Israel, Iran and the Bomb

The dramatic news flash on the 24th of November heralded the signing of an interim agreement between the U.S. and Iran. Without going into the details, the deal eases some of the international economic pressure on Iran while beginning a process of slowly rolling back its nuclear program as it relates to military applications.

For some time now, Israel has been concerned that Iran's nuclear program's primary goal is to achieve the capability and capacity of creating atomic weapons. Since Iran has been speaking about the need to "eliminate" the Zionist entity for several years, this aforementioned program is deemed as having Israel in its sights. In short, Israel perceives a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. In this context, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made great efforts to get the international community to take significant measures to prevent Iran from realizing its goals. The heavy economic sanctions regime was set in place by the U.S. administration, partly due to the Israeli PM's exertions.

The United States has led the international pressure on Iran partially as a response to Israeli pressure, but also because a nuclear Iran is deemed as a regional threat and one that can spell trouble not only for the Middle East, but also for Europe and perhaps in the future, the U.S. It is recognized that there is no love lost between the majority Sunni states in the Middle East and the Iranian Shiite regime. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- all Sunni entities -- would not remain silent in the face of a nuclear Iran. Given an Iranian bomb, it is clear that nuclear proliferation in the Middle East would become a common goal of its adversaries. Since some of the aforementioned regimes are unstable, it is worrisome to think of their attaining nuclear weapons. There is also the issue of non-state actors such as Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and other Islamic Fundamentalist groups getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction. The assumption is that these entities would have fewer constraints on using nuclear weapons on Western civilian targets.

From an Israeli perspective, a nuclear Iran would pose several serious problems, the first one potentially existential. Although Israel maintains a policy of nuclear ambiguity, it is common knowledge that it possesses a significant nuclear arsenal. For some time now, Israel also has reportedly gained "second strike capability" in the guise of four very sophisticated diesel-powered submarines -- supplied by Germany -- with two more on the way in coming years. Still, Israel sees itself as a "one bomb" country, meaning that one well-placed nuclear hit could kill large segments of the population and industry (some 50 percent of Israel's population and infrastructure are located along the narrow coastal plain between Gadera and Hadera). But, beyond a direct nuclear confrontation, a nuclear Iran would give it a shield that would enable it to fight proxy wars with Israel without the fear of being attacked in return. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East could potentially make weapons of mass destruction accessible to unstable regimes and from there perhaps into the hands of extremist Islamic groups that could target Israel and other Western countries.

One of the unanswerable questions is Israel's military ability to prevent a nuclear Iran. On the one hand, if Israel had the capacity to stop the program, the time to have done it would have been in the Bush era. On the other hand, as Iran has inched closer and closer to achieving its goals, the Israeli military has been preparing itself in the event a preventive strike became necessary. An Israeli operation would need to be precise, on target and would be a one-shot deal. This means that Israeli pilots have probably done practice runs so many times that they could implement their orders with a precision that would see little or no error. Regarding the means, only the Israeli military knows whether or not they possess the munitions to put the multiple Iranian nuclear sites out of commission.

Still, it is unclear that a successful Israeli action against Iran would bring the desired effect. Even if Israeli warplanes knocked out all of its targets, bringing its pilots home safely, the cost of the operation could outweigh its benefits. Beyond a military response that could entail barrages of rockets fired from Iran, Syria and Lebanon (Hezbollah) on Israeli civilian and economic targets, Iran could interdict the flow of oil from the Gulf to the rest of the world. Sinking a few ships that would block sea-lines and the export of oil from the Middle East to Europe, the U.S. and Asia would be unpreventable. It could cause a spike in gas prices which would be blamed on the Israeli operation against Iran. Even without an Iranian action that would be painful to Europe or the U.S., an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations would destroy the deal that has just been concluded. It is plausible to expect a sharp and unpleasant response by the deal's signatories that could set Israel back economically and diplomatically.

What then should be the Israeli response to the emerging deal with Iran? In the opinion of this writer, Israel must sit back and let the U.S. take the lead. If, at the end of the day the Iranians achieve nuclear military capabilities, Israel will not find itself alone. There is an international interest in preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East that goes beyond Israel and its interests. Further, assuming Iran "gets the bomb" there will be a plethora of new problems to be dealt with. An important question that has no definitive answer is whether or not the Iranians are rational players. Or to paraphrase Sting: "I hope the Persians love their children too." But looking past a potential balance of terror between Israel and Iran based on mutually assured destruction, the threat of nuclear proliferation and the chance that radical groups could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction are issues that the U.S. and Europe will be forced to confront. Israel does not have to take the lead here. If sanctions have brought the Iranians to this point, they can be just as painful and destructive to their economy after achieving nuclear weapons capabilities. The pressure can continue until the Persians come to their senses.

Israel, on the other hand, should not be tempted to go it alone with Iran. The consequences could be disastrous...