The Soho Forum Debates

Glenn Greenwald and Alan Dershowitz Debate Bombing Iran

The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Glenn Greenwald takes on famed lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz.


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Professor and legal scholar Alan Dershowitz and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Glenn Greenwald debate the resolution, "The U.S. should strike Iran's nuclear facilities."

Taking the affirmative is Dershowitz, an American lawyer and law professor known for his work in U.S. constitutional law and American criminal law. From 1964 to 2013, he taught at Harvard Law School, where he was appointed as the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law in 1993. He is the author of several books about politics and the law, including The Case for Israel and The Case for Peace. His two most recent works are The Case Against Impeaching Trump, and Guilt by Accusation: The Challenge of Proving Innocence in the Age of #MeToo. In January 2020, he joined President Donald Trump's legal team as Trump was being tried on impeachment charges in the Senate. He is a strong supporter of Israel but self-identifies as both "pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli."

Taking the negative is Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer, investigative journalist, and best-selling author. Acclaimed as one of the 25 most influential political commentators by The Atlantic, one of America's top 10 opinion writers by Newsweek, and one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers for 2013 by Foreign Policy, Greenwald has won the highest awards in journalism, including the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for the revelations surrounding the National Security Agency and Edward Snowden.

This debate was moderated by Soho Forum Director Gene Epstein.

00:00:00 Introduction
00:02:06 Dershowitz's Opening Statement
00:19:43 Greenwald's Opening Statement
00:37:48 Dershowitz's Rebuttal
00:45:27 Greenwald's Rebuttal
00:53:56 Q&A
01:35:08 Dershowitz's Summation
01:40:22 Greenwald's Summation

Abbreviated Transcript:

Moderator: Now that we've got everyone voting, we can call our debaters to the stage. The United States should strike Iran's nuclear facilities speaking for the affirmative Alan Dershowitz. Alan, please come to the stage. Speaking for the negative, Glenn Greenwald. Glenn, please come to the stage.

All right guys, as you know, the timekeeper is in front. We'll be flashing five minute, two minute, and one-minute and 30 seconds cards. Professor Dershowitz prefers to use the 85-year-old prerogative and do it from his chair. Alan, you have 17 and a half minutes to make your case. Please take it away, Alan.

Alan Dershowitz: Thank you so much. What a wonderful event. At a time when, as the moderator said, there are too few debates, too many bumper stickers, too many people cheering for one side or the other, having a great debate about a really difficult subject is so important. Parts of me wishes this was not a debate, wishes it was a discussion because there are arguments on both sides of this. Very, very compelling arguments on both sides of this. It's a very, very difficult question anytime a decision is made to take preventive military action that involves cataclysmic consequences and considerations.

I want to go over why I think the argument here favors taking such preventive military action, though I understand the consequences. We know, we know the risks of taking preventive military action when it shouldn't have been taken. We can call those false positives. You can call them by whatever word you want to call them, but we know that that happened in Iraq when we went in thinking or believing or proclaiming or claiming that there were nuclear facilities only to find out that there wasn't with very tragic events for so many people, civilians and military.

A lot has been written about false positives. A lot has been written about false decisions, poor decisions, to take military intervention in a preventive way, but not enough has been written about or considered about the risks of not taking preventive action when preventive action is necessary and would save lives and would do a great deal of good in the world. History provides lots of examples of failures to act when action might have prevented catastrophic harms. And I'm going to argue that this is one such situation. Perhaps the most telling example of the failure to act was the failure of Great Britain and France to enforce the Versailles Treaty by taking preventive military action to stop the military buildup of Germany following the first World War. A military attack on Germany in 1935 or '36 when its war machine was still weak, might have prevented the second World War with its tens of millions of deaths.

Joseph Goebbels, who was the obviously propaganda minister of the Nazi regime, wrote about this in his diaries. I hope you'll pay very close attention to this one paragraph because it's so critical. Here's what he said: "In 1933, a French premier ought to have said, and if I had been the French premier, I would've said," this is Goebbels talking. "The new Reich Chancellor is the man who wrote Mein Kampf, which says this and that. The man cannot be tolerated in our vicinity. Either he disappears or we march. But they didn't do it. They let us slip through the risky zone and we were able to sail around the dangerous reefs. And when we were done and well armed better than they." He then says they started the war. Of course, Germany started the war, but the point is still the same.

The rest we know is tragic history. Germany built up its armed forces without countermeasures by its intended enemies and conquered most of Western Europe, killing tens of millions of people. Most of these deaths could almost certainly have been prevented had Great Britain and France engaged in preventive military action before Germany became well armed. But at that moment in history when Great Britain and France could have prevented the horrendous harm known ultimately caused by Nazi Germany, there was no way of knowing in advance predicting the extent of what [Adolf] Hitler will do. History is blind to the future. History only knows the past. Yes, he wrote Mein Kampf, but many conquerors, would-be conquerors, do not follow through on their threats. Recall [Nikita] Khrushchev's threat to bury the United States, yet he backed away from a nuclear confrontation over Cuba.

There was no way of predicting with any degree of certainty that Hitler would personally turn his belligerent rhetoric into military invasions of Poland, the Soviet Union, and then obviously the Holocaust. As always, it was a question of cost-benefit probabilities. This was a classic case of a false negative, implicitly predicting that Hitler would not do what he in fact did and failing to take actions in order to prevent it. If France and Great Britain had accurately predicted the actual harms, they would almost certainly have taken preventive action even if the costs were high because it would never have been nearly as high as it turned out to be in the absence of such action. But as I say, history is blind. Had Great Britain and France decided to take preventive military actions in the mid-1930s and done so successfully, no one would ever know what was prevented.

And [Winston] Churchill, if he had been the prime minister in the middle '30s, and he would've predicted that Hitler would kill tens of millions of people unless he was stopped, he would've been attacked by the international community, by the world. He would've been disbelieved, even mocked as [British Prime Minister] Clement Attlee was mocked for taking military action against Egypt in 1956.

Had Great Britain and France engaged in preventive military action that resulted in say, the deaths of 10,000 Germans and 5,000 British and French soldiers and civilians, the leaders who undertook such a military adventure would've been condemned as war criminals because no one would ever know how many deaths they prevented by the sacrifice of those 15,000 lives. Ignorance of the hypothetical future is often the reason for failure to act in the present. Had Great Britain and France acted, everyone would know about the 15,000 deaths that their actions caused, while no one would know about the tens of millions of lives their actions saved.

We now talk about the tens of millions of deaths these leaders indirectly caused or at least made possible by not taking preventive military action, but we don't accuse them of actually causing these deaths because inaction that directly led to death is not generally blamed as much as actions that visibly produce a body count. That is the dilemma of invisible false positives in failing to take military action. A preventive attack would not have been cost free. And it was not undertaken because the British and the French did not accurately predict and assess the cost of not acting. The result was catastrophic and preventable.

I believe we're at that moment now. If the United States, with or without the support of Israel, or Israel with the support of the United States were to take preventive military action to destroy Iran's capability of creating a nuclear arsenal, deaths would result. People would be killed. When Israel attacked the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in the early 1980s, there were a few deaths, not very many, a few, and we are not sure what it could have prevented. We don't know what Saddam Hussein would've done had he had nuclear weapons. Again, this is clearly in the area of probabilities.

I believe, and I think many military analysts believe, that Iran would keep its promise. Remember the former president of Iran, [Akbar] Rafsanjani, who was more liberal than the man who died this morning and more willing to consider making peace, stated back a few years ago that if Iran were to develop a nuclear arsenal and bomb Israel, it would be the end of Israel because Israel is a one-bomb state. All that is needed is for one bomb, one nuclear bomb to land in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, and that would be the end of Israel. And he said, and he was wrong about this and I'll explain why in a minute, that Israel would retaliate and perhaps kill 10 million Muslims by bombing Tehran. But Rafsanjani said the trade-off would be worth it because it would mean the end of the Jewish state and Islam would still survive. Can a nation that makes those kinds of claims and predictions be allowed to become nuclear armed? I believe not. And I believe that preventive action must be taken.

Let me make another argument that will be very unpopular here tonight, but I'm going to make it. When Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak, [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin was asked to explain why…and he said, "The reason is simple. Because Israel cannot ever take deterrent action after the fact." What did he mean? What he said was that if Iraq were to bomb Israel, Israel would not retaliate by bombing Baghdad. And he said, "Why?" He said, "Because Israeli pilots would refuse to drop nuclear bombs on a civilian area like Baghdad." And he said, "Therefore, Israel does not have the deterrent threat that other countries have. The United States dropped two nuclear bombs obviously. Israel would not. And therefore Israel," he said, "had to use preventive action." He wanted that to become a precedent for all future Israeli governments. We're talking about the United States now, but we're talking about the United States in combination. Obviously with Israel, neither country could probably or both countries would probably do it alone.

There are four issues really when one thinks about this decision. One is the righteousness of the decision. I think the decision to bomb Iran's nuclear potential arsenal is a righteous decision. It's the right thing to do. It will save lives based on cost-benefit analysis, particularly if it could be done with minimum civilian casualties. The way the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the Syrian nuclear reactor both were destroyed with minimum civilian casualties, the potential benefits considerably outweigh the potential risks.

Having said that, the next is legality. Let me talk about legality. I would ask if it were a smaller audience for a trivial pursuit question, but I'll ask it and then answer it. What is the first country in modern history ever to attack another country's nuclear facilities in a preventive way? You might say the United States, and the answer will surprise you. The answer is Iran. Iran in the early 1980's bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor. Remember, Iran and Iraq were in a war together. Iran bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor before Israel did. It's one of the bases on which Israel made the decision that it could be done. It damaged the facility, but it didn't put it out of business. Israel then put it out of business.

When one talks about legality, one talks about precedent. But one also talks about whether or not there's a casus belli, whether or not it would be proper for the United States or Israel to attack, to attack the nuclear reactor in Iran, and the answer is clearly, clearly yes. Iran, we know, killed over 300 marines in Beirut, Lebanon, back in the 1980s. That was a casus belli. The Argentinian Supreme Court just two weeks ago ruled that Iran was responsible for the murder of hundreds of Israelis in the Israeli embassy and the Israeli Community Center in Buenos Aires. Those were attacks by Iran against Israel. And of course we know that Iran sent many, many rockets and missiles, many to Israel just two or three weeks ago. All of them but one were repelled. But nonetheless, that was a casus belli.

There is absolutely no doubt legally that Israel and the United States have the complete right to retaliate against what Iran has done. It doesn't have to base it even on prevention, although prevention is a strong basis for it, but it has the right to do it in a retaliatory way as well.

So we're now left with the likelihood of success and the ramifications. I am not an expert on military action, so I can't really comment on the likelihood of a success. Israel and the United States would not undertake such an action unless it thought the likelihood of success was very high. And then we finally moved to what is maybe one of the hardest questions, the ramifications. What would happen? The Middle East is aflame. It's aflame more this morning than it was last night with the death of the former president of Iran. We know that Iran has sworn to the destruction of Israel. Of course, it calls the United States the great Satan, and Israel the small Satan.

The ramifications are unpredictable. And the ramifications of inaction are unpredictable. I will not sit here and tell you that I am absolutely certain, that I am positive, that it's the right action to take. I will tell you that based on what I know, and I've spoken to many of the leaders of both of our countries, that the risks of inaction in this case, the risks of Iran actually crossing the threshold and developing a nuclear arsenal is so much greater than the risks of North Korea or Pakistan or China or Russia having nuclear weapons. After all, Iran is the greatest transmitter of terrorism around the world. It has as its surrogates, organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, which would never hesitate for one moment to use nuclear bombs against the United States and against Israel.

On balance, though, I concede right away, it's a closed question. I am in favor of a surgical, strategic military attack that was designed and could succeed in preventing Iran from crossing the threshold into developing a nuclear arsenal. Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you, Alan. Glenn Greenwald will take the podium 17 and a half minutes. Take it away, Glenn.

Glenn Greenwald: First of all, let me begin by thanking the Soho Forum and Reason Foundation for this debate. I agree with Professor Dershowitz and everybody else that we need a lot more debates like this, especially when we have so many people in our country who constantly want to sell Americans on the virtues of all kinds of exciting and very dangerous new wars.

I want to begin by saying that unlike Professor Dershowitz, I don't actually think this is a very hard question. I don't think it's a very complex question. That's always what is said whenever it's time to sell a new war: "Oh, there's such good arguments on both sides. We have to be very careful about analyzing them." It might be the case that if what we were really debating is this very pretty picture presented by the resolution that Professor Dershowitz just got done advocating that, "Oh, all we're going to do is fly a few fighter jets over Iran and we're just going to do little pinpricks, very precise bombs on their nuclear facilities, and that's all we're going to do." I would still ask what is the benefit of that? The way in which countries proliferate nuclear weapons is through the know-how of their scientists, which you don't eliminate unless you want to kill them too. It's through persuading them, convincing them that they would be safer without nuclear weapons than with nuclear weapons.

But the reality is that is not actually what we're discussing. That's the pretense of the war. Every war that we've been sold from Vietnam to Iraq to the regime change wars of Libya and Syria to the war in Afghanistan, all have had pretext and pretenses to make them seem so much easier, so much more difficult, so much more deliberate and targeted than they really were.

So let me just begin by saying what Professor Dershowitz is really advocating for. And I don't mean that I'm going to read into his soul and try to intuit his motives. I'm going to quote from Professor Dershowitz only three weeks ago where he spoke on the extremely highly esteemed news outlet called Newsmax, and this is what he said he actually wants when it comes to Iran. The headline of the Newsmax article, and this is from April 14th, 2024, barely three weeks ago, Dershowitz to Newsmax, "Iran's attacks won't end without regime change." And the article says, "Attacks like those that unfolded Saturday against Israel from Iran will happen 'again and again, and wars in Gaza, Lebanon and Yemen will never end as long as the ayatollahs remain in charge of Iran so the only solution is regime change,' Harvard law Professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz argued on Newsweek Sunday," quoting Professor Dershowitz. He won't tell you this tonight because he wants to pretend he just wants a little limited pinprick of a bombing campaign, but this is actually what he wants in his own words.

"The only solution is regime change. There must be a change of regime and a return to an Iran, which is democratic. 70% of Iranians want regime change, and 90% of Arab states, meaning the U.S-supported Arab dictators in the region want regime change," he then went on to say. "Regime change would be carried out through an attack by the United States, which would be aimed at Iran." And then he added, "I had dinner the other night with the shah of Iran's son, the Crown Prince of Iran, the man who would turn Iran into a democracy if the people of Iran were allowed to vote and return the shah's family to the rule. But it's not going to happen if the United States does not do a regime change on Iran."

It's not that he just wants a regime change operation on Iran. He wants to re-install the Shah of Iran's son in the name of spreading democracy and freedom to Iran just like we did to Afghanistan, just like we did to Vietnam, just like we did to Iraq. And you see what happened there. This is exactly the same propaganda, the exact same mentality, the exact same interest at work.

Now, just to remind you, to say that I'm going to bring return democracy to Iran by reinstalling the regime of the shah's family of the Pahlavi regime and dynasty is like saying, "Oh, I want to bring freedom and democracy to the world by making Mohammed bin Salman not just the head of Saudi Arabia, but of the entire world." The whole way that the shah of Iran was installed in the first place was that the Iranians had a democratically elected government that the United States didn't and the West didn't like because it was becoming too nationalistic. It was threatening to nationalize oil reserves and use the proceeds for the benefit of the American people. The CIA overthrew that democratically elected government and planted one of the most brutal and savage dictators the world has ever seen, which is the shah of Iran who killed and murdered him, put into prison every single dissident and ran that country with an iron fist until there was a revolution in 1979.

That is what's really going on here. The reason people like Alan Dershowitz and the CIA in the West wanted to install the shah and love the shah and want to return the shah into Iran isn't because they love democracy and want to spread democracy to the Middle East. It's because the shah of Iran was a very close ally of Israel and a very close puppet, a very obedient puppet of the United States. And that is what this entire Middle East framework is about, is taking out the leaders who are democratically elected, making sure that the people of the Middle East have no say whatsoever by imposing dictators on those countries which we support and prop up as we're doing in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and Jordan. They want to turn the Middle East into all of that where there's nothing but puppets of the United States that are very subservient to Israel. That is the real image.

In his own words, he's saying, "What I really want is regime change, and I want to reinstall the shah of Iran into that country in order to spread democracy." Now, let me just make a couple of points about a couple of the propagandistic visions that Professor Dershowitz presented. The first one is he wants you to think that we're right around the corner from having another Hitler, another Nazi Germany, and therefore you should make all your decisions based on what we wish we would have done prior to the emergence of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

When I first stopped being a lawyer and began writing about politics in 2005, one of the very first things I noticed was how it seems like our pundit class, our policy-making class, our political class, knows only one historical example. It's like they didn't learn anything about history except 1938 Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, and the Nazis. Everything they want you to believe always should be decided through the scope of the "Nazis are coming," Hitler has returned.

Now, there's a phrase in law, which I'm sure Professor Dershowitz at Harvard has taught his students that says, "Bad cases make bad law." In other words, if you're deciding everything based on some extreme case that's very uncommon, you're going to make very bad decisions for other cases that are more common. We have been told over the past 30 years that every single leader we want to go to war with is the new Hitler. We heard that about Saddam Hussein. We heard that about Ho Chi Minh. We heard that about [Bashar Al] Assad. We heard that about [Muammar] Gaddafi. We hear now that about Hamas, that Hamas is worse than the Nazis or worse than [Islamic State Group] ISIS. We've heard that about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who if you probably don't remember, that Hitler, he was the one who left after serving two terms, which the Constitution required. This is the standard propagandistic framework. They always sell to you to scare you into thinking that the new Hitler is about to come and therefore we have to take action.

But what makes Hitler Hitler, what makes the Nazis Nazis, is that it was a singular evil unlike things we've seen in history either before or since. And so to let our government or pundits or warmongers scare us all the time into believing that the new Hitler is coming, we're again facing Nazi Germany is to make extremely bad decisions always in favor of war because of course, who wouldn't want to go kill Hitler before he became Hitler? And that's what they want you to think, but that's not actually what we're facing.

Now, as far as the claim that, "Oh, well, we can't wait for proof because the only proof that we're going to have is when Iran finally gets the nuclear bomb," that should be very familiar to anybody above the age of 30, because that is what we were told before the Iraq war. When people like Condoleezza Rice were asked, "Well, where's the evidence of all these nuclear weapons that you say Saddam Hussein has?" She said, "We can't wait for the proof to be in the form of a smoke cloud, of a nuclear cloud over the United States." Though that was what they were saying was, "Oh, we don't have any evidence that Iran has nuclear weapons. We don't have any evidence that they're going to use them, but we can't wait. We have to do preventive war, which was a brand new concept for Iraq that he now wants to bring back for Iran."

Prior to the war in Iraq, there was no such thing as preventive war. There was preemptive war, meaning if a country was on the verge of attacking you, you had the right to attack them. Obviously, Iraq wasn't on the verge of attacking the United States in 2002 and '03, so they invented a new term called "preventive war" that allowed the United States to go into Iraq, one of the worst foreign policy disasters in the history of our country. And I would simply ask you whether you want to repeat that, because everything that he just got done saying is what we were told in 2002 and 2003, and so many other times as well, including in Syria and in Libya. Now it's not just Professor Dershowitz who wants regime change in Iran. It's also the government of Israel. We have this amazing coincidence in our foreign policy over the last 20 years that we keep getting told that we, the United States and Americans have to go to war just totally coincidentally against all of Israel's worst enemies. So we went to war against Saddam Hussein, who Israel hated so much that they actually worked with and armed the Iranians in the war against Iraq. We tried to pull President Bashar Al Assad out of Syria, who the Israeli saw as an extension of Iran.

We ended up fighting on the same side as Al Qaeda and ISIS to do so. We failed. We left that country in complete destruction. We were told that we have to remove Gaddafi in Libya even though we had partnered with him for so long because he was one of the most pro Palestinian voices in the region. We did actually remove Gaddafi from power, even though President Obama swore that the purpose of the war was simply to protect the people of Benghazi. It had nothing to do with regime change. And we got that leader out as well. So in 2021, according to The Times of Israel, it reported the following, "Defense Minister of Israel, Benny Gantz and Mossad Chief David Barnera will push during their meetings this week in Washington with senior Biden administration officials for the United States to carry out a military strike on Iranian targets, Israel's three main TV news broadcasts reported Saturday night."

So on some level, I would argue that just bombing Iran is not actually good for Israel's national security, but there is no world in which bombing Iran, which is what he wants our country to do, having the United States bomb Iran, would actually benefit our national security as well. Now, let me just remind you of all the different times over the past, say 20 years that we have heard over and over everything about Iran that Professor Dershowitz is trying to scare you into believing. That they're just about to get nuclear weapons. They're weeks away, they're months away. We have to go bomb them. This is not something that only began recently, in fact, we've been hearing this exact same thing for 20 years, and none of it ever came true. So you should decide tonight whether there's any reason after hearing this for 20 years, you're now suddenly willing to believe that Iran is on the verge of getting nuclear weapons to the point that we have to go start a new war with Iran.

Jeffrey Goldberg, who's the editor in chief of The Atlantic and a strong supporter of Israel, wrote a cover story for The Atlantic called "The Point of No Return" in 2010 where he told Americans it was more than 50 percent that the Israelis were about to go bomb Iran in the next three months because they didn't have more than months before Iran finally acquired a nuclear weapon. You can go all the way back to 2005 where NBC News reported the following. This is 2005, 20 years ago, "Israel should take 'bold and courageous action against arch-foe Iran's nuclear program, similar to its 1981 strike on the main Iraqi reactor,' former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday. Israeli officials have said that unless stopped, Iran will achieve the know-how to build a bomb by March of next year."

In 2010, Jeffrey Goldberg said, "Based on my conversations with Israeli decision-makers in Israel, we heard this as nine months from June. In other words, March of 2011, that's all Israel has. If we assume that nothing changes in these estimates, this will mean we have to begin thinking about our next step beginning at the turn of the year." The New York Times in 2012, "President Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel told the UN that Iran's capability to enrich uranium must be stopped before next spring or early summer, arguing that by the time the country will be in a position to make a short, undetectable sprint to manufacture nuclear weapons." Reuters in 2015, CBS in 2018, BBC in 2019 all say exactly the same thing. "Oh, we're only months away. We have for sure these intelligence photos with a big red arrow pointing at some random building that we have discovered is where Iran is about to proliferate their nuclear weapons."

It's been happening over and over that you've been lied to for 20 years. Why would you suddenly believe it and support a new war against a country that's three times as large as Iraq, risking all of the major escalation and instability and huge war that we know will happen? Now, if you want Iran not to build a nuclear weapon, there is a very easy way to do that, which is to signal to them that the safest way for them to reintegrate into the international community is by agreeing not to build a nuclear weapon in exchange for having sanctions lifted. That was the Iran deal that President Obama did in 2015, and according to the Congressional research service, in April of 2024, just a month ago when he was telling Newsmax what he really wants is a regime change in Iran, they documented how during the entire Iran deal when sanctions were lifted, Iran never took any steps to build a nuclear weapon beyond what they were allowed to do.

They had everything open to inspectors. They were always doing exactly what that agreement called for, and it was only once that deal was terminated, which the Israelis and many Israel supporters in the United States urged President [Donald] Trump to do, did we begin again hearing that they were close to nuclear weapons. The 1981 example that he cites often about when Israel bombed Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi reactor is the perfect example. Prior to 1981, there was almost no evidence Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear program. It was a very vague aspiration. What drove Iraq to try and get nuclear weapons was precisely the fact that Israel attacked them. That's the message we send to the world all the time. "If you have nuclear weapons, if you're North Korea or if you're Pakistan, we won't mess with you. If you give up your nukes, though, the way Saddam Hussein did or the way Gaddafi did, that is when you're vulnerable to regime change." We've created a world where the incentive is to get nuclear weapons through the kind of aggression and militarism that he advocates.

According to a Washington Post op-ed by defense official Colin Kahl, he said, and he cited several academic studies that after the 1981 bombing by Israel in Iraq, "The Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion." And this is what we've seen over and over, that when you as the United States say, "We're going to rule the world by force. We're going to go bomb whoever we want." That sends the signal to the world that, "You better get nuclear weapons. That's the only protection against that." But when the United States cooperates with countries and reaches deals with countries and opens up those countries like we had with Iran, that is when the world becomes much safer. That is when you take away the incentive for countries to get nuclear weapons bombing Iran will have no effect on their nuclear capability.

Maybe it'll set it back by a year or so, and then what are you going to do, bomb them again? You're going to increase the incentive for them to get it. But what I can guarantee you will happen is exactly what we saw in Iraq, there will be destruction throughout the region. Even [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair, one of the most vocal advocates of the war in Iraq, admitted that the main result of invading Iraq was to create instability and a vacuum of power in the region that gave rise to ISIS. And you can look at every study, including from the Brookings Institution, from all kinds of think tanks that usually are not shy about supporting war and what they will say, they will have a long list of horribles about the kind of infiltration and fire that will set out in the Middle East if we do something like try a little pinprick on Iran. Even if that were in the most ideal world, was our goal, that will not be the result.

We saw what Iran did by Israel….He forgot to mention this when he was talking about Iran sending those missiles over to Israel. It was preceded by something that happened, which was Israel went to Syria and bombed a consulate of Iran, something that every country would react to that way. The more we attack countries in the Middle East, the more we destabilize the Middle East, the more death and destruction we bring with no benefit. The more we try and cooperate and bring a world of peace, the less threat of nuclear weapons you will find. Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you. Seven and a half minutes of rebuttal. Seven and a half minutes of rebuttal from Alan Dershowitz. Take it away, Alan.


Dershowitz: Israel succeeded in its attacks on both the Iraqi and the Syrian nuclear reactors with minimal, minimal casualties, and neither Syria nor Iraq has continued to develop nuclear weapons. The Middle East is a lot safer because of Israel's surgical attacks, careful attacks, very, very cautious attacks on both Iraq and Syria's nuclear reactors. I would love to see Israel be able to cooperate with Iran and work out a deal and try to avoid them getting nuclear weapons or a nuclear arsenal without an attack. That would be far, far better, but it's just not going to happen. And there are some very, very thoughtful people who now honestly believe that Iran is just months away from having a nuclear arsenal and enough bombs to destroy Israel. And of course, we know that Iran operates through surrogates. It operates through far less responsible organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah and the Houthis and others.

The idea that any of them would get nuclear weapons is so potentially disturbing to world peace that it's worth at least considering what the realistic options are. If Iran does develop a nuclear arsenal, it will change everything in the Middle East. It will change everything in the world. And remember, because Iran is a theocracy which bases its decisions on the leaders of the ayatollah, a cataclysmic approach which focuses more on the world to come than on this world, is not beyond the realm of dispute. And the question is a question of probabilities. Nobody knows for absolute certain. Nobody knows with any degree of prophecy. The Talmud says that prophecy ended with the destruction of the second temple. And so we're left with a world of probabilities, and one has to ask what the worst probabilities are.

The question is, what would be worse? A preventive attack on a nascent Iranian nuclear arsenal, or leaving it alone and allowing Iran to develop a nuclear arsenal, which would change everything, change everything in the Middle East. We heard my distinguished opponent talk about how many times Israel thought about bombing Iran, but they've never done it. They've never done it, not because they didn't have the capacity to do it, but they were waiting for a much higher level of certainty and a much higher ability to do to Iran what they did to Iraq and Syria, and that is to destroy the nuclear potential without endangering civilians. For example, in Iraq, I think one civilian died, a French technician who was not supposed to be at the Osirak reactor. It was on a Saturday or something like that, or a Friday when they were supposed to be home.

And accidentally he was there. And if it didn't totally destroy, it set back the Iraqi nuclear program for many years. In fact, it's never been renewed again. So it is a question of probabilities. And yes, I favor regime change in Iran. Iran is the most dangerous country in the modern world. It is the modern-day Nazi Germany. And the potential for Iran using its aggressive behavior, which it now assigns to surrogates and doing it in a more direct, effective way. Remember that Iran sent hundreds to Israel just a few weeks ago. Imagine if half a dozen of them were nuclear tipped. Every country has the right of self-defense, and regime change would be good. The vast majority of Iranians want regime change. The only reason there is an ayatollah regime in Iran is because it's a despotic regime. It's the furthest thing in the world from democracy.

So if the Iranian regime could be changed…Look, I don't want the shah, I don't want anybody close to the shah to be the leader of Iran, but you have to choose between evils and you have to choose the lesser of the evils. And I have to tell you, the Iranian regime was less bad on a scale of really bad under the shah of Iran, and it would be much, much less bad under his far more liberal and far more accommodating son than it would've been under the ayatollahs. So we don't live in a world of good, better, best. We live in a world of bad, worse, worser, worstest, and intolerable.

All I'm trying to do is move it from intolerable to not so bad. That's the risk that would be incurred if the United States were to take a preventive action. I think in the end when you think about what the world would look like if the United States and Israel together, didn't take preventive action, and if Iran were to develop a nuclear arsenal, which it would then allocate to its even less responsible surrogates such as Hezbollah and Hamas and the Houthis, or a world in which Iran were deprived of the ability to create a nuclear arsenal.

It's a hard question. I disagree with the opening statement of my distinguished opponent that this is not a hard question. It is a very hard question, and I hope and pray we don't ever become in a situation like occurred after Nazi Germany where we regret not having taken action. In Nazi Germany, we had enough information we learned to regret and it cost millions and millions and millions of lives. I hope we never get to that situation where we look back at this debate and we regret not having taken the action that I advocate we should take.

Moderator: Thank you, Professor. Seven and a half minutes from Glenn. Take it away Glenn.


Greenwald: So one of the first things that I noticed Professor Dershowitz saying near the beginning of his rebuttal there was, "Well, it would be nice to have an agreement with Iran, but unfortunately it will never happen." And I thought that was so odd because it actually did happen, not 100 years ago, but seven years ago. It was the Iran deal that the United States and Western Europe entered into with Iran to reintegrate Iran into the international community in exchange for Iran opening up its nuclear facilities. Think about what you would think if you were a leader. Would you want nuclear weapons more if you felt like you were in danger of being bombed and attacked and having people like Alan Dershowitz talking for the last 20 years about how important it is to bomb you within the next few weeks? Wouldn't you think, "Oh, I better get nuclear weapons"? And wouldn't you feel like maybe you don't need nuclear weapons if you're actually entering deals that you don't renege on, but that the United States did?

So that was a deal, and I read you the Congressional service report that said during the time of that deal, there was no movement at all on Iran's nuclear program. In fact, this is from the Brookings Institution, which supported the war in Iraq, has always supported multiple wars in the Middle East, and this is what they say in December 2021, "Why Bombing Iran is Still a Bad Idea:" "Retired Israeli General Isaac Ben-Israel told Bloomberg that, 'Netanyahu's efforts to persuade the Trump administration to quit the nuclear agreement with Iran has turned out to be the worst strategic mistake in Israel's history.' With this statement, Israel admitted that not only did Israel undermine its own security by pushing for Trump to renege on the agreement, but also that Israel undermined America's security as both countries share an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Such behavior is unacceptable from a partner. Unfortunately, Iran's current minister Naftali Bennett is adopting much of the same posture on Iran as Netanyahu."

And here's what they say will happen if you vote for bombing Iran: "An Israeli strike on Iran or a U.S. strike on Iran, 'Will likely start a conflict that pulls neighboring countries on both sides.' Hezbollah will launch thousands of rockets, missiles and drones at Haifa, Tel Aviv and other targets. Hamas might also join the conflict. Iran or its Iraqi and Yemeni partners could strike Saudi Arabia as they have in the past. They might also expand attacks to include Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, given they're now publicly normalized ties with Israel. Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, which have tended to maintain relations with both Israel and the rest of the United States will be pressed to choose a side, a decision that will subject them to attack from their new adversaries. Jordan would be in a grave bind given the enormous popular pressure to break the peace treaty with Israel. Oil prices would skyrocket."

Does that sound like something we all want? This conflagration in the Middle East of the kind we saw when the people who said the same thing about Iraq got their way? Now again, Professor Dershowitz returned to this idea that, "Oh, the Iranians are Nazis." I guess I don't know if Assad is still the new Hitler. I don't know if Gaddafi is still the new Hitler. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was not even part of Iran's government anymore, is the new Hitler. I don't know if [Vladimir] Putin is the new Hitler. But Iran, he says, is the real new Nazis and you have to treat them that way. What evidence is there that Iran is some crazy apocalyptic country that goes around murdering and slaughtering and committing genocide.

They have certainly done bad acts and Professor Dershowitz went over them. But the death count that the United States and Israel is responsible for dwarfs whatever number of people Iran has killed. Iran has shown over and over that they can be rationally negotiated with. They're not some crazed apocalyptic cult. When Israel bombed their embassy in Syria, they didn't go all out and try and attack Israel the way many countries would. They used some of their slowest and most harmless drones that they knew would be intercepted as a show of symbolic force. There's no evidence that Iran is out there invading other countries, bombing other countries, trying to bring a genocide or a new holocaust. In fact, in 2018, there was a United Nations General Assembly resolution that simply called for the, "Establishment of a nuclear weapon free zone in the region of the Middle East." All 171 countries voted in favor of a nuclear-free Middle East.

You'll never guess which were the only two no votes in the entire world. Oh, it's the U.S. and Israel. That's who voted no on a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Now, one of the things that I think we need to ask ourselves is what would be the effect of bombing Iran versus what would be the effect of returning to something like the Iran deal? Here's the Brookings Institute in December '21 again, "While the talks in Vienna to restore the new Iran deal yielded little progress, this appeal marks just the latest example of the failed paradigm with which both the United States and Israel have approached Iran. The belief that greater pressure and more aggression will force Iran to capitulate when the likelier outcome would be to provoke a similar military response." That has been the mistake of U.S. foreign policy for 50 years. We believe we can throw our military force around the world and force countries to immediately capitulate and submit.

And instead the exact opposite happens. In war after war, we make the planet more dangerous. We incentivize countries to try and build up their military and acquire nuclear weapons to protect against that kind of single-handed aggression. Now, I cited and he didn't even note, let alone respond to the studies that show that after the 1981 strike by Israel under Iraq's nuclear weapons program, that model that he always likes to cite, it did not deter Iraq's nuclear program, to the contrary, it supercharged it. They quadrupled or more the amount of money they were spending to acquire nuclear weapons precisely because Israel had just attacked them. And in fact, there was by 2003, the key Iraqi nuclear scientists who were called the father of the nuclear program, who was imprisoned by Saddam during the 1981 bombing of Israel. He was in prison and Saddam immediately let him out after the Israeli bombing because they realized that they needed to build up their nuclear arsenal.

A CIA 2004 report on weapons of mass destruction said this, "According to a former senior official Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor spurred Saddam to build up Iraq's military to confront Israel in the early 1980s." Saudi Arabia gave $5 billion after the Israeli attack to Iraq under the promise that if Iraq develops nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would get those too. It supercharged the craving desire of the Middle East when Israel bombed for them to get nuclear weapons. It did not bring any peace or deter them at all.

And I would just leave you with this quote from a very conservative former senator who became Donald Trump's director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, who in 2017 was asked about why North Korea was insisting on having the nuclear bomb, and he said this, "There is rationale backing Kim Jong Un's actions which are survival, survival for his regime, survival for his country. He has watched, I think what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence. The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes and Ukraine giving up its nukes," and also obviously Iraq giving up its nukes, "Is unfortunately if you had nukes, never give them up. If you don't have them, get them."

That is the world that has been created by the Alan Dershowitz's of the world, by the people who want the US to constantly bomb other countries. We have created the world in which countries need nuclear weapons, and the proof that we can fix it with cooperation is the Iran deal that was working perfectly, as everyone says, to keep Iran out of the nuclear arms business

Moderator: We now come to the Q&A portion of the evening. There are mics over here and over there. We run this rather loosely. And first, at any time, the debaters can ask each other a question. 

Dershowitz: My first question, was the world and was the Middle East a better place or a worse place under the shah with all the horrors and all the terrible things that the Pahlavi family and the shah has done? Was the world safer, a better place under the shah or under the ayatollahs?

Greenwald: The only reason why that question would be relevant is because if Professor Dershowitz's real goal in pretending to convince you he wants a pinpoint strike on Iran's nuclear program is in fact what he's admitted, which is a regime change.

Dershowitz: I do. I want that. Yeah.

Greenwald: In Iran. And then the question becomes, "Oh, do we want to once again have the CIA a impose, a savage and brutal dictatorship on Iran?" I guess the question for whether the world was better off under the shah was who you are. If you were Israel and the CIA, outstanding. I would love the shah if I were Israel and the CIA. He did the United State's bidding. If you were a dissident in Iran, if you were somebody who was religious in Iran, if you were critical of the government in Iran, things were extremely grim for you because dissidents were savage and brutalized in prison and that was why there were so many people who overthrew them.

Dershowitz: Let me ask a follow-up question. If there were an open and free election today in Iran, would the ayatollah be elected? Or if there were an election, even as you put it, between the brutal shah and the nice ayatollahs, who do you think would win the election in Iran today?

Greenwald: I didn't say that ayatollahs were nice.

Dershowitz: Who would win the election?

Greenwald: I'm not a pollster.

Dershowitz: You're talking about democracy.

Greenwald: Even in the United States…

Dershowitz: Yeah, but you're talking about democracy. Who would win?

Greenwald: Yeah, I don't think we know what the population of…

Dershowitz: Okay.

Greenwald: But hold on. You can't just constantly interrupt. What I want to say is that if you look at history, what you will find is that the world is worse off and the countries are worse off when we in the United States, working with Israel, go into countries and impose the governments that we want on those countries. There's hardly anything that I can imagine more brutal and savage and bad than that. So certainly, I wouldn't want to live under the rule of the ayatollah, but I also don't want Israel and the CIA picking Iran's leaders for it.

Moderator: Do you want to ask a question of Alan?

Greenwald: I have a question for Professor Dershowitz, if I could.

So the resolution that we're debating, that we're asking everybody to vote on is that the United States should go and bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. But isn't it true that the reason you want that is because you actually want the United States and Israel to go in, as you told Newsmax three weeks ago…you want to remove the government of Iran and replace it with a more pro-Israel government, right?

Dershowitz: There's no question that it's a two-step process. I want to make sure, first of all, be very clear about it. I want to be very clear that the first step is if the current Iranian regime remains the regime, I don't want them to have nuclear weapons. But if we could bring about regime change, I would prefer that to bombing or destroying the nuclear reactor. We wouldn't have to. The shah was oppressing his own people. He wasn't trying to export Islamic oppression to the rest of the Middle East, and ultimately to the rest of the world, because he calls the United States the great Satan. So yes, yes, I would like to see regime change. It would be good for the Iranian people, and you haven't answered the question, what if it were true? What if it were true?

No, don't interrupt me. Hypothetically, Hypothetically, what if you could conduct a poll and I could conduct a poll and it would be an honest poll, and the conclusion was that 70 percent of Iranian people would prefer to see the shah or the shah's son replace the current ayatollah regime? And that what you were propping up essentially was a regime that is against the wishes of the Iranian people as well. How would you respond to that? Nobody has any idea. It's not a question of democracy because we don't know what democracy would produce in Iran. We've never had it.

Greenwald: Exactly. I totally agree with that last statement. Nobody knows what democracy would produce in Iran, but the only thing that I would ask you when you go to vote, because what he's telling you is the real purpose of this bombing campaign is regime change.

Dershowitz: No, no, no.

Greenwald: Yes. That is what you're saying is the real motive.

Dershowitz: No, it's not what I said.

Greenwald: That is where it will end up because there is… Let me… Hold on.

Dershowitz: Okay, let me answer.

Greenwald: There is no plan that would actually achieve any benefits that they want to achieve without removing the current Iranian government. That's what he said to Newsmax, was the only way we can achieve these benefits that we're trying to achieve is if we change the government, even though the current government had an agreement with the United States that was working. 

Dershowitz: It wasn't working.

Greenwald: When you go to vote, vote on whether or not you think that the United States' efforts over the last 50 years to bring regime change to the world or to bomb other countries in this world has turned out to be good for those countries, has turned out to be good for those regions and has turned out to be good for the United States. And if you think the answer is yes, vote with him. Go vote with him to have another one of these kinds of wars because that is what he's advocating.

Dershowitz: I don't care how you vote. That's up to you. That's a trivial part of this discussion.

Moderator: Excuse me, Professor Dershowitz. 

Dershowitz: I want to respond.

Moderator: Professor Dershowitz, we do care how you vote, but you want to respond to that?

Dershowitz: I just want to respond to that.

There are two independent goals. One does not depend on the other. I think it will be very difficult to achieve regime change. That's why I want to make sure that the current regime doesn't have a nuclear arsenal. A second stage, which is a desirable thing for the people of Iran and for the world and for the Middle East, is to have regime change and to introduce some form of democracy to Iran…with elections and not theocracy.

Moderator: It's the moderator's prerogative to ask two brief questions, one of each. Glenn Greenwald, do you disagree strongly with those who claim that the record shows that Iran is Nazi like toward Israel and wishes and wants and would further the goal of destroying Israel as a state? Do you agree with that view or disagree?

Greenwald: I think Israel hates a lot of its enemies. They hated Saddam Hussein, they wanted him gone. They wanted Syria and Assad gone, and I think Iran hates Israel as well. They're enemies. There's no question about that, which is precisely why Alan Dershowitz wants the United States military to go and take out another enemy of Israel and replace it with a government like Saudi Arabia, like the United Arab Emirates, like Egypt, that are dictatorships that answer to the West and do Israel's bidding. And that is an extremely dangerous way to continue to conduct foreign policy, and I think all of history is on my side.

Moderator: So you're thinking Iran is a danger to Israel. It is a danger to Israel? Iran?

Greenwald: For a long time, we were told that Saudi Arabia hated Israel. They had the same devotion to destroying Israel as Iran does, and Saudi Arabia is now engaged in diplomatic relations because of the attempt to bring Saudi Arabia into the international community. If you go and look at the other option, my option is not some illusory option. It actually happened in reality. I read you the studies that when there was an Iran deal to lift sanctions on them and bring them back into the international community, every single inspection agency, including the [International Atomic Energy Agency], that tried to convince the world that Saddam Hussein didn't have nuclear weapons before 2002, says that Iran gave up its nuclear aspirations, was allowing inspectors into those facilities, and that's what I think is a far more promising option than starting another war in the Middle East.

Dershowitz: Don't you actually think, and tell the truth now, don't you actually think it would be better if Israel didn't exist as the nation state of the Jewish people?

Greenwald: No. No, I absolutely don't think that. I've never suggested that, anything like that in my life. And if I wanted to advocate that, I would have no problem with telling everybody I do in favor of that. I don't hide what I think, unlike you when you're advocating for a bombing, when you really want regime change. No, I don't want Israel to…

Moderator: Professor Dershowitz.

Dershowitz: If you favor a nuclear armed Iran….Let me put the question a little differently.

Moderator: Okay. Excuse.

Dershowitz: Let me put the question a little differently.

Moderator: You've asked the question. I have a brief question for you, Professor Dershowitz. Do you see any irony? Do you see an irony in your stating that Iran is the new Nazi Germany, alongside your confidence that all we have to do is destroy the nuclear facility and this new Nazi Germany will then be so nice and cooperative that they will then no longer try again for nuclear facilities?

Alan Dershowitz: I do not believe…

Moderator: You seem better than that.

Dershowitz: I do not believe that Iran is the new Nazi Germany. I do not believe that there will ever be another Nazi Germany because of Israel. Israel has the strength and the ability that the Jewish community did not have in the 1930s. It would prevent Iran from becoming the new Nazis. If they could, they would, and don't believe me, believe them.

Elie Wiesel once said, "Always believe the threats of your enemies more than the promises of your friends," and the Jewish people have learned from terrible experiences to believe the threats of their enemies. And Iran has threatened genocide, destruction of Israel, the end of the Israeli people and the end of the Jewish people, and Israel has to take that seriously and the United States as Israel's closest ally has to help them avoid that genocide.

The transcript of this debate has been condensed and edited for style and clarity