Why Israel Really Fears Iranian Nukes, Part Two

The acquisition of a nuclear warhead by any country, whether a friend or foe of the United States, is a development of not merely military significance. Instead it necessarily has immense political importance both to a domestic audience and on a wider international stage: the bomb helped India to shake off feelings of post-colonial inferiority, for example, while the French nuclear deterrent symbolized the country’s independence from Washington and, at one stage, from the European Community.

So too should the prospect of an Iranian warhead be seen in these wider terms. For as Part 1 of this essay argued, however much Western leaders might talk about the "destabilizing" effect this warhead would have, or of the risk of nuclear material falling into the same hands, these claims are ultimately unconvincing as an explanation of the peculiarly apocalyptic language with which they are spoken. Instead it is the political fallout of such a development that is sometimes secretly feared.

This is particularly true of Israel, where politicians have in recent years voiced a very strong note of alarm about an Iranian bomb. What political concerns lie behind such claims?

The answer partly lies upon a military premise, for the development of an Iranian bomb will obviously remove the ultimate deterrent that Israel has long possessed. Since developing nuclear weapons in the 1960s, the Israelis have possessed this deterrent against any future external attack by Arab governments that continue to lack them, and during the wars of 1967 and 1973 Israeli leaders readied themselves to launch a nuclear attack if circumstances dictated. But the development of an Iranian bomb would immediately remove the sense of security this nuclear advantage has long provided, even if Tehran has no strategic alliance with any Arab army.

For the Israeli generals, unable to rely upon their nuclear deterrent but probably convinced that the Iranian hardliners might one day join a Pan-Arab coalition to "drive Israel into the sea," this is of course very alarming. Their natural response will be to demand an increase in the quality and quantity of their conventional firepower, even if current Israeli military expenditure is already heavy enough.

For any country, particularly one plagued with economic difficulties, the prospect of higher defense spending is always an alarming one. In the 1960s, for example, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan argued passionately for the development of an Israeli nuclear weapon because without one they would be caught up in an increasingly hopeless arms race against Arab neighbors with generous Soviet supplies and with buoyant economies that would more easily allow them to fund such rivalry. An Israeli bomb, argued Peres and Dayan, would instead render such expenditure unnecessary until, or unless, their Arab enemies eventually caught up and developed their own.

Although there is a wide gulf between the Shi’ite Persians and the Arabs, in Israeli eyes the development of a bomb by the Iranians, whose hard-line clerics have always screamed abuse at the Jewish state, would remove this long-held nuclear advantage at a single stroke. In one sense Israel’s position would revert back to that of the mid-1960s, when it was forced to rely only upon the superiority of its conventional forces.

How, then, would Israel finance such an expansion of its armed forces? Not by imposing tax rises or public spending cuts on an already stricken economy. It would instead turn to Washington, which already subsides Israel with around $3 billion each year but which will now be asked to provide even more.

The problem for Israel is that any demands they make for further financial subsidies could easily come with political strings attached. Although the Bush administration has hitherto been reluctant to pressure the Israelis into making any big concessions in the Middle East "peace process," it could conceivably find that these new Israeli defense requirements make a perfect bargaining tool: we’ll hand over the arms or subsidies, the Americans could say, if you’re prepared to hand over more. It might currently seem unlikely that Washington would do so, but that is not a risk Israel would want to take.

Even if Washington makes no such attempt to impose conditions, the Israelis would still fear that further demands for financial and military support could raise uncomfortable questions both in the United States and throughout the world about the price of the close US-Israeli relationship. In more moderate European eyes, any increase in the level of American military or political support for Israel would easily be seen as a big step towards a regional arms race that could easily be blamed not just on Washington or Tehran but on Israel. Similar questions could also be asked among the American public, especially if the security situation in Iraq deteriorates and the need to placate the Arab world becomes more pressing.

This is the political cost that an Iranian nuclear bomb could so easily exact. It is not a price the Israelis would want to pay.