force possessed by Israel, generally thought to be the fifth or sixth largest nuclear power in the world?

Between the start of the nuclear era to the end of the Cold War, tens if not hundreds of thousands of earnest scholars, strategists, pacifist activists, journalistic commentators, politicians and prospective victims of nuclear war brooded over how nuclear weapons might be used in war. So far as I know, the only conclusive answer we found (I was, on occasion, one of those people) was that they were only useful as a threat to deter someone else from aggression. They cannot stop the aggression, but they will exact a serious penalty for it.

The best known of these thinkers was undoubtedly my late colleague Herman Kahn. He made a professional career of lecturing to military staffs, scholars, politicians and concerned laymen about how in the last analysis nuclear weapons had no real military or politico-strategic utility against another nuclear-armed power, other than when one actor possessed an absolute monopoly of these weapons, as was the case of the United States in 1945.

The U.S. used its monopoly to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki and put an end to the Second World War (over-used its monopoly — one would have been enough; indeed the Army Air Force might have dropped a nuclear bomb on an unoccupied island or deserted atoll, and told the Japanese to watch, or to go afterward and take a look at the hole).

Kahn’s characteristic conclusion was that the only future constructive use for nuclear weapons lay in creating a Doomsday Machine, the Ultimate Deterrent. It would be a thermonuclear device that would destroy the entire earth if a nuclear weapon were ever exploded anywhere in the world or in surrounding space.

The Iranians, a highly intelligent and well-educated people, know all of this perfectly well. If they intend to produce nuclear weapons, it is to possess a deterrent to foreign aggression. The Israelis, another highly intelligent and well-educated people, also know nuclear history. Their present policy is not based on fear of a nuclear attack by Iran (or by an Iranian proxy). It is calculated to prevent the United States from imposing on Israel a solution to its relationship with the Palestinians. They do not wish a permanent legal frontier dividing them from some new and recognized Palestinian state — a frontier sponsored and also guaranteed by the United States, as well as by international law.

Such a border, and such an internationally guaranteed Palestinian state, would stop further Israeli expansion into Palestinian territory, and possibly reverse the expansion that already has taken place. Continuing expansion is the present Israeli government’s policy, as President Benjamin Netanyahu stated in the presence of the international press at Davos, at the start of the first Netanyahu government in 1996.

The propaganda concerning Iranian nuclear weapons is deliberately promoted by Israel and its allies in order to inspire an attack on Iran by the United States, or more likely, to rationalize such an attack by Israel itself. An attack, by either government, would undoubtedly provoke Iranian retaliation against American troops, ships and installations in regions neighboring Iran. It would also distract the United States from the Palestinian issue.

This explains recent efforts by the American military to dissuade Israel from such an attack. At the same time, others in the American government, and all but one of the present Republican candidates for the presidential nomination, irresponsibly promote such an attack, against the interests of their own nation.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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