Israel’s leaders are apt to portray the prospect of an Iranian nuclear warhead in highly apocalyptic terms. Earlier this year, for example, Ariel Sharon was prepared to call Iran "the biggest danger to the existence of Israel" and warned that "Israel will not allow Iran to be equipped with a nuclear weapon."
But though the image of fanatical mullahs brandishing nuclear weapons is of course a terrifying one, and a reality that the outside world must of course try very hard to prevent, the real reasons for Israel’s alarm are, on closer inspection, easy to misapprehend.
Tel Aviv’s concern is not, for example, likely to be based on narrowly military considerations. If Israel’s main installations at Dimona really do house a large arsenal of around 200 nuclear missiles, as most independent analysts believe, and of course it has such close relations with the world’s biggest nuclear power, the United States, why would the Iranians dare to provoke the massive and devastating retaliation that any foolish nuclear move would inevitably provoke?
The same logic holds true about the supposed risk that hardliners in Tehran could pass nuclear materials into the hands of terrorist third parties whose fanaticism renders them immune to the mutually assured destruction their actions would invite. But don’t the mullahs know that any such move could easily be traced back to Iran and would therefore prompt a similarly devastating response?
Nor would an Iranian bomb make any difference to the state of play on the ground between the Israeli Defense Forces and Tehran’s supposed protégés in the Middle East such as the Lebanese militia Hizbollah. As Basil Liddell Hart once argued, a nuclear weapon will deter only nuclear blackmail but will make no difference to the behavior of conventional forces in the field. Consider, after all, how many nuclear states have been attacked by the conventional forces of the non-nuclear – America in Vietnam, Britain in the Falklands, and Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
It seems likely, then, that there are other, more convincing, reasons why Israel is concerned about an Iranian bomb. One possibility, for example, is that Tel Aviv is deeply concerned that such a development could potentially create deep splits in the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Consider, for example, what would happen if Tehran, having developed a warhead and withdrawn from the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, offered to reduce the size of or even eliminate its own nuclear arsenal in return for similar moves – all UN-monitored – by Tel Aviv.
This would be a typically calculating and manipulative ploy by an Iranian regime playing the Israeli card to bolster its support at home and in the Islamic world as a whole. But any such ploy by Tehran would also seek to divide the more moderate European governments from a U.S. administration that has consistently been far more skeptical of Iranian nuclear assurances.
This might prove an adept move by posing a very difficult dilemma for an administration anxious to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability but equally reluctant to pressure its key Middle Eastern ally.
Any subsequent U.S. diplomatic pressure on Tel Aviv would infuriate Israeli leaders, who have long considered their nuclear arsenal as their best deterrent against what they regard as a hostile and numerically vastly superior Arab world. On two occasions, during the wars of 1967 and 1973, IDF chiefs ordered the preparation of their nuclear missiles against enemy forces.
But because the Israelis have frequently fended off intense U.S. diplomatic pressure before now, this is probably not the real reason why Tel Aviv would fear any such Iranian move. More important, perhaps, is the possibility that it would pose awkward questions, or even a far-reaching debate, in Washington and amongst the American public in general about the cost to America of an unquestioning loyalty to Israel.
In short, the development of a nuclear bomb has not just obvious military implications; it also brings far-reaching political fallout of which Israeli chiefs must be very conscious.