Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Israel and Iran: Everyone Is Asking the Wrong Question

Israel and Iran: Everyone Is Asking the Wrong Question

On the 19th of February 2012, the New York Times had an interesting article pointing out the logistical and tactical problems the Israeli Air Force would encounter if it were to try to interdict the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.[1] The conclusion reached by the author was the problems involved precluded Israel from making an attempt at derailing the Iranian nuclear program through conventional military means. While I largely concur with the logic in the article, I do not believe the Israelis ever have seriously considered a conventional military strike as an effective way of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The more pertinent question is Will nuclear weapons be used by Israel against Iran?

Since the beginning of Israel’s own nuclear weapons program, the Israeli doctrine on nuclear weapons has been to reserve the employment of nuclear weapons for attacks or potential dangers that threaten the existence of the Israeli state. This is best demonstrated by Israel’s reaction to Pakistan’s announcement that it had acquired nuclear weapons in 1998. While there was no celebration of the development of an “Islamic Bomb” in Israeli circles, nor was there any public talk of retaliation or military strikes. While Pakistan was not an ally or supporter of Israel, it also did not develop nuclear weapons with much regard to Israel at all.

The development of nuclear weapons was focused on the threat from India, not Israel. While key players in the Pakistani nuclear program may have taken steps to promote the spread of the “Islamic bomb” to other Middle East players, it has been the unwavering stand of the Government of Pakistan, and, more importantly, the Pakistani Army that nuclear weapons were for self-defense—“from India” being the unsaid but clearly understood source of any threat requiring the use of Pakistani nuclear weapons. This was the weapon system to prevent the neighboring Indian Army from simply overwhelming Pakistan with its superior size.

While both distance and the support of the U.S. for both Israel and Pakistan by the U.S. also mitigated the threat of Pakistani possession of nuclear in regard to Israel, it is clear that the Pakistani’s nuclear program simply did not rise to the level of an existential threat to the Israeli state. I do believe, however, that as an unintended consequence, the Pakistani nuclear program is the current greatest existential threat to Pakistan.

The possibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands is of major interest to the United States, but such a development is a survival threat to India. While the Pakistani Army may publicly express concern about the U.S. staging a special operation mission to deprive them of their nuclear weapons should the command and control of Pakistani weapons be threatened, it is far more likely the Indian Army will be there long before the U.S. feels compelled to move. In view of the history of conflict between India and Pakistan, the addition of nuclear weapons to the mix means that the next conflict which is more than a border skirmish, is almost by definition an extinction event for Pakistan. It would hardly be rational for the Indians to leave a defeated enemy on its very border in possession of nuclear weapons in the wake of a serious bilateral military engagement. Pakistan cannot hope to be a victor in any prolonged military engagement against India. Pakistani’s nuclear weapons were meant to create a military stalemate with India. Stalemates are great as long as they work. Loose nukes in Pakistan are an Indian survival threat long before any U.S. targets are held at risk in such an eventuality. I fully expect to see India move to destroy the Pakistani nuclear program should any serious question of uncertainty over the control of Pakistani weapons arise.   

Much the same view should be taken in regard to the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons. The question is not whether Iran should be permitted by the West to develop nuclear weapons. The true question is whether Israel determines the Iranian possession of nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to the Israeli state. If it does, Israel will employ its nuclear arsenal to end the threat. If it does not, there will be no overt military action. The logistical and tactical problems outlined in the New York Times article dictate the use of nuclear weapons. What would have required hundreds of aircraft to neutralize with conventional weapons can be done by a handful of aircraft employing nuclear weapons. A nuclear mission against Iran is well within the capability of the Israeli Air Force.

Unfortunately, such a mission seems to be outside the limits of imagination of the West’s current national leaders. There has been little discussion of such an occurrence in public circles and I believe that reflects a lack of thoughtful consideration of the possibility. I believe most observers expect a violent and prolonged reaction against Israeli interests, and by extension the interests of Israel’s allies such as the U.S., should Israel carry out a conventional military strike against Iran. I believe it would be fair to say that such a reaction to a conventional strike will pale in comparison to the uproar caused by a nuclear strike. I also believe such a development would completely reset the relationship and positions of all the players in the Middle East peace process in an unpredictable manner. The current stalemate and fossilization of positions would be swept aside, for better or worse.

The Israeli government will receive condemnation and hostility from the other players in the Middle East no matter what sort of military action it takes against Iran. By the same token, Israel’s supporters in the U.S. are likely to back any action Israel takes, if it is cast in the form of the preservation of the Jewish state. “Never again,” reflecting the unique history of the founding of the state of Israel in the wake of the Jewish holocaust after World War II, is probably the most powerful phrase in Israeli politics. It is a slogan which will unite all parts of the political spectrum in Israel and the supporters of the Jewish state internationally. 

No private citizen is truly in a position to judge the rationality and the intentions of a government such as is now in control of Iran. The opacity of lines of responsibility and decision making processes in Iran make such a judgment properly within the purview of national intelligence organizations of the various sovereign governments. With that said, the public statements of the Iranian leadership lead me to believe that they will not be diverted from their goal of achieving nuclear weapons. The same public statements also do not engender much confidence in the rationality or judgment of Iran’s leadership.

The history of the Israeli state and its location in a sea of enemies has in an almost unique way trained the leaders of Israel to think the unthinkable. If Israel determines the Iranian nuclear program is in fact a threat to its very existence, then it will strike, and strike in such a manner as to be successful. This will require nuclear weapons. If Israel determines it can live with Iran as a nuclear state, then expect there to be no overt military action but a continuing series of low-level sabotage and covert intelligence actions.

I believe the West and the current U.S. administration are again engaged in a failure of imagination. I do not think the current crop of Western leaders fully understand that Israel may well believe itself to be facing an extinction threat. This may simply be because since the end of the Cold War those currently exercising power in the West have not been faced with such a dilemma. In a very real way, they may not have sufficient practice in both “thinking the unthinkable” and preparing for the consequences of the “unthinkable.”