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The Iranian Bomb: Bane or Boon?

Arab national regimes, once quite content to allow radical Islam to spearhead their war against Israel for them, now find themselves within fatal range of the nuclear monster they’ve helped create
A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Moshe Halbertal has a doctorate in Jewish Thought from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he teaches. Currently the Gruss Professor at New York University School of Law, Moshe previously served as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and University of Pennsylvania Law School, and as a fellow in Harvard University’s Society of Fellows. Moshe’s extensive list of publications includes Idolatry, which he co-authored with Avishai Margalit

The Iranian Bomb: Bane or Boon?


In the endless political analyses and panic-mongering editorials about the Iranian nuclear threat, one point seems to have been largely overlooked. The Iranian bomb may be a destabilizing force in the region, a watershed in the nuclear arms race and a potential catalyst for World War III. It is also, however, a tremendous opportunity.  

Over the past few decades, the Middle Eastern conflict has taken a distinctly religious turn. The political feud between Israel and its Arab neighbors has gradually become a religious war between Judaism and Islam. What was waged over territorial compromise and the right of return now revolves around Jerusalem and Temple Mount; what was instigated by Egypt, Syria and Iraq is now led by such Islamist movements as Hamas, Hizbullah and the Iranian ayatollah regime; and what was fought with conventional artillery is now fought with weapons of mass destruction.

This is no coincidence. There is a fundamental connection between the jihadization of the conflict and the turn to atomic warfare. Land, water, money can all be divided; the Holy can never be. The war thus becomes one of absolutes. And absolute wars are fought by absolute means.   

Yet it is the jihadization of the conflict which, paradoxically, harbors the possibility of its dissolution. Arab national regimes, once quite content to allow radical Islam to spearhead their war against Israel for them, now find themselves within the fatal range of the nuclear monster they’ve helped create. Millions of Arabs are now realizing, perhaps for the first time, that the prospect of a nuclear jihad is every bit a threat to them as it is to Israel. The Iranian bomb is indeed a destabilizing force in the region, though not quite in the usual sense of the term; driving a wedge into the Arab front, it places the vast majority of the Arab world squarely on the strategic side of the West.

Within this unlikely alliance lies the key to defeating radical Islam. Confronted by a common enemy, the West has a rare chance of forming a coalition with Arab national regimes; Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah and even Syria’s Bashar Assad may seem like strange bedfellows, yet it is precisely these leaders of Arab nationalism with whom the West ought to partner if it is to prevent a nuclear war. Despite their growing circles of support, Muslim fundamentalists – characterized by the attempt to enforce Sharia law, the desire to replace Arab national regimes with Islamic caliphates, and the use of terrorism to attain their goals – are still very much a minority within the Arab world; their effective targeting hinges the West’s ability to isolate them from their surroundings.

To this end, the West would do well to adopt a carrot-and-stick policy; on the one hand, it must use the threat of nuclear warfare to combat the growing regional influence of Muslim fundamentalists. Rather than the futile attempts of democratization, which play directly into the latter’s hands (their indiscriminate use of terrorism aims precisely at drawing the West’s fire toward the larger Arab world, driving more and more of its members into their ranks), the West must strive to cultivate a bond of fate with Arab nationalists. Egypt, Lebanon and Syria must be made to understand that the interests that bind them to the West are far greater than those which separate them.

On the other hand, the West ought to assist Arab leaders to increase the support of their local populations, primarily through the provision of vital health, welfare and educational services. The traditional neglect of these areas has allowed radical groups to fill the void, thereby earning the respect and loyalty of the people (Hamas’s rise to power in Gaza, for instance, was chiefly motivated by the movement’s many relief services in the town). Only by reclaiming their responsibility toward their nations’ welfare will the leaders be able to sideline the fundamentalist elements in their midst and divest them of their increasing popularity.

Far more than a clash of civilizations, the war against the forces of jihad is a clash within a civilization. And, so far, the nationalist majority is losing fast to the Islamist minority. Military strikes, economic embargoes and (in the case of Iran) stemming the flow of petrodollars are all doomed to failure, unless accompanied by the isolation of the loci of radical Islam from the rest of the Arab world. The Iranian nuclear bomb, and its looming regional threat, is a singular opportunity to do so. It must be seized now, before it’s too late.

Written with Gila Fine

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