Jerusalem’s Itchy Trigger Finger

Forget sanctions. If there's one thing that should convince Tehran not to go nuclear, it's that Israel might use its own nukes -- first.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Of all the dangers associated with a nuclear-armed Iran — from the onset of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and an Iranian extension of "a nuclear umbrella" to regional proxies, from a nuclear bomb falling into terrorist hands to an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel or even on the United States — the one we should take most seriously goes virtually unmentioned: a miscalculated nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran. It’s a risk that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei should consider carefully; when push comes to shove, having a bomb might only make a conflict between the two countries more likely. In fact, when considering how this chain of events might unfold, the basic strategic calculus would suggest that it is Israel — rather than Iran — that would be more liable to make the calamitous mistake of initiating a nuclear conflagration.

This assessment is not invoked lightly, let alone accusingly. Since Israel first obtained nuclear military capabilities in the late 1960s, it has proven itself to be an extremely responsible nuclear power. In fact, given the level of threat the country has faced — including the perceived threat to its very existence during the 1973 Yom Kippur War — Israel might well be deemed the most responsible nuclear power in the world.

The case of the Yom Kippur War is particularly enlightening. Fearing it might be overrun by the combined Syrian and Egyptian armies on its northern and southern fronts, Israel came close to making use of its nuclear arsenal — though not as close as many believe. In the most illuminating testimony to have come out in recent years about the deliberations that took place among Israel’s top political and military echelons during the first days of the war, a former Israeli official who was an eye-witness to the exchange recounted how Defense Minister Moshe Dayan asked Prime Minister Golda Meir "to authorize him to start making the necessary preparations so that if we have to make a decision to activate [the nuclear option], we could do it in a few minutes, rather than wandering around for half a day in order to prepare everything." According to this official, Meir rebuffed Dayan out of hand.

In other words, even at the fateful moment when Israel’s defense minister assessed that the country was in imminent danger of collapse — so imminent, as he explained to his prime minister, that "half a day" might not be enough lead time to activate the ultimate deterrence — Israel’s top leader opted for restraint.

However reassuring Israel’s record is to date, it is hard to extrapolate from it about the future, especially one in which Iran possesses military nuclear capabilities. After all, the prospect of invasion by enemy armies pales in comparison to that of nuclear annihilation. And that is a threat that neither Israel — nor any other nation — has ever really faced before. (While the specter of a nuclear exchange was raised during both the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, none of the various powers involved feared complete nuclear annihilation.)

How would Israel conduct itself when faced with a nuclear foe — and one, moreover, that continued to spew exterminationist rhetoric against it? While restraint may well rule the day, the danger of a catastrophic mishap cannot be discounted. And although this may hold true for other nuclear rivals — such as India and Pakistan — the case of Iran and Israel is particularly acute, with Israel being the more liable actor to make the calamitous error.

The reasons are multiple and mutually reinforcing. And they have little to do with safeguards. First, Tehran’s explicit hatred for Israel — the latest display of which was offered by Khamenei last month when he declared that "the Israeli regime is doomed to failure and annihilation" — is extreme even among the bitterest of adversaries. (By comparison, the most prevalent context in which the term "annihilation" crops up in the context of Indian-Pakistani relations is cricket.) Backed up by new military nuclear capabilities, such threats could, under certain circumstances, push an Israeli leader to take desperate action.

In addition, Israel is uniquely vulnerable to nuclear annihilation on account of its small size — a size that has earned it the horrific epithet "a one-bomb country." With no margins for error, Israel may sooner choose to act than risk having to react.

In the face of a nuclear scare, the asymmetry in second-strike capabilities would give Israel an added incentive to go ahead and initiate an attack on Iran rather than the other way around. After all, if the aim is to successfully eliminate the nuclear arsenal of the other, Israel could hope to destroy the handful of weapons Iran could make, leaving it unable to retaliate with nukes of its own. Iran, though, could not hope to eliminate Israel’s entire arsenal.

Israel’s military history also suggests a penchant for preemptive action. The heroic example of the 1967 Six-Day War stands in stark contrast to the dire lesson of 1973 and informs a military ethos that prioritizes proactive measures.

Finally, in the absence of a hotline between the Iranian and Israeli leaderships — the kind of quick and secure communication link that was set up following the Cuban Missile Crisis between Washington and Moscow, and which exists today between such foes as Delhi and Islamabad and even Seoul and Pyongyang — any accident or misunderstanding would be difficult to address speedily and effectively before triggering a potentially nuclear action.

None of this is to shift the focus from the need to roll back Iran’s nuclear program; on the contrary, such a sobering perspective on the real risks at stake should only firm up international resolve to reach a permanent agreement with Iran in the next 6-12 months.

Nor should world powers turn their attention to Israel’s nuclear status, either in parallel to negotiations with Iran or immediately following an agreement. Assuming Iran’s nuclear program is successfully constrained, Israel can be counted on to remain a highly reliable nuclear player. On other hand, pressing Israel toward greater nuclear transparency — such as by joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty — is certain to be met by stiff Israeli resistance. Worse, it may set off a dynamic that risks only undermining the overarching goal of preventing the nuclearization of the Middle East. After all, whether or not one buys into the argument that Israel’s policy of nuclear opacity has indeed served to stave off a nuclear arms race in the region, the counter argument that Israeli transparency will serve better the cause is even more fanciful.

What the world needs to realize — and especially Iran and the Western powers trying to forge more constructive dialogue with Tehran — is that the risk of a nuclear Iran is not so much Iran itself as it is the co-presence of two nuclear-armed enemies in the region. At the very least, such honesty might begin to address — even if not defuse — Iran’s longstanding claims of a Western double standard toward its nuclear program. And it might just convince Iran that, with a foe like Israel, the danger of acquiring military nuclear capabilities far outweighs the benefits.

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