Why Israel Really Fears Iranian Nukes, Part Three

Western rhetoric about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb is typically full of references to "security," "destabilization" and "a terrorist regime" that sound compelling and alarming. But because such terms are closely examined only rarely, they not only deflect from any meaningful assessment of the Iranian issue but also readily disguise the true motives of those who use them.

Of course any country’s development of a nuclear warhead is always a very serious business that the outside world has a duty to prevent, but much of this talk about an Iranian bomb nonetheless hides a great deal of political calculation. Israel’s concern about such a warhead, for example, is not just based on narrowly military considerations because, as Part I and Part II of this essay argued, Israel also knows that an Iranian bomb could make a political bargaining chip capable of extracting painful Israeli concessions, and would also demand much greater defense expenditure that Washington would have to subsidize.  

There is at least one other respect in which an Iranian nuclear arsenal could conceivably threaten Israel’s political interests. For while Iran’s bid to develop nuclear arms could perhaps herald a military confrontation with the United States, their acquisition would be much more likely to lead to a new diplomatic rapprochement – a quarter century after the rupture of relations – that would tempt Washington to focus on Iran’s nuclear challenge at the expense of Israel’s own perceived interests.

Israel’s chief concern in this regard would be that Washington would drop its insistence that any such diplomatic accord is dependent upon Tehran ending its alleged support for the Middle Eastern terror groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas that orchestrate violence against Israeli citizens. Although the nature and scale of any such Iranian "support" is far from certain, Israel’s politicians and generals have long alleged that Palestinian violence does not have indigenous causes but is instead orchestrated by foreign influences: ever since the first intifada broke out in October 1987, when defence minister Yitzhak Rabin blamed the unrest on outside intervention, notably Iranian, Israel has consistently claimed that this external "sponsorship" lies at the heart of Palestinian disquiet.

Washington has hitherto strongly echoed Israel’s concern about the Middle Eastern "terrorist network" allegedly run by an Iranian regime that was described in the State Department’s 2003 edition of Patterns of Global Terrorism as the world’s “most active sponsor of state terrorism.” But the development of an Iranian bomb could prompt the US to decide that such sponsorship is of more peripheral concern to American interests than cooperation with a nuclear state that is strategically placed alongside the Gulf Straits and which borders two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, whose stability the US is most anxious to ensure.

There are several reasons why Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms could quickly prompt such a diplomatic initiative. Just as during the Cold War special "hotlines" were established between rival superpower capitals, and the SALT negotiations struck two-way deals on reducing the size and scale of nuclear arms, so would initiating diplomatic contact with Iran be an obvious opening move to reduce mistrust and misunderstanding. The same considerations explain the willingness of the US to enter new rounds of talks with North Korea after October 2002, when the Pyongyang regime restarted a mothballed nuclear power station, expelled international weapons inspectors and announced its intention to withdraw from the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT).

It is clear, then, that Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear device would have an enormous political fallout that dramatically change the political map of the Middle East to Israel’s disadvantage. Not surprising, then, that Israeli leaders have expressed such concern.