BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 183, October 11, 2012

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The international community appears unlikely to take military action against the Iranian nuclear weapons program because of the “Ostrich Syndrome” – a reluctance to deal with difficult problems and a preference to ignore them. The historical record shows that failure to respond to Iranian actions only leads to more aggression from Iran, and inaction in the current situation will lead to dangerous global repercussions.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s September 27 speech to the UN General Assembly in which he delineated a red line for the Iranian nuclear program was widely reported. But its impact will soon dissipate, because the international community suffers from what might be called the “Ostrich Syndrome.” Most global leaders prefer to ignore the bad news of nuclear proliferation and stick their heads in the sand, as was the case with the way they dealt with (or failed to seriously deal with) North Korea’s nuclear program. Members of the international community are similarly reluctant to acknowledge the current reality in Iran because doing so would require action – probably military action – which they are far from ready to take.

Indeed, most states continue to downplay the extreme revolutionary nature of the Iranian regime, which seeks to export its radical jihadist version of Shiite Islam. When Israel seeks to warn of this, Israel is reassured by Western leaders that the Iranians are rational actors “just like us.”

Is this really so? Are Iranian leaders rational actors “just like us”? The Iranian leadership is responsible for killing Westerners in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia…and yet Israel is supposed to believe that Iran is rational “just like us.” The Iranian leadership entertains the idea of bringing Andalusia (Spain) back into the Islamic fold…and still we are told that they are rational “just like us.” Iran plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the US…and again we are told that Teheran is rational “just like us.” Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed his desire to wipe Israel off of the map…and we are told that he is rational “just like us.” Ahmadinejad claims that he spoke to G-d and even received direct answers…and yet we are told that he is rational “just like us.”

Similarly, the international community has for over a decade ignored the progress in Iran’s nuclear program and adheres to the illusion that talks will eventually dissuade it from building a nuclear bomb. Iran was caught repeatedly lying to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding its nuclear program, yet Israel was told to relax because “there is still plenty of time to conduct negotiations.” Iran built and expanded an enrichment facility at Natanz… yet Israel was still told to calm down, because “there is still plenty of time” to do something about it. Iran built a new enrichment plant at Fordow…and Israel was told that “there is still time.” Iran achieved a five percent enrichment level, which increased to 10 percent, and eventually 20 percent…and Israel was told each time that the window for a Western response was still very wide. The latest IAEA report indicates that Iran is only a few months away from having enough fissionable material for a nuclear bomb, and maybe a year from having 10 bombs…and yet Israel is still told that there is “plenty of time” to take action.

The inevitable conclusion from the behavior of the international community is that it consistently opts for an easy transition from “there is still time to do something” to “it is too late to do something.”

A large part of the international community belittles the wide-range repercussions of a nuclear Iran. Concerns about Iran “Finlandizing” the oil producing nations in the Gulf and the Caspian Basin, nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, Iranian nuclear terrorism, a security threat for states within a radius of 2500 kilometers, and the loss Western credibility after repeated declarations that “a nuclear Iran is unacceptable” – are all dismissed as Israeli exaggerations or unfounded alarmism.

Western rationalist experts point out that Iran is “rational” and can be deterred. This is wishful thinking and reflects the prevalent ostrich mentality. There are numerous examples of the fact that Iran is an undeterred actor even before it owns a nuclear bomb.

  • The US did not deter Iranian influence in Lebanon, and Hizballah took over that country.
  • The US did not curtail Iranian influence in Palestinian politics, and Hamas took over Gaza in 2007.
  • The US failed to prevent Iran from turning Iraq into its satellite, and was unable to dissuade Iran from meddling in Bahrain.
  • In addition, the US has failed to prevent Iran from helping Assad stay in power in Syria or establishing a presence in its own backyard in South America.

All of this inconvenient evidence is ignored by Ostrich Syndrome-stricken strategists and statesmen.

Deterrence works only if threats to use force are credible. Iran paused its nuclear program when the US attacked Iraq in 2003. Unfortunately President Obama is not feared by the Iranians. He is viewed in the Middle East by friends and foes of the US as a lightweight who is afraid to take action. Obviously the Europeans hardly instill any fear in Tehran.

In addition, deterrence works only if there is reasonable sensitivity to costs. Unfortunately, the theological outlook of the Iranian leadership prepares it for paying heavy costs in the pursuit of its jihadist agenda. Indeed, Iranian leaders have declared their willingness to pay with millions of lives in order to destroy the Jewish state. As such, the current suffering caused by economic sanctions has not changed the regime’s nuclear policy.  

At this late stage, and after so many years, nothing will stop the Iranian nuclear program except for the use of force. The Iranians are smart enough to diagnose the international community as suffering from the Ostrich Syndrome, and their prognosis is that they can get away with building a bomb. In the absence of a quick recovery from the Ostrich Syndrome, we may be destined to live in a more brutish world.

Prof. Efraim Inbar is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.