Micah Zenko

The Real Nuclear Option

The Real Nuclear Option

This weekend’s interim Joint Plan of Action between the P5+1 countries and Iran over its nuclear program was met with skepticism and hostility from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. The divergence of the Israeli leadership’s perception of the nuclear agreement from that of its close U.S. ally is understandable and expected given the differing threat perceptions the two countries hold over a prospective Iranian bomb. Subsequently, these officials emphasized three points in their public reactions: the agreement is, in Netanyahu’s words, a "historic mistake" that makes the world a "much more dangerous place"; Israel is not obligated to accept its terms; and Israel retains the right to attack — as Netanyahu’s spokesperson termed it — "the Iranian military nuclear program," with all of Israel’s military capabilities.

Like many other national security analysts, I have followed the developments in Iran’s civilian nuclear program closely for the past two decades, parsing the comments of Iranian and U.S. officials and combing through leaked or declassified intelligence assessments and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly reports. I have witnessed or participated in war games that simulate a political/military crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, and I’ve interviewed planners about how the U.S. military envisions a range of joint U.S.-Israeli or unilateral moves and contingencies with Iran that might be triggered, escalated, or culminated. (All of this supplemented, of course, with countless op-eds and analytical pieces from wonks, academics, and former officials.)

What never ceases to amaze in these discussions is the total omission of Israel’s nuclear weapons in U.S. policy debates about confronting Iran. There is an unspoken understanding that Israel’s bombs are an option best left off the table, even as Israeli officials routinely hint at missions where they would be used — specifically for deterrence or to threaten deeply buried targets in Iran. This tacit agreement within Washington policy circles of focusing on Iran’s nonexistent nuclear bombs, while consciously ignoring Israel’s actual nuclear arsenal (which is itself directly pertinent to discussions about Iran), should be retired, especially as a more comprehensive solution between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom — plus Germany) is pursued in the coming months.

Israeli officials provide several theories for what Iran would do with nuclear weapons: transfer them to terrorists groups, increase its support for proxy groups, and even coerce the world with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. The most commonly asserted objective, however, was offered by Netanyahu to an American television audience in early October: "Everybody knows that Iran wants to destroy Israel and it’s building, trying to build, atomic bombs for that purpose."

U.S. policymakers echo this dire depiction. Recently, on the Senate floor, Sen. Lindsey Graham claimed: "If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, the first target will be Israel." And in September, Graham asserted without any irony: "The last place in the world you want nuclear weapons is the Mideast. Why? People over there are crazy." Let’s put aside for a moment his indelicate slurring of the mental health of 500 million people. Not only did he forget or consciously ignore the one regional nuclear weapons power, but he omitted the 60 to 70 B61 bombs that the United States still maintains at the Incirlik air base in Turkey. More importantly, however, he entirely discounts the possibility of rational deterrence.

The problem with Netanyahu and Graham’s scenario is that Iran would face an immediate and massive nuclear retaliation from Israel. The ability of Israel to reliably threaten Iranian military capabilities and population centers forms the deterrence calculus that would prevent leaders in Tehran from authorizing such a suicidal atomic bolt from the blue.

Israel has had operationally deployable nuclear weapons since 1967, when then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol reportedly ordered the assembly of two crude nuclear devices that could be raced on trucks toward the border with Egypt if Arab armies overwhelmed Israel’s defenses. When asked directly about the existence of its nuclear arsenal, Israeli officials repeat the policy position that "we won’t be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." Historian Avner Cohen described this strategy of amimut — Hebrew for "opacity" or "ambiguity" — as having evolved piecemeal over the decades to provide Israel with the benefits of nuclear deterrence while avoiding the consequences or obligations of being a nuclear power.

Despite Tel Aviv’s long-standing refusal to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal, there remains little ambiguity about the arsenal’s composition or its delivery vehicles. It is estimated that Israel has approximately 80 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material to build at least 200 more. These nuclear warheads are believed to have explosive yields from 1 kiloton to 200 kilotons (and everything in between). These can be delivered by a nuclear triad of F-16 fighter-bombers, Jericho III ballistic missiles, and diesel-powered Dolphin-class submarines supplied and heavily subsidized by Germany. As Israeli Maj. Gen. Avraham Botzer noted when the submarines were first ordered: "They are a way of guaranteeing that the enemy will not be tempted to strike pre-emptively with nonconventional weapons and get away scot-free."

If you are wondering about the devastating impact Israel’s bomb could have on Iran, enter "Tehran" into the nuclear-weapons effects website Nukemap, created by nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein. It is unlikely that Israel could wipe Iran off the face of the Earth, but it could certainly kill millions of Iranians, given that issue of Conflict and Health, researchers estimated that five Israeli 100-kiloton bombs would kill 43 percent of the 8.3 million people living in Tehran; meanwhile, two theoretical Iranian 15-kiloton bombs would kill 17 percent of everyone in Tel Aviv. (These estimates are consistent with the catastrophic human consequences of regional nuclear exchanges modeled in prior peer-reviewed articles.)

The recognition of Israel’s nuclear capabilities will continue to matter over the next six months because, if we are to take Tel Aviv seriously, Israel could undertake a unilateral military attack against Iran’s known nuclear facilities. Should the IAEA’s outstanding questions about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program go unaddressed, or access to sensitive sites remain restricted, there are intentionally ambiguous undefined conditions under which Israel might attack Iran, with or without the United States. For example, Iran’s Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant could be one target of an Israeli nuclear weapon. Fordow is a uranium-enrichment facility located beneath 60 to 80 meters of granite near the city of Qom. The facility at Fordow, according to Iran’s declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency, is designed to contain up to 2,976 IR-1 centrifuges in 16 cascades. The Institute for Science and International Security has estimated that this set-up could produce one bomb’s worth — or "significant quantity" — of highly enriched uranium per year.

In August, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for international affairs, strategy, and intelligence, claimed that Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities can be "destroyed with brute force," which he described as "a few hours of airstrikes, no more." Yaakov Amidror, who recently stepped down as national security advisor, asserted this month that Israel can "stop the Iranians for a very long time." Asked whether this includes Iran’s deeply buried nuclear installations, he responded, "including everything."

Most U.S. government and nongovernmental experts in weaponeering effects disagree with Amidror. They have concluded that Israel’s conventional air-dropped bombs cannot penetrate the bedrock to reliably destroy the centrifuges located within Fordow. Moreover, both George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations have refused to provide Israel with the Pentagon’s largest (and recently further improved) conventional bunker-buster bomb, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator. Respected defense reporter David Fulghum quoted an anonymous U.S. defense specialist as saying, "Right now the Israeli capability against deeply buried targets is not much more than a noise-level effect." Given Israel’s inability to deliver what one U.S. official termed "a knockout blow" against well-defended nuclear sites like Fordow with conventional bombs, a low-yield nuclear weapon could be the only viable alternative for a unilateral Israeli strike.

In August 2012, then-Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton wrote a revealing piece that asked why U.S. reporters track every development in Iran’s nuclear program but never mention Israel’s nuclear arsenal: "Going back 10 years into Post archives, I could not find any in-depth reporting on Israeli nuclear capabilities." To be fair to the Post, if you look for such featured pieces in other major media outlets, you also will not find them. For example, according to LexisNexis, since Jan. 1, 2000, "Iran" and "nuclear" appear in New York Times headlines 603 times; "Israel" and "nuclear" appear 21 times. (Over that same time period, New York Times headlines also mention "nuclear" with Russia 86 times, with China 52 times, and with Pakistan 48 times.) One reason for this was offered by nuclear scholar George Perkovich: "It’s like all things having to do with Israel and the United States. If you want to get ahead, you don’t talk about it; you don’t criticize Israel; you protect Israel."

Having written critically about Israel’s nuclear weapons policies, I have never experienced any distinct career retaliation or condemnation. My impression is that refraining from discussing Israel’s bombs is more a self-imposed constraint than a socially constructed taboo in the D.C.-centered foreign-policy world. Moreover, I have found Israeli policymakers and analysts much more willing than their American counterparts to talk about (if not explicitly name) the impact that Israel’s nuclear arsenal has on its regional relations and to explore under what conditions that policy of amimut may no longer make strategic or political sense.

Either Israel’s nuclear capabilities play no role vis-à-vis strategies to prevent an Iran from acquiring a bomb, in which case why have them at all, or they matter in terms of the missions they support, in which case they should be open for discussion.