Home National Politics An Idea that Might Diminish the Likelihood of a Catastrophic War

An Idea that Might Diminish the Likelihood of a Catastrophic War


A significant threat to world peace — of which, I suspect, most Americans are unaware — is looming on the not-very-distant horizon. The following presents a way of framing that growing crisis that, aside from perhaps illuminating the heart of the matter, may offer lines of diplomatic action that could lessen the chance of the worst coming to pass.


The Most Dangerous Situation in the World?

What is the most dangerous situation in the world today? It might not be what you think.

Most everyone, I expect, would say that it is the confrontation between the United States and North Korea, regarding the latter becoming a nuclear power that potentially threatens its region and even the U. S. itself. And they may very well be right.

But there’s another potential war that, because it looks at present more likely to ignite into a conflagration, with possibly catastrophic consequences, may be an even more dangerous threat to world peace.

I’m referring to a possible war brewing between Iran and Israel. The flashpoint is in Syria, where the Russians have a significant presence. With the Russians semi-allied with Iran in the Syrian civil war, and with the long-standing U.S. alignment with Israel, this confrontation has the potential not only to become a major regional war, but possibly even to spin out beyond.

(In an article titled “Are Iran and Israel Headed for Their First Direct War,” Thomas Friedman delineates some of the main aspects of this confrontation, including the two brief outbreaks of armed conflict involving Israel and the Iranians that have occurred in February and then again in April.)

Irreconcilable Differences

Here, in brief, is the structure of the conflict.

Iran has a military presence in Syria because the Iranians — along with the Russians — have been providing the Bashar al Assad regime with the military power to win the civil war that was threatening to topple him and his regime. The Iranians are, of course, seeking benefits from that presence– and important among them is the establishment of bases from which it can threaten Israel.

Those Iranian intentions come squarely up against the Israeli determination to defend itself, which the Israelis have regularly been fiercely announcing their intention to do.

Both sides have been displaying strong determination, and their purposes — Iran determined to utilize its present foothold in Syria to threaten Israel and Israel determined not to allow such a threat to develop — are irreconcilably in conflict.

If neither diverts from its present path, war would seem inevitable.

As Friedman puts the issue: “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force seems determined to try to turn Syria into a base from which to pressure Israel, and Israel seems determined to prevent that.”

Except that Friedman’s use of the word “pressure” may not hit the nail on the head.

Which brings us to how this collision path should be framed.

The Heart of the Issue

If all that were at stake was how much “pressure” the Iranians can apply to Israel, that would be one thing. Nations struggle for power against each other all the time. My argument here is premised on the notion that the Iranian purpose is not simply to pressure the Jewish state, but to destroy it.

That interpretation seems entirely reasonable to reach.

A collection of more than a dozen statements from prominent Iranian officials (and leaders of its proxy militia, Hezbollah) expressing the intention of destroying Israel can be found here. Any Israeli government would be obliged to take such threats and expressions of intention seriously.

(Even this past week, an Iranian Brigadier General, echoing past threats about driving the Jews “into the sea,” declared to the Israelis, “Israel is surrounded and you have nowhere to escape to except to fall into the sea.”)

The Iranian regime has been virulently antagonistic toward Israel since the Iranian Revolution nearly 40 years ago. It has long threatened Israel with destruction, and now — with its virtual control over Lebanon, and apparent intention of making Syria another client state on Israel’s borders, the ability of the Iranians to wreak destruction on Israel threatens to grow to alarming levels.

In response to this growing threat, the Israelis have articulated “red lines” — albeit somewhat ambiguously defined — that it will enforce to protect itself.

From all this, the collision path between the two states comes into clearer focus:

  • Iran wants to destroy Israel.
  • Israel is determined to prevent Iran from having the ability to do so.

If this characterization of the conflict is valid — and there seems to be nothing in the conduct of the two nations inconsistent with that interpretation of their purposes  — it becomes clear which nation must change course to avoid the collision.

A Nation Has a Fundamental Right to Exist

It is generally recognized as a basic principle of international relations that every nation has the right to exist. Regardless of anyone’s critiques of whatever Israeli policies, Israel has that right no less than any other nation.

(Indeed, as Israel is the only nation state in the world that was established by the entire world community –in a vote in the United Nations General Assembly– the legitimacy of Israel’s existence might more readily be argued to be more, not less, than that of other nations.)

The whole international community has a strong interest in upholding that right of each nation to exist. Which also means rejecting the right of any nation to seek the destruction of another.

Therefore, if this crisis revolves around the fundamental right of a nation to exist, that would seem to point toward the kind of pressure the international community should bring to bear to achieve a peaceful resolution.

Pressuring Iran to Back Off

I am unaware that any of the nations of the world have been speaking about this growing crisis in these terms. (Not even Israel, so far as I’ve seen, has chosen to assert its case in terms of its fundamental rights as a nation.) But these, I would assert, are the most valid — and potentially most fruitful — terms in which the world community should frame this dangerous confrontation.

Back in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded the sovereign nation of Kuwait, much of the international community was rallied to see to it that “this aggression will not stand.” An international military force drove Saddam’s forces back out of Kuwait.

What Saddam did to Kuwait was not as profound an offense against international norms as what Iran is threatening to do to the sovereign nation of Israel. Whereas Saddam attempted to absorb Kuwait, Iran threatens to destroy Israel and expel its people from the region.

If it was appropriate for the international community to reverse Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait, how much more appropriate would it be for it to use peaceful means to pressure Iran to back off from its efforts to threaten Israel with destruction.

It took a war to reverse what Saddam had already done. Preventing the threatened Iranian violation of a nation’s right to exist is something that can be pursued by peaceful means.

A hue and cry should be raised — as worldwide as possible — to focus on the illegitimacy of the Iranian purpose regarding Israel. The pressure of moral condemnation could be underscored by appropriate economic sanctions.

Who Might Do What?

It is not clear what role the United States can play in bringing moral pressure to bear upon Iran: unlike in 1990, the leadership of the United States now lacks the kind of moral standing and prestige that, when George H.W. Bush was President, made possible the assembling of a multi-national force to reclaim Kuwait’s sovereignty.

But whatever can be accomplished for this purpose at the presidential level, perhaps the Congress — through passing a resolution on the matter — can contribute to the effort.

In the current situation, it may be from the Europeans — especially Britain, France, and Germany — that the initiative ideally could come to denounce as illegitimate the Iranian intentions toward Israel.

One way and another, as much as possible of the world community should pressure the Iranians to observe — with respect to their military posture in Syria — whatever red lines are required to prevent the fulfillment of those intentions.

And thereby, it seems reasonable to hope, prevent the outbreak of a war that would be very damaging to the region, and perhaps beyond.


This piece was written in the hope that its central ideas — that the heart of the confrontation is that one nation wishes to destroy the other, and that this framing of the issue makes clear where pressure should be applied to resolve the brewing conflict in favor of the demands of the nation whose existence is being threatened — might provide a basis for actions that would reduce the chances of war.

Obviously, even if those ideas have any such potential value, it is only people in prominent positions who have the ability to act on them and realize that value.

I would like to request the help of any readers here who see such potential in this approach. Anyone who has access to people  — in the U.S. or elsewhere — who might be able to advance this approach, I hope you’ll bring this piece to their attention.

And those who, like me, lack such direct access but wish to help this idea get attention from people who might be able to make use of these ideas, or who would know people who could, please send this along to them by whatever means available.  

(Here, for example, are links to the forms for contacting our two U.S. Senators — Warner and Kaine, both major players in these times.)



  • RobertColgan

    And, No
    You’re channeling Friedman?!?

    Taking virtually anything Thomas Friedman writes about Israel as gospel is about as wise as buying that bridge in Brooklyn. He’s been on the Israel/Iran bandbox for years (one of the reasons he supported the Iraq war)——siding with Israel, and always tooting the angelic warning trumpets for war.

    Israel has been guilty of so many crimes against the Palestinians——-and still the Americans claim Israel is the “victim.”
    Iran has been under attack by the USA ever since oil was discovered to be abundantly available in that part of the world: the history of the US interventions in Iranian politics constitutes criminal action.
    The overthrow of a decent and wise man who sought to nationalize (“The Commons”) the oil for the Iranian people, Mossedegh, by the US CIA during the Eisenhower administration was only one small example of the mean viciousness perpetrated on Iran by the USA.
    Recall we shot down an airliner full of Iranian civilians with nary an apology.
    Recall we armed both Iraq and Iran during that terrible war——-which the US saw as useful for destabilization of the MidEast to serve American corporate ambitions.
    Recall that the US has virtually surrounded Iran for years with threatening military weaponry, that the US has OCCUPIED Iraq for the last 15 years. Iran’s government may be as nutzoid as many in theocratic states, dangerous to their own peoples’ freedom, paranoid because of the US presence——but they are nowhere the threat to Israel Friedman claims.

    The Israeli government cannot be excused for their savagery. The powerless UN ought to have condemned their actions for years but because of US resistance could not.
    Too bad. An independent UN, one with genuine teeth to back up its resolutions, would be most desirable in arbitrating world conflicts….instead, we have a UN under US control: not an equitable situation at all.

    As much as I love the Jewish people I wish we had offered them decades ago a place here in the USA…..given them one of the western States for their own, Montana or Wyoming, for example, and gotten them out of the Middle East ——where their presence has been nothing but trouble since 1948. The US would have gained a lovely group of very intelligent and gifted people who would have enriched our culture, and the MidEast would have reverted to its normal ongoing tribal conflicts…in relative peace.

  • old_redneck

    Meanwhile . . . In Syria, Russia played Trump for the chump that he is.

    Courtesy of Sky News:

    Russia has revealed it warned the US about “red lines” it should not cross before it launched airstrikes on Syria.

    Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is reported to have said that officials in Washington were contacted before last weekend’s strikes by the US, UK and France.

    Mr Lavrov said: “There were military leadership contacts, between generals, between our representatives and the coalition leadership.

    “They were informed about where our red lines are, including red lines on the ground, geographically. And the results show that they did not cross these red lines.”

    Keep in mind that Trump also warned Russia and Syria a few days before the actual airstrike, so that they could move the chemicals and anything of value out of the targeted areas.

    But even with Trump obeying those orders from his Kremlin overlords, Russia still feels that after this strike they are now free to support Syria, and Bashir al-Assad, with impunity:

    Mr Lavrov says that, following the airstrikes, it is morally free to deliver S-300 missiles to the Syrian regime.

    He said: “Now, we have no moral obligations. We had the moral obligations, we had promised not to do it some 10 years ago, I think, upon the request of our known partners.

    “We took into consideration their claim that this could destabilise the situation. Even though it’s purely defensive. Now we don’t have this moral obligation any longer.”

    So to be clear, the Kremlin told Trump where he could and could not drop his bombs, he did not drop his bombs in the forbidden areas, and yet the Russians still feel empowered by the airstrike to provide Assad with more military weaponry.

    Does anybody else feel that America got played here?

  • Iran, of course, has literally zero chance of “destroying” nuclear-armed (and MUCH more powerful conventionally) Israel, even if had the serious intent to do so (which I strongly doubt). As for rejecting some of the more extreme Iranian elements’ calls to destroy Israel, I believe that western nations have done that repeatedly. The issue here is much more about regional power politics, IMHO, including the struggle for Syria, and Iran’s desire to expand its influence/reach. Of course, Israel has the right to defend itself, but it’s got to be careful not to overreact – and I’m not sure I trust Bibi, Likud, etc. in this regard – especially given Russian presence in Syria. Let’s hope this can get worked out without it coming to blows…

    • Andy Schmookler

      You are certainly right, Lowell, about the issue of “regional power.” And I’d be glad for you to be right about the “zero chance” of destroying Israel.

      A UPI article has as its first line, on this very day: “Iran’s military head said Saturday that forces are preparing to “annihilate” Israel’s Zionist regime within 25 years after recent threats between the foes.”

      (The article is at https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2018/04/21/Iranian-general-threatens-to-annihilate-Israel/8071524333946/ )

      Maybe such things can be dismissed as mere bravado and chest-thumping.

      As for the relative military powers of Iran and Israel, this site — https://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-listing.asp — ranks Iran 13th in the world, and Israel 16th.

      Of course, everyone — including the Iranians — knows that Israel has nuclear weapons. Maybe that’s a guarantee of some sort. Maybe not.

      • “Maybe such things can be dismissed as mere bravado and chest-thumping.”

        Yep, as long as Israel has 100-200 nuclear bombs and Iran has zero…’nuff said.

        P.S. See http://www.businessinsider.com/here-are-the-worlds-most-powerful-militaries-2018-2 for a list of most powerful militaries n the world (Israel #15, Iran #21, but presumably that doesn’t count nukes?)

        • Andy Schmookler

          Your confidence, Lowell, impresses me. I know you to be an insightful analyst of power relations, and to be someone who cares about the well-being of Israel (a concern that we share, even as we also share a distaste for its current leadership).

          It seems to me that you may be underestimating the threat that Iran poses. Maybe you know as much or more than I about the tens of thousands of missiles that have been supplied to Hezbollah, and about the danger — which Israel has tried to allay through something like 100 air attacks — of Iran becoming able to manufacture in Lebanon (and now perhaps in Syria) high precision missiles with which to target Israel. I gather that these would have an accuracy within meters, and thus if they could be launched in sufficient numbers could wreak havoc on major Israeli cities.

          Despite having studied warfare for not quite a half century, I feel quite unable to judge what kind of scenarios are possible in this developing confrontation between Israel and Iran. But for me, the picture presents much to be worried about– not only for Israel.

          You very rightly raised the issue of “regional power politics.” I read an article earlier this week that spoke of Iran’s having now built a whole arc of nations which it substantially dominates. The article listed the capitals where much power is now in Iranian hands– from Tehran (its own capital) through Baghdad (thanks to W’s war, handing power to the Shia) now through Damascus and on to Beirut (through its proxy, Hezbollah, which is more powerful than the official Lebanese army).

          The Iranian regime has problems at home. But their success in extending their power through that arc is also quite remarkable. And if Syria becomes an Iranian base, that’s a lot of proximity to Israel.

          You express concern lest Israel “overreact” to the threat it perceives from Iran. I share that concern– especially since Bibi Netanyahu has already shown a willingness to sacrifice the good of the nation (attacking the system of justice, just as Trump has done here in the U.S.). With indictments quite likely coming soon, might he utilize some sort of “wag the dog” strategy?

          But from what I can see from here, it seems to me that the Israeli reaction to the Iranian threat in Syria has been appropriate. Tough, even fierce, but perhaps also what’s called for.

          I’ve been following issues of Israeli policy and security since before the Six Day War. And I can say that this confrontation with Iran seems to me by far the most dangerous threat to Israel since at least since 1967– and perhaps since 1948.

  • Michael Beer

    The many wars in Syria are a danger to the region.
    There are many bad foreign actors. Israel, Turkey, Saudi, Iran, USA, Russia, Hezbollah, ISIL, Al Nusra. Every state deserves the right to exist. But apartheid states that exist through ethnic cleansing is a more questionable proposition. It is worth noting that Israel has occupied Syrian territory for more than 50 years. Iran is not an existential military, political, or economic threat to Israel. Not quite sure why pro-israel blogs appear on blue virginia, when there have never been blogs about any of the other 193 countries in the world. It has possible merit for inclusion in that Israel has been the recipient of the most US foreign assistance. It also has possible merit because US support for Israel is a primary reason for 9/11 attacks. In any case, one-sided support for Israel and Saudi against Iran is a geo-strategic mistake. Most Virginia legislators have been supporting this damaging policy.