The news that Israel may conduct a Spring attack on Iran to cripple its nuclear weapons program is a matter of considerable public policy debate, largely because of the consequences such an attack could have not only for the Israelis and Iranians, but for everyone else as well, including Americans. As the discussions in the last two postings here have suggested, the prospects and options that surround them are problematical, to say the least. Amidst this controversy, planning apparently goes on in Israel, where it has been a priority issue for some time now.
The b0ttom line question about this whole issue area is what the Iranians will do if they achieve nuclear weapons status. The basic contention of those in Israel (by no means all Israelis) is that the Iranians will use those weapons against the Israeli state with the express intention of destroying the Jewish state. The primary public evidence they cite for this contention is the continuing string of vitriolic, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic rhetoric of the president of Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; presumably they also have clandestine intelligence reports that reinforce this contention. Others are not so certain this evidence is compelling, either dismissing it as rhetoric that is intended for creating internal support for the regime or as “brave talk” that would dissipate should the Iranians actually get the capability.
The answer to the question is absolutely critical to the decision the Israelis ultimately make and to whether the world–and especially the United States–should endorse and support their decision and action. If the contention is true, the Israelis have a strong existential basis for their proposed action–preventing an Iranian nuclear capability is a literal matter of national life or death. In that circumstance, extraordinary action, quite apart from whether anyone else accepts it, can certainly be justified, and it is abundantly clear that those Israelis who have crafted and who support the decision believe that it is. The problem is that they cannot prove their contention.
The difficulty that surrounds the Israeli plan and that causes a lively, often rancorous debate is whether the Iranian threat to Israel is what the Israelis say it is or not. The heart of the problem is that the truth cannot be be demonstrated, since the events it seeks to avoid have not occurred. At heart, it is a matter of speculation, and it is a basic truth that nobody–not the Israelis, not the Iranians, or anybody else–does or can know that truth. The only empirical test is to allow the Iranians to get nuclear weapons and see what happens next.
This, of course, is a gamble the Israelis are unwilling to take, since the worst case prospect is the endangerment of their national existence. It is the nature of national security planning everywhere to try to glean and prepare to prevent the worst case threat to the country, and a threat to national existence is the worst possible case. That the Israelis would take this possibility seriously and try to prevent it is entirely reasonable.
The degree of sympathy and support for the Israeli decision depends critically on how likely others see the Israeli worst case and thus whether they are willing to accept the second-order consequences of an Israeli action. While Iranian rhetoric creates an argument for the plausibilityof an Iranian nuclear intention, there is, after all, contrary evidence. Nuclear proliferation is, after all, not a new phenomenon: since the United States first obtained nuclear weapons, eight others have joined, not including Israel, which does not publicly acknowledge its nuclear arsenal. All these acts of proliferation have been decried at one level or another on grounds that the new member would act irresponsibly (which generally means actually using their bombs), and to date, none have. Why is Iran an exception? Once again, from an Iaraeli viewpoint, it only takes one contrary action.
No one outside Iran wants Iran to get nuclear weapons, but there can be reasons other than destroying Israel that are driving their program. One is simple prestige and national pride: great powers have nukes, and Iran wants to be thought of as a great power. Another is to deter an attack against them. There has been a fair amount of opinion that the real motivation of the Iranians has been to avoid an American attack against them, and many argue that if Saddam Hussein had not suspended his program, the United States would never have invaded Iraq. The deterrence argument, ironically enough, has been redoubled in the face of the Israeli threat. Would Israel be talking about attacking a nuclear-armed Iran? Almost certainly not. The irony is that threatening to attack Iran may actually stimulate the clandestine program so that Iran can announce before such an attack that they now have the bomb and that Israel had better think twice. This is a most unsettling and destabilizing prospect, since it also gives the Israelis an incentive to attack before it is too late. As any student of nuclear weapons from the American-Soviet nuclear competition can attest, the idea is to reduce (preferably to zero) the incentives for nuclear actions, not to increase them.
Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel if it gets them? I don’t know, and neither to those on each side predicting the outcome. Probably the Iranians themselves do not know: they may think they have the answer, but it is within a far different context than that of actual possession. I also understand, and think everyone else should as well, why the Israelis are as obsessed as they are on the subject; unlike the rest of us, their national lives are on the line if the answer is negative. The question for those of us who are not so potentially directly under the Iranian nuclear gun is how far we are willing to go to support the actions justified by Israeli concern. Since that support has negative consequences for everyone (admittedly not as dire as those facing Israel), the answer is neither simple nor straightforward.