Would a nuclear Iran truly pose an existential threat to Israel?
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Analysis

Would a nuclear Iran truly pose an existential threat to Israel?

Netanyahu fears a second Holocaust, but even top security officials say Tehran is unlikely to use a bomb if it had one. Yet the emboldening of the ayatollahs, and a likely regional arms race, are worrying enough

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A military exhibition displays the Shahab-3 missile under a picture of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, in 2008. (photo credit: AP/Hasan Sarbakhshian)
A military exhibition displays the Shahab-3 missile under a picture of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, in 2008. (photo credit: AP/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

It’s an oft-repeated refrain in Jerusalem: A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel. But as world powers and Iran close in on an agreement that will almost certainly leave Tehran with the ability to enrich uranium, some have wondered whether Israel’s existence will actually be threatened.

It was on Holocaust Remembrance Day last year that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that an agreement that leaves Iran as a nuclear threshold state will bring the world “to the threshold of the abyss.”

He’s not alone. Many politicians in the US and Israel have long warned that Iran acquiring an atomic bomb is a doomsday scenario for Israel.

“I agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel,” US Senator Charles Schumer said this week. “One nuclear weapon, hurled from Iran to Israel, could end the Jewish state and could kill almost as many Jews as did Hitler.”

While significant gaps remain between Tehran and the six world powers currently negotiating over its rogue nuclear program, the Islamic Republic appears set to become a nuclear threshold state.

It is unclear whether a deal will be agreed in principle by the March 24 deadline, but Netanyahu said Wednesday that the proposal made by the so-called P5+1 to Iran won’t prevent the regime from pursuing its expressed goal of “destroying the State of Israel.” In fact, he said last week, the offer currently on the table “would enable Iran to threaten Israel’s survival.”

Netanyahu, the historian’s son, has been warning for years of Iran’s intention to create an additional Holocaust by destroying the State of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the port of Eilat, March 10, 2014, as Israel displayed intercepted advanced M-302 rockets that Iran attempted to smuggle to Israel's enemies (photo credit: AFP/ Jack Guez)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the port of Eilat, March 10, 2014, as Israel displayed intercepted advanced M-302 rockets that Iran attempted to smuggle to Israel’s enemies (photo credit: AFP/ Jack Guez)

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, too, sounded immensely worried this week when he explained Israel’s opposition to the prospective deal with Iran. “We’re fighting for our very survival,” he told CNN. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said he considered Iranian nuclear ambitions an “existential threat for Israel” more than half a decade ago, as did his more dovish, Iranian-born predecessor Shaul Mofaz.

“Israel is a very small country that can be destroyed with a single bomb,”
former defense minister Moshe Arens told The Times of Israel this week. “And the Iranians are talking about their desire to wipe Israel off the map. If they had a nuclear weapon, it would be an existential threat.”

Even Shimon Peres, the arch-optimist who predicted at Sunday’s Times of Israel Gala in New York that the ayatollahs would be gone in 10-15 years, said in 2012 that humanity must “learn the lessons of the Holocaust and stand up to existential threats before it is too late. Iran is at the center of this threat.”

Some politicians on the left do not share these bleak assessments.

While some are wary of appearing naive or soft on Iran ahead of an election against Netanyahu, who claims to be the only candidate who can keep Israel safe, in the not-too-distant past many dovish politicos clearly indicated that they do not see an Iranian bomb as a matter of life and death.

“Iran is not dangerous to our very existence; there are many other threats and we know how to deal with them,” then-opposition leader and Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich said a year and half ago.

In December, Isaac Herzog, the current opposition leader and the Zionist Union’s candidate for prime minister, was asked whether Iran is Israel’s paramount threat. He chose not to answer in the affirmative. “It is definitely an important threat, and it is an important threat that has to be dealt with,” he replied carefully, opting not to echo the dramatic rhetoric used by Netanyahu.

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog (center), Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni (right) and the new 'defense candidate' on their joint Zionist Camp list, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, during a press conference in Tel Aviv, January 19, 2015 (photo credit: Flash90)
Isaac Herzog (center), Tzipi Livni (right) and Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, January 19, 2015 (photo credit: Flash90)

Tzipi Livni, his running mate, likewise does not think that Iranian nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to Israel. The list’s security expert and candidate for defense minister, Maj. Gen. (ret). Amos Yadlin, on the other hand, does believe that an atomic bomb in Iranian hands could threaten Israel’s survival.

In truth, though, the two camps in this argument cannot be divided into military experts and laymen. Several former and current Israeli security chiefs are on the record as saying that, while Iran must not be allowed to attain nuclear weapons, it would not necessarily seal Israel’s fate.

“Does Iran pose a threat to Israel? Absolutely,” Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said in 2011. “But if one said a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands was an existential threat, that would mean that we would have to close up shop and go home. That’s not the situation. The term existential threat is used too freely.”

Mossad chief Tamir Pardo (photo credit: David Vaaknin/POOL/FLASH90)
Mossad chief Tamir Pardo (photo credit: David Vaaknin/Flash90)

Many of his predecessors and colleagues concur, including former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak, former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

Efraim Halevy, another former head of the Mossad, considers Netanyahu’s insistence on defining Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a matter of life or death to be a “terrible mistake.” If the Iranians somehow managed to launch a nuclear device at Israel it could cause a lot of damage, he argued recently, “but this in itself would not bring the state of Israel to an end.” Indeed, hyping the lethal danger that a nuclear strike by the Iranians could spell for Israel is “almost inviting them to do so,” Halevy added.

The lack of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin opined, meanwhile, is more of an existential threat than Iran’s nuclear program.

The arguments are easy to summarize. If a country ruled by religious extremists with aspirations to regional hegemony attained a nuclear weapon, why would it refrain from making good on its publicly stated desire to wipe Israel off the map? The counterargument is based on the strength of Israeli deterrence and the doctrine known as MAD — mutually assured destruction. Proponents of this approach believe that, despite their Islamist rhetoric, Iran’s leaders are rational actors who know that the Israelis, too, have doomsday weapons they would use to respond to a nuclear attack.

‘We are not sitting ducks waiting to be destroyed one fine morning’

“We have a lot of means at our disposal, some of which are well known, some of which are less known,” said Halevy. “We are not sitting ducks waiting to be destroyed one fine morning.”

In other words, Israel can deter the Iranians if they go nuclear. “The Iranians are probably rational actors. It’s extraordinarily unlikely that they will use the bomb,” said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser. Iran’s leaders know that Israel, if attacked by a nuclear weapon, would retaliate severely, he added. “I don’t think the Iranians want to go that way.”

Some security experts argue that Iran could eradicate Israel with one bomb, but that it would take much more than one counterstrike to bring a large country like Iran to its knees. Blinded by their sheer hatred, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader could order a nuclear strike on Israel, knowing that Iran would survive if the Jewish state hit back.

But Freilich, currently a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, doesn’t buy that argument. Metropolitan Tehran alone has 10 million people and the Iranians won’t rush to sacrifice them, he posited. “Iran has a deep national trauma over the half million people that were killed during the eight-year war with Iraq. Here we’re talking about millions and millions in, say, eight minutes. That’s a totally unlikely scenario.”

Iranians gather in Tehran's Azadi Square (Freedom Square) for a rally to mark the 36th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, February 11, 2015. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE)
Iranians gather in Tehran’s Azadi Square (Freedom Square) for a rally to mark the 36th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, February 11, 2015. (photo credit: AFP photo/Atta Kenare)

However, Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon is a supreme security challenge for whole variety of scenarios that are less dangerous than actual usage, Freilich said. Even if they are unlikely to fire an atomic bomb at Israel, the mere theoretical possibility of that happening would drastically embolden the Iranians’ proxies on Israel’s borders, Hamas and Hezbollah. An Iranian nuclear capability “would become a major constraint on Israel’s room to maneuver” in Gaza and to Israel’s north.

Iran, already a rising regional player with a rapacious ideology, would be further emboldened, and harder to rein in, other experts agree.

A nuclear Iran therefore should be considered Israel’s ultimate concern and Jerusalem has do everything possible to prevent it, Freilich warned. “But I think we can let most people relax: we’re not about to be destroyed tomorrow.”

‘A tragic choice. An imponderable. A fuzzy policy gamble’

How should Israeli leaders go about facing this threat, be it existential or not?

It is highly improbable that Iran would launch a nuclear strike on Israel, but if it did, an attack could annihilate the Jewish state. According to Yehezkel Dror, an expert on Israeli statecraft, how Israeli leaders deal with this situation depends less on objective factors and more on their emotions and values and how they relate to uncertainty.

“You could say an Iranian strike is such a low probability, let’s put it aside. Or you can argue that the consequences are so catastrophic that even a very low probability has to be handled with harsh countermeasures,” Dror said, referring to a potential preemptive Israeli strike, which could have unforeseen consequences. “It’s a tragic choice. An imponderable. A fuzzy policy gamble.”

Professor Yehezkel Dror (photo credit: YouTube screen cap)
Professor Yehezkel Dror (photo credit: YouTube screen cap)

Taking into consideration the Jewish people’s history, especially the Holocaust, Netanyahu isn’t willing to take any risk, even if it is exceedingly low. “This is a legitimate way of looking at it,” said Dror, a former adviser to several Israeli prime and defense ministers.

He himself wouldn’t lose sleep over the prospect of the Islamic Republic getting its hand on a nuclear weapon, he added, because he imagines “an Iranian-Israeli strategic stability, a kind of mutual deterrence.” If both countries know the enemy has second-strike capability, no one will risk the first strike, he explained.

However, Shiite Iran is not the main problem, posited Dror. As soon as Tehran reaches the point where it could easily produce an atomic bomb, other countries in the region, especially Sunni powers, will want to follow suit. “Iran is country with a long and deep culture. They will not rush into suicide. But I cannot say this about all Middle East non-countries,” Dror warned.

A satellite image shown on Israel's Channel 2 news, January 21, 2015, said to show a new long-range Iranian missile on a launch pad outside Tehran. (Channel 2 screenshot)
A satellite image shown on Israel’s Channel 2 news, January 21, 2015, said to show a new long-range Iranian missile on a launch pad outside Tehran. (Channel 2 screenshot)

An agreement that will turn Iran into a nuclear threshold state will likely start an arms race among Iran’s traditional rivals in the Sunni world, he said. This will further destabilize the already volatile Middle East.

“With a nuclear Iran, I would sleep quite well but have some bad dreams,” Dror said. “But if a number of Sunni countries follow in Iran’s footsteps, feeling they cannot tolerate a Shiite power with nuclear weapons because that would downgrade their geopolitical situation, then I won’t sleep well. It wouldn’t just be an occasional nightmare but a permanent cause for existential anxieties.”

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