Michael J. Totten, probably the most widely read blogger on the Middle East, has just published an interview with me, conducted in September.
I sought out Martin Kramer in Jerusalem because I knew he would give me an analysis well outside-the-box on Iranian nuclear weapons. He’s a scholar, not a politician or pundit. And while he certainly has his opinions, he doesn’t conveniently fit into anyone’s ideological box.
I was not disappointed, and I don’t think you will be either. What he has to say is different from anything you’ve read from anyone in the media, including me.
MJT: I assume you read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic this summer. He asked dozens of Israeli decision-makers and analysts if they think Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities, and the concensus seems to be that the odds are greater than fifty percent that it will happen before the middle of summer in 2011. What do you think?
Martin Kramer: It’s in Israel’s interest to convince the world that the decision-makers are leaning in that direction. The idea is to prompt somebody else to take action, in particular the Obama administration. So there’s a debate about whether or not Jeffrey has been spun.
MJT: Yes, and he mentioned that himself.
Martin Kramer: The whole purpose of spinning Jeffrey Goldberg—assuming that’s what happened—was to prod the United States into taking a more forward position. Americans are taking a forward position already, but the idea here would be to multiply the effect.
But I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to all the people Jeffrey talked to, and there are a lot of variables that we don’t know yet. The timeline is open to question. The intelligence is also being debated. So while I wouldn’t put a percentage on it, plans are definitely on the table. If the United States doesn’t act, the moment will come when a decision will have to be made. We don’t know what the arguments will be or in which ways the calculations will shift between now and then. Israel has the option, though, and it’s on the table. I wouldn’t say the odds are greater than fifty percent, but it’s a credible option.
MJT: What do you think Iran would actually do with a nuclear bomb?
Martin Kramer: The Iranians have a structural interest in creating doubt and uncertainty in the Persian Gulf. They have a larger population than any other Gulf state, and they don’t have the share of oil resources that Saudi Arabia has. So their first objective would be to create a climate of uncertainty.
Now, the Persian Gulf has been—since the United States took over from the British—a zone that is essentially under an American security umbrella. It is as crucial to American security as Lake Michigan. The United States doesn’t use most of the oil coming out of the Gulf, but its allies do, so the stability of the Gulf has been associated with a steady flow of oil and a price that moves within a predictable range.
Iran wants to create uncertainty there because oil is the only thing it has. Iran has nothing else—some carpets and pistachio nuts, and that’s it. Their population continues to grow, their needs continue to grow, and their grand ambitions continue to grow. So this, I think, is the first thing they would do with it. All it takes is to create a crisis or a succession of crises.
Iran knows it can’t wrest sole hegemony in the Gulf from the United States, but it wants to create a kind of dual hegemony shared with the United States. Nobody knows where the lines would run, but they wouldn’t run just five to ten miles off the coast of Iran into the waters of the Persian Gulf. Iran would like to see its share extend to both sides of the Gulf, to effectively create a kind of push and shove between the United States and Iran.
A lot of people on the Arab side of the Gulf will say they feel Iran’s breath on their faces. The United States is there now, but the British were there once, too, and now they’re gone. The Persians are always there and will always be there. So we’ll see a lot of hedging. Iran would be perceived as the rising power and the United States a declining power.
Don’t assume that in the Persian Gulf they don’t hear what we say about this. Obama was famously photographed holding a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s book The Post-American World during the election campaign. And don’t assume they don’t hear Americans talking about imperial overstretch.
MJT: You’re talking about the Arabs here.
Martin Kramer: Yes, the Arabs. And this creates a dynamic where if Iran also has nuclear weapons they will increasingly hedge. Things they allow Americans now—such as basing rights for operations in the Persian Gulf and beyond—will become more and more difficult to negotiate if Iran opposes them. So we would see an erosion of the American position in the Persian Gulf.
I think Iran is a lot less interested in justice for the Palestinians than in establishing their command over the gulf they call Persian.
MJT: We call it the Persian Gulf, too.
Martin Kramer: For reasons of geographic exactitude and custom. But Americans don’t mean it should be dominated by Iran.
Martin Kramer: The Iranians do. That’s the longer term objective. And like I said, they’re less interested in justice for the Palestinians than they are in this. They remind me a bit of Saddam Hussein. He said at one point that he would burn half of Israel, yet turned around and instead burned a lot of Kuwait. He wasn’t as interested in being admired by the Palestinians as he was about controlling resources. The Gulf is always very much a resource game. So that would be the first objective of the Iranians. But, of course, Iran also wants to wage proxy wars elsewhere.
MJT: They do have interests in the Levant [the Eastern Mediterranean].
Martin Kramer: They have interests in the Levant, but there’s nothing here that can solve their fundamental problems, which is the mismatch of population and resources. Their game in the Levant is to get around America’s flank. They see Israel as an extension of America, but it’s not their primary area of interest.
Obviously, though, they have an ideological interest here, and they’re willing to fight Israel to the last Lebanese Shiite, but it’s an open question how much they’d be willing to sacrifice themselves directly.
So that’s why I think Iranian nuclear weapons are a world problem as much as, or even more than, they are an Israeli problem.
MJT: The Persian Gulf is certainly more of a world problem than an Israeli problem.
Martin Kramer: Israel has to take it seriously, though. After listening to Iran’s discourse, Israel can’t rule out the possibility that even a small faction could get their finger on the trigger.
It’s a world problem, though, and the world has to ask itself if it can tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran deliberately creating uncertainty, instability, and doubt surrounding the great reservoir of the world’s energy. If a coalition ever comes together to stop Iran, this will be the reason.
MJT: What do you think will happen in the Levant if Iran builds a bomb? Will wars with Hezbollah and Hamas be more or less likely, and peace with the Palestinians more or less likely?
Martin Kramer: Those are two separate issues.
MJT: Yes, but they’ll both be affected.
Martin Kramer: Right. It will certainly create a situation where there would be an expectation among the supporters of Hezbollah and Hamas that Iran would act to come to their defense by using its nuclear capabilities to threaten Israel, but I’m not sure Iran wants to do that. We saw during the last Lebanon war that the timing of the crisis was not to Iran’s liking. The Iranians would not have chosen the summer of 2006 to have Hezbollah in a crisis with Israel.
MJT: They were angry about it.
Martin Kramer: They view the Levant as an arena that can be integrated into their larger strategy, not so they can support a strategy that has been independently formulated by Hezbollah. Hezbollah doesn’t deliberately formulate an independent strategy, but Hamas certainly does.
If Iran decides to take the route that Israel and Japan have taken—either nuclear ambiguity or being one screw away from having a bomb—it would be less subject to moral extortion by the extremists in the Levant who would act unilaterally and expect Iran to come to their aid. So an ambiguous scenario wouldn’t increase the possibility of warfare, but if Iran becomes an explicit and open nuclear state, that’s a different story. Even the United States and the Soviet Union went on nuclear alert over an Arab-Israeli war [in 1973]. But you never know. Knowing in advance that it could lead to that kind of escalation, there might be mechanisms which would kick into action before things reached that level.
I do think a nuclear Iran creates a dynamic where Israel, from a strategic point of view, is compelled to keep a tight grip on Jerusalem and a large swath of the West Bank for the simple reason that it creates a deterrent to an Iranian attack. If all our strategic assets are concentrated on the coastal plain around Tel Aviv, we’re vulnerable. An Iranian ayatollah, Rafsanjani, has already noted that Israel is vulnerable to one strike. So how to we change that calculation?
A big country like the United States disperses its assets across a vast continent when facing nuclear adversaries. A small state can’t do that. But within this small state is a prime Muslim holy place, the liberation of which is championed by the Iranians, and it’s in Jerusalem.
So if Israel faces a real nuclear adversary that threatens its destruction and has Islamic fervor as the basis of its ideology—one that holds up Jerusalem as a symbol—it will make all the sense in the world to concentrate every strategic asset it can right next to it.
The Israeli leadership has built a duplicate command center in Jerusalem exactly like the one it has in Tel Aviv in the Ministry of Defense. So why stop at the top brass and the political leadership if you know that over the long term we’ll face a hostile nuclear adversary? It makes sense to load up Jerusalem with strategic assets which would themselves serve as a deterrent to a future exchange. And it’s a lot easier to do than position submarines in the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean.
So the long term effect would be to make Jerusalem central to Israel not only for political and cultural reasons, but also for strategic reasons. That doesn’t mean all kinds of arrangements can’t be made on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians about the day-to-day running of the city.
In the past, Israel was concerned about holding the Jordan Valley as its eastern front against an invading conventional army. In a nuclear scenario Jerusalem itself would become crucial to preventing an adversary from striking a decisive blow which would render it no longer viable as a state. The idea is to persuade that adversary that even if there is a strike against Israel’s concentration of population, Israel will still remain viable.
MJT: It sounds, though, like this would make resolving the conflict with the Palestinians much more difficult.
Martin Kramer: Yes.
MJT: I figured we’d agree, but can you explain why you think that’s the case?
Martin Kramer: If there’s a shift of Israel’s assets from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the struggle over real estate up here becomes even more acute. There will be less leeway for Israeli concessions. Concessions are difficult to make in any case. Local security issues can be, in one way or another, finessed, but once they play out in this mega arena of confrontation between nuclear states, flexibility diminishes quickly. It would create tremendous pressure on Israel to maintain its right to decide the future of different pieces of turf close to the city.
In the past we had the idea that in order for Israel to remain viable we had to settle the Negev Desert and the Galilee because they have large Arab populations. That was never for religious reasons, it was always for strategic reasons. A nuclear Iran would create strategic calculations for Jerusalem that weren’t there before. There were always other strategic calculations for Jerusalem, but this would create a powerful new one. What would the Israelis and Palestinians discuss at the table once that became a factor?
Linkage is a big issue, but there’s a debate over which way linkage runs. Some say a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would make it much easier for the United States to deal with Iran. But I think the absence of a solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma places a high premium on Israel holding if not the totality of the occupied territories, at least a sizable bit of real estate around Jerusalem as a strategic reserve.
I say this as someone who has always believed there would be some way to compromise over Jerusalem, but when I see the prospect of a nuclear Iran on the horizon threatening Israel, I say to myself that I want as many of Israel’s strategic, demographic, industrial, and technological assets in and around the city as possible.
MJT: So what do you say to people who prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Iranian nuclear weapons?
Martin Kramer: I’d like to know more about how this is supposed to affect Iran’s calculations. I don’t think it will. I think they decided long ago that they want to have a hegemonic role enhanced by nuclear capability. A resolution of the conflict here wouldn’t deter them or persuade them from that ambition. On the contrary, they would believe that Israel would grow stronger and would be even more of a threat than it is today. They’re going to pursue this track no matter what.
The theory is that a resolution to the conflict would make it easier to mobilize Arab support.
Martin Kramer: But how much Arab support does the United States need that it doesn’t already have? Support from the Gulf Arabs is already guaranteed. They see Iran as a threat directed more at them than at anyone else.
MJT: They do.
Martin Kramer: The Arabs who could conceivably be swayed are the Arabs of Egypt and the Levant, but it’s difficult to envision a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would satisfy all of them. Quite a few formulas will alienate lots of them.
And the question is: are they really necessary? Is it that important to have the so-called Arab street? It’s extremely difficult to turn the Arab street into a strategic asset. Nasser tried to do it. Saddam Hussein tried to do it. Ahmadinejad is trying to do it. Erdogan is trying to do it. It’s flattering, I suppose, to have your poster on walls here and there, but nobody has found a way to turn that into something they can use, and I don’t think the United States has much prospect of doing so either. It’s an intangible.
A nuclear Iran, on the other hand, would be tangible. So I think linkage, in fact, runs the other way.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict only has a chance of being resolved if the Levant can be disconnected from the Gulf. So we have to deal with the Iranian issue first.
Look at the history of the Middle East since the creation of Israel to the present. We have had two separate periods. The first lasted from 1948 until the late 1970s. During this period we had a war between Israel and the Arabs every decade. The Gulf region was stable. The British were there. There was always a concern that the conflict between Israel and the Arabs might create a ripple effect in the Gulf, and it finally happened in 1973 when they cut off the oil.
Then the United States changed its policy. The Americans said they were going to support Israel so staunchly that the Arabs would despair of ever achieving victory and would therefore have no choice but to sign peace agreements. And that’s what happened.
Since 1973 there has been no state-to-state war in the Levant. We’ve had intifadas, we’ve had wars between Israel and non-state actors, but we haven’t had the devastation of a state-to-state war. And the oil hasn’t been shut off since then. The oil only gets cut off as an act of solidarity between states, not as an act of solidarity with the PLO, Hamas, or Hezbollah.
So we now have an architecture that works in the Levant, but the Gulf has experienced a succession of wars. The Gulf now destabilizes the region. It has seen the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the latest Iraq war, and who knows what’s to come. And we’ve seen that the instability in the Persian Gulf region has a ripple effect in the Levant. It goes the other way now, and it’s a consequence of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Israel is the stake that has been planted in the Levant. Because it’s powerful, it puts a high premium on rationality among all those who surround it. It serves as the basis for the security architecture.
When the British left the Gulf in the early 1970s, the Americans weren’t in a position to pick it up because they were busy in Vietnam. They had their dual pillars in the Gulf, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but one of them collapsed in 1979. And since that collapse, there has been no equivalent of Israel in the Gulf which the United States could use as a fulcrum around which to organize a region. So the pillar of stability has been the American deployment of its own forces again and again and again. They’ve put millions of boots on the ground, and it’s still not enough.
So here in the Levant we’re feeling the wash from the long-term destabilization of the Gulf. It is America’s primary interest to keep these as two separate regions. The regional hegemon needs to make sure there is no cross-contamination between them.
The regions used to be separate. During the British time, the Levant was run from London and the Persian Gulf from India. The Levant was called the Near East, and the Gulf was called the Middle East. These were two distinct zones. We’ve conflated them in the meantime, and it’s in the interest of the United States to disaggregate them again and to keep them disaggregated. Any attempt to project power from one into the other undermines the position of the regional hegemon. That was true when Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel, and it’s true when Iran sends missiles to Hezbollah. It’s always the radicals who do the bridging. The same was true with Nasser.
And it compels others to do the same. If Israel acts over the head of the United States against Iran, it will be just the latest example. It’s something the United States can’t afford. It means that every time we have a problem in the Levant, it will create problems for the United States in the Gulf, and vice versa.
MJT: How can the United States drive a wedge between the two regions?
Martin Kramer: That’s easy. The U.S. just has to say that it supports its Israeli ally to keep order in its arena, and the U.S. will take responsibility for keeping order in its arena. Just effectively divide responsibility. If the U.S. flags in its resolve to do that, it will be under pressure from those who are tempted to act outside their arena.
My friend Steve Rosen at Harvard once said it would be shameful if the United States were to leave it to Israel to do what it should do in the Gulf. The Persian Gulf is an area of world interest where America plays the guarantor role.
If Israel has to act as the guarantor in the Gulf, it will be a sign that America has dodged its responsibility.
MJT: The Gulf Arab states are not-so quietly hoping Israel will do it if the U.S. does not.
Martin Kramer: They’re looking for someone, anyone, to do it.
MJT: They’re the ones who should be the most worried. We don’t hear much about this from the Arab states in North Africa. They don’t have as many reasons to be concerned.
Martin Kramer: That’s a separate area altogether.
MJT: Egypt is sort of a bridge, though, isn’t it? Cairo sides to a certain extent with Israel against Hamas, and we know Mubarak isn’t thrilled about what’s happening in Tehran.
Martin Kramer: The main problem with Egypt is that its own regional role has been so much diminished. Not only can Egypt no longer project power beyond its borders as it did in Nasser’s days, it can barely control events inside its national borders as we’ve seen in the Sinai. Egypt clearly resents the rise of Iranian power. They don’t necessarily trust anyone as a counterweight. Their approach all along has been that they don’t want a nuclear Iran, but that the way to go about it is to de-nuclearize Israel as part of a grand bargain. They would achieve two goals at once. Both Iran and Israel would be cut down a peg.
MJT: Do you think that’s their sincere approach? Egyptian officials will say this in public, but what do they really think?
Martin Kramer: I think there’s no question they’d like the United States to play the role. They’d much rather have the U.S. take the lead than Israel. They know what everyone knows—the United States would do it much more effectively.
MJT: Of course.
Martin Kramer: There would be nothing worse than a botched or half-complete operation. There’s a very strong preference that the U.S. take care of this, among the Gulf Arabs and the Egyptians.
MJT: And, of course, among the Israelis.
Martin Kramer: It’s absolutely central to the strategy to maintain this division. And the only way to maintain it is for the United States to demonstrate tomorrow that it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons or to allow Israel to act unilaterally. The Gulf is a zone of American dominance, and the only way to assert that is to do what Carter did with the Carter Doctrine, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He said there should be no outside power or local power that is allowed to challenge the United States in the Gulf. And a nuclear Iran clearly crosses that line.
If even Jimmy Carter was compelled to issue a doctrinal statement in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan about the Persian Gulf, one would think that Barack Obama would see the need to do something similar. Obama should especially feel compelled to do so because there’s a question mark there. He should declare the Persian Gulf a nuclear-free zone. It’s too much to talk about the Middle East as a nuclear-free zone at this time, but the Persian Gulf is nuclear-free now, and it’s time for the United States to come out and say it should remain nuclear-free.
MJT: I have a hard time imaging Obama doing anything of the sort.
Martin Kramer: Yeah. Well.
MJT: But I suppose one never knows.
Martin Kramer: It would be an astonishing lapse if a man who promised to roll back nuclear proliferation watched proliferation develop in one of the least stable parts of the world, a place where the United States has only been able to maintain even a modicum of stability by a massive projection of its own forces. The region is of prime interest to the entire world for its energy resources. If it becomes nuclearized, it will be the one thing for which Barack Obama would always be remembered by history, and he would be remembered by history as a failure.