March 11th, 2012
08:25 AM ET

Zakaria: Avoid another war in the Middle East

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

President Obama has been trying to cool down the war fever that suddenly gripped Washington early this month. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit and the flurry of statements surrounding it have created a dangerous dynamic. It is easy to see how things move toward war with Iran. It is difficult to see how they don't.

The pressure is building on Iran, but there are no serious discussions of negotiated solutions. Israel has already discounted the proposed new talks. Republican candidates will denounce any deal, no matter how comprehensive the inspections.

So either Iran suddenly and completely surrenders - or Israel will strike. And Bibi Netanyahu knows that the window presented by the U.S. political season is closing. If he were to strike between now and November, he would be assured of unqualified support from Washington. After November, the American response becomes less predictable no matter who is elected president. The clock is ticking.

Read: Zakaria explains why oil prices keep rising.

Before we set out on a path to another Middle East war, let's remember some facts. First, Iran does not have nuclear weapons and the evidence is ambiguous - genuinely unclear - as to whether it has decided to make them.

But what if Iran did manage to develop a couple of crude nukes several years from now?

Obama says a nuclear Iran would set off an arms race in the Middle East.

But a nuclear North Korea has not led the two countries directly threatened by its weapons - South Korea and Japan - to go nuclear.

Read: Zakaria explains why Iran is a rational actor

Saudi Arabia and Egypt did not go nuclear in response to Israel's buildup of a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. After all, Egypt has gone to war three times with Israel. By contrast, it has not been in a conflict with Iran for centuries. So why would it go nuclear in response to Iran when it didn't in response to Israel?

Obama explained that a nuclear Iran would be a problem like India and Pakistan with their nuclear weapons. But India and Pakistan went to war three times in 30 years before they had nuclear weapons. Since they went nuclear, they have actually been restrained and have not fought a full-scale war in 40 years.

It's actually a case that shows the stabilizing, not destabilizing, effects of nuclear deterrence.

If Israel genuinely believes that deterrence doesn't work in the Middle East, why does it have a large nuclear arsenal if not to deter its enemies?

Iran's weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists, says the President. But would a country that has labored for decades to pursue a nuclear program and suffered huge sanctions and costs to do so then turn around and give away the fruits of its efforts to a gang of militants? This kind of reasoning is part of the view that the Iranians are mad, messianic people bent on committing mass suicide.

Read: Zakaria on Afghanistan

When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey explained on GPS last month that he viewed Iran as a "rational actor," he drew howls of protest. But Dempsey was making a good point. A rational actor is not a reasonable actor or one who has the same goals or values that you or I do. A rational actor, in economics or international relations, is someone who is concerned about his survival.

The one thing we know about Iran's leaders is that they are concerned about their survival. The question right now is not whether Iran can be rational - but whether the U.S. and Israel can accurately reason through the costs of a preventive war and its huge consequences.

For my full article on this subject (behind a pay wall), visit For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to visit the Global Public Square every day. Be sure to catch GPS every Sunday at 10a.m. and 1p.m. EST. If you miss it, you can buy the show on iTunes.

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Topics: Fareed's Take • From Fareed • Iran • Military • Nuclear • United States

soundoff (646 Responses)
  1. james


    March 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  2. david bernstein

    I tried to watch GPS this morning (Mar. 11) re Israel/Iran/Obama, but two of the panel's irrepressible (and impenetrable) multibabble ("the CNN disease") was so affronting that my TV set actually turned itself off in disgust. (And this set even managed to avoid vomiting into Limbaugh the other day, so it has a pretty high zoo tolerance.) Maybe CNN should select its panelists with an ear to their basic civility – or alternatively, crash-course them in discourse 101.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  3. karina

    ,I to like barack obama because he is smart much

    March 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  4. karina

    ,I to like barack obama

    March 11, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • wolfman

      Karina, por favor para de fazer de boba aqui. Voce estah dando uma mal impressao dos brasileiros. Aprende ingles ou nao escreva aqui. Obrigado

      March 11, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
  5. Rhoda Kadalie

    Fareed it is time to reset your GPS towards objectivity. I watch his programme to see how the mainstream media deals with contentious issues. The point is, they don't do so effectively. They entrench prejudices rather than illuminate the truth and if they hear the truth, they shut it down or shout it down as happened on the programme today.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  6. Rhoda Kadalie

    It was not a duplicate comment. And now you censor too!

    March 11, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  7. wolfman

    What's worrying is all the crazies who post comments here. There are the two extremes of war mongers who think nothing of consequences (we still are dealing with the Iraq fiasco) and the virulent anti-semites who post incomprehensible and offensive messages. It's a case of emotion gone out of control. It resembles professional wrestling more than debate.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  8. Dan

    Muslims and Jews are becoming more alike. Neither group allows criticism of its members – the few who dare to slef-criticise are pilloried, check out the Harvard Jewish professor, the hat against J- Street and other actions to silence Jews who disagree with AIPAC going on in the US. Most Jews are pro-Israel, whether they are right or left wing or not religious, and whether they agree with a 2 state solution or with Netanyahu. You don't have to follow only one extreme right view to be pro-Israel. It is healthy to question the current Israeli policies, which I think are very destructive to Israel. Israel is going to have to change, and modify a lot of its rhetoric, which belongs to last century and to failed policies. Israel is no safer now, so need to try other options. War with Iran is totally against the US interests, and we cannot afford it. The pro war group wants to push us into another unfunded war, when we are crippled by the last ones. Cutting needed infrastructure spending inside the US is not an option. It is weaken us further and there will no gains except more expense. We are not responsible for Israel, especially when Israel is no longer a democracy and is becoming religiously extreme. As long as Israel refuses to deal fairly with it's subject people, and pursue diplomatice means rather than military as a first recoourse, I do not want to subsidise Israel. We need to get our military our of bed with Israel and get our own independent intelligence network in the middle east and elsewhere, and our own expert counter-terrorist operations. As long as we are forced to go through the Israeli agenda, and as long as Israel dictates our foreign policy, we are not independent and sovereign. We need to have Arab and other friends in the future, in order to look after our own national interests first. Does this mean that I am saying for us to continue supporting Saudi Arabia and the Egyptians under the old contracts, no. We need to review everything and come up with a new game plan, without the liabilities of the old. We don't know where things are going in the ME, and we need maximum flexibility to further our own, America's interests first, without the baggage we now have. I don't find Zakaria particularly pro-Obama, I think that Obama is right to hold back on war, and we need to stop putting everything into ideological pigeon holes. That is helping to weaken us and stop us from assess each thing properly, and choosing the right course of action regardless of partisanship. I am sick of the partisan bickering obstructing our functioning.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  9. wolfman

    Dan, good post. I'm sure it will stir up much anger and hatred toward you. Commenters out here don't like thoughtful posts.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  10. james

    wolfman does the world pose a threat from israel having nuclear weapons? NO!!!! and tell that to arabs who where murdered from saddam i have friends whos families where almost totally removed off the face of earth because of saddam and egyptian friends who are christian who before the arab spring where killed because they where christian and came to american to escape persecution so before u comment make sure you know what the hell your talking about

    March 11, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • wolfman

      James, I didn't say that the Israeli's pose a threat to the world by having nuclear weapons, I just wonder why it's OK for them to "unofficially" have them and they can demand that others can't. Why you bring Sadaam into this I don't know.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Reply
  11. james

    hatred comes from ignorance and the refusal to except the truth and DAN and WOLFMAN clearly REFUSE TO EXCEPT THE TRUTH. ITS OK BECAUSE GOD STILL LOVES THE UN EDUCATED ILL INFORMED PEOPLE OF THE WORLD LOLOL

    March 11, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
    • mdamone

      Some people are the kind that would never believe Nazi Germany had ill intentions until they saw a Panzer rolling down their own street. Even then, they would claim that it was a street cleaner.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  12. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    I only hope we don't wait until Iran actually explodes a bomb.....once that happens we no longer stand a chance.
    It's better we TAME THIS DEMON NOW as Netenyahu rightly says.

    Immediately after, we need to NEUTRALIZE the ISLAMIC BOMB with Pakistan, and divide that nation to DEFANG THE FOUNTAIN OF ISLAMIC JIHAD emanating from there.

    We then need to focus our attention on communities right here in the west whose PHILOSOPHY is DIAGONALLY OPPOSITE to EVERYTHING AMERICA BELIEVES IN !!!!

    Unless we do these....the free world can never rest in peace.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  13. james

    there is hope for you 2 ahahha

    March 11, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
    • Najda

      ahahha. Dim bulb.

      March 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Reply
  14. mdamone

    Let's summarize this article:

    Israel is a war-mongering country. Iran is an innocent, confused but well-intentioned country who is now willing to negotiate for the first time in its history. Obama is a pawn and Republicans can't wait for war. Iran is not really pursuing nuclear weapons because we don't have any proof of that, and even if they did, would it be so bad? Worst case is a permanent nuclear standoff. Look at all the countries who don't have wars after attaining nukes! It does not matter whether Iran can be rational – that's not important. It is America and Israel's responsibility to avoid conflict even when Iran becomes irrational. Other countries have been fine with their neighbors developing nukes – why shouldn't Israel? We can count on the fact that Iran would never supply nuke technology to 'terrorists'. Why would they want to help a band of people who hate the US as much as Iran does?

    This article literally takes reality and turns in upside down, expecting readers to believe through some kind of Jedi mind trick.

    One question reveals the idiocy of this article: if the roles of Israel and Iran were completely reversed right now, would the author be sending the exact same message?

    March 11, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  15. james

    mdamone lolol again rational dictates if your gonna use the weapon or not and its clear iran will use the weapon they fund terrorist and iran for the first time in history is not willing to negotiate how long have u been on planet earth a week lolol obama is a weak president who doesnt care about israel pull this crap with BUSH we would have not had to worry about war because BUSH never bluffed or played games and iran has NEVER SHOWN RATIONAL AGAIN WHAT PLANET ARE AND HAVE U BEEN LIVING ON LOLOL

    March 11, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  16. james


    March 11, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  17. james


    March 11, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  18. ThePastaSauce

    Dear Fareed, just because nuclear war has not broken out between two nuclear nations doesn't mean it can't nor that it won't. Your logic is completely flawed – put simply the more countries with nuclear weapons, the more likely nuclear war.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  19. james


    March 11, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  20. Asif

    A lot of useless comments here. Israel is scared to attack Iran and that's why they are openly saying it. Unlike in the past when they suddenly attacked Iraq and Syria's nuclear sites. Ofcourse, a lot of you americans and jews warmongers would like nothing better than to see another muslim country attacked for any excuse. We understand that, it is your nature.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Reply
  21. james


    March 11, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  22. james

    ASIF the world is TIRED OF THE MIDDLE EAST NOT WITH ISRAEL we are tired of a region that spits venum from its mouth TOWARD americans, WE see it on tv in the papers, americans are tired of sending troops there to get ride of the terrorist leaders, america is tired of listening to you cry wolf after you attack others THE WESTERN WORLD IS TIRED OF THE MIDDLE EAST

    March 11, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  23. mush

    Did you ever see Indian or Pakistan financing terrorists in Syria and Palestaine autonomy? I don't think so!
    With that said, who would like to give the Iranian regime a nuke now?
    Zakaria's comments are really off based, he read a script without knowing the real background for all this conflict.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  24. Sara Michelle

    I am amazed how many bigots are among us – the readers!

    March 11, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  25. Jeff Elfont

    Fareed is a product of "political diplomacy" culture and therefore often wrong. His "Facts", may not be facts, I have read reports that Iran already has enough fissle material for one bomb and is now working on the high expolsives (simple) to set it off, this may only be months away, not years as he claims.

    I'm all for diplomacy, but it has failed, the Europeans have tried three times, the Russians offered to supply fuel for reactors, IAEA inspectors have tried twice within the last month, no, this is a time for military action.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  26. ThePastaSauce

    This is a rational country – Basically women arrested during the protests in Iran were physically violated by army doctors to humiliate them and dishonor their name and cause. People like Zakaria have to stop IMAGINING the political powers in Iran are rational!!!!

    March 11, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
    • Jim R

      You know you posted an article about Egypt, right? One in which Iran wasn't even mentioned?

      I guess Egypt isn't a rational actor either – let's bomb it back to the Stone Age too, and throw in Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, etc. for good measure!

      March 11, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Reply
  27. james

    jeff elfort i agree enough is enough the middle east is a region unable to govern itself without corruption murder hatred terrorism and the world is always forced to act with force and we are the bad ones its ridiculous there needs to be serious democratic change within these countries because it will get to the point where UNITED NATION TROOPS WILL BE STATIONED WITHIN THESE COUNTRIES TO CONTROL THE LAWLESSNESS THEY POSSES

    March 11, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  28. 273 + C

    Why would Iran nuke the holy of holies? The dome of the rock is sacred to Muslims therefore if Israel is nuked the holy land will be good to no one. Then again, we wouldn’t have anything to fight over, but knowing human nature I am sure we will think of something…LOL!

    March 11, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  29. SamN

    I agree with Dan and Wolfman back there, another war does not benefit the U.S especially at this critical point but here's the kicker, neither Iran nor Israel is expecting a War either. Confused. Its a lengthy read and I said the same in another blog but the comment applies here too.
    Iran: The 2009 uprising in Iran could have very well been the trigger for the Arab Spring and that it was successfully quelled then is no guarantee that the same would be for future uprising especially with the uprising next door in Syria. There has been over the past year or so a certain strain in the relationship between the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad with regards to political decisions and the administration of the State. Externally, the list is endless, economic sanctions by the West and an increased isolation from fellow Arab states. All this points to a regime that is under pressure and has sustained itself so far by using political rhetoric and posturing as a pre-emptive measure to keep its enemies at bay. However it is likely and I will want to emphasis “likely” that Iran has developed an impudence resulting from the combination of a United States which has almost unanimously decided that military intervention in the Middle East is not an option especially in an election year and as Daniel Levy pointed out on GPS an Isreal which will not attack Iran without United States backing. The ultimate goal of the administration will be to unify and distract its people and keep its international critics at bay by calling the bluff of the West and it seems to be working. Needless to say instigating a military action is not the goal of this regime.

    Israel on the other hand or rather Netanyahu and the Likud party seam to be using the spotlight primarily for political reasons. Rula Jebreal and Daniel Levy pointed out that the idea of a pre-emptive strike by Israel does not sit well with the entire Israeli parliament and that furthermore the stalemate with regards to the issue of Palestine has prompted Netanyahu to look for a distraction, and I agree. This is evident by the fact that the Palestinian problem if you may which has always been the defining issue between Israel and the United State was not addressed publicly at least during his recent visit to the White House. The argument for a nuclear Iran as a reason for a strike is somewhat baseless because by now everyone knows that Iran’s experimenting with cold fusion has primarily been used as a deterrent for public relations. It is very likely and again I emphasis “likely” Israel knows that Iran is posturing and is counting on a reluctant White House to do nothing at least militarily for now. Sounds far fetched? I agree, but look at it from the point of view of a sitting Prime minister of Israel: with the support of parliament at stake and the preference of the United States for a two state solution to the Palestinian issue, a view that most Israeli’s don’t share. There is really nothing much for Netanyahu to write home about. Is the White House been used as a prop in this theatrical production? I am afraid so. And it is very likely that this production is going to be on stage and unresolved for a while much to the advantage of Iran and Israel.

    So before we start getting emotional about the whole thing lets remember that both States are counting on the Arab versus Israel sentiments and a pro-diplomatic White House ( in election year) for their play to be successful

    March 11, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  30. james

    SAMN your wrong ISRAEL is using this to squeeze obama, obama isnt pro israel its politics with america and israel not israel and the middle east israel isnt tolerating terrorism and attacks anymore look at what the general said today with gaza israels are fed up with being attacked israel already decided in oct or nov Netanyahu has been sounding the alarm for 2 decades on iran and he isnt gonna chance a what if with iran war is coming

    March 11, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Reply
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