Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Israel Needs Weapons to Stop Iran’s Bomb

Jerusalem needs help from Washington to prevail in a terrible conflict.

By , a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
The Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel on May 14.
The Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel on May 14. ANAS BABA/AFP via Getty Images

In Washington on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned that Israel was prepared to use military force to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability. “Iran has publicly stated it wants to wipe us out,” Lapid said. “We have no intention of letting this happen.” At the same press event, held to mark the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between several Arab states and Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was much more circumspect, saying merely that Iran wasn’t negotiating and that Washington is “prepared to turn to other options.”

There’s a reason for Blinken’s vagueness. The chances that President Joe Biden will order the U.S. military to attack Iran to stop it from becoming a nuclear-weapons state borders on zero. It would mean going to war against a lethal adversary—a country of 85 million, whose Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps wields an arsenal of advanced missiles and drones, naval forces, and terrorist proxies capable of inflicting widespread damage on U.S. interests. Indeed, a full-on confrontation with Iran would make the recent U.S. experience fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan seem like child’s play in comparison.

Should force be required to stop an Iranian bomb, the job would therefore almost certainly fall to Israel, the only other country that combines the will and military capacity needed to effectively paralyze Iran’s most important nuclear infrastructure for any length of time. But while successfully attacking the Iranian program would present a significant but achievable challenge to the U.S. military, the mission would almost certainly stretch the capabilities of Israel—whose annual defense budget is less than one-thirtieth the size of the Pentagon’s—to its outermost limits. Moreover, unlike the United States, Israel’s entire territory, population, and national infrastructure would be vulnerable to Iran’s inevitable retaliatory strike, including up to 150,000 lethal projectiles in the hands of Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, stationed directly on Israel’s northern border.

In Washington on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned that Israel was prepared to use military force to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability. “Iran has publicly stated it wants to wipe us out,” Lapid said. “We have no intention of letting this happen.” At the same press event, held to mark the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between several Arab states and Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was much more circumspect, saying merely that Iran wasn’t negotiating and that Washington is “prepared to turn to other options.”

There’s a reason for Blinken’s vagueness. The chances that President Joe Biden will order the U.S. military to attack Iran to stop it from becoming a nuclear-weapons state borders on zero. It would mean going to war against a lethal adversary—a country of 85 million, whose Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps wields an arsenal of advanced missiles and drones, naval forces, and terrorist proxies capable of inflicting widespread damage on U.S. interests. Indeed, a full-on confrontation with Iran would make the recent U.S. experience fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan seem like child’s play in comparison.

Should force be required to stop an Iranian bomb, the job would therefore almost certainly fall to Israel, the only other country that combines the will and military capacity needed to effectively paralyze Iran’s most important nuclear infrastructure for any length of time. But while successfully attacking the Iranian program would present a significant but achievable challenge to the U.S. military, the mission would almost certainly stretch the capabilities of Israel—whose annual defense budget is less than one-thirtieth the size of the Pentagon’s—to its outermost limits. Moreover, unlike the United States, Israel’s entire territory, population, and national infrastructure would be vulnerable to Iran’s inevitable retaliatory strike, including up to 150,000 lethal projectiles in the hands of Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, stationed directly on Israel’s northern border.

If an American military option is for all intents and purposes off the table, U.S. officials who still believe that stopping the regime in Tehran from getting the bomb is in the nation’s vital interest have really been left with only one realistic option should diplomacy, sanctions, and covert action fail to halt Iran’s relentless nuclear advances. That remaining option is to make sure that Israel has the military assets it needs to, first, inflict maximum damage on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and, second, prevail as quickly as possible in the devastating war that Iran and its regional proxies would likely impose on the Jewish state in response.

As powerful as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are, thanks in no small part to decades of U.S. support, there are still systems they need to ensure that any Israeli military option against Iran can begin to approach the effectiveness of a U.S. strike. At the top of the list may be KC-46s, the new American aerial refueling tankers that would enable Israeli fighter jets to make the minimum 2,000-mile round trip to Iran’s key nuclear sites. While the Abraham Accords have further advanced the security partnership between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the prospect that either Gulf state would actively participate in an IDF strike on Iran—or even allow Israeli planes to refuel in their territories—remains highly unlikely. It is certainly nothing Israel could count on. Israel’s current fleet of tankers are based on platforms that are 60 years old and badly in need of replacement. Washington has agreed to sell Israel eight KC-46s, but delivery is currently not scheduled to start for several years. Israel is urgently seeking to expedite the delivery of at least the first two.

Israel also needs more of America’s most advanced strike aircraft, in particular F-35s and F-15s, as Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin made clear earlier this year. The IDF wants to ensure it can conduct the huge number of sorties that would be required not only to hit the targets most critical to Iran’s nuclear program (perhaps multiple times each) but also to defeat Iran’s significant air defenses and suppress as much as possible its second-strike capability, especially its arsenal of ballistic missiles and drones, the largest in the Middle East. Compared to Israel’s destruction of nuclear reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, where in each case a single target was taken out by a handful of planes on only one round-trip mission, the size and scope of an attack on Iran would be orders of magnitude more complicated.

The additional aircraft required by Israel need to be coupled with a dramatically larger inventory of precision-guided munitions, including large bunker-buster bombs capable of penetrating deeply underground, where a growing list of Iran’s most important nuclear sites are buried. Israel has been seeking to augment its precision-guided munition stockpile for years, but insufficient production and the U.S. military’s own heavy requirements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have left Jerusalem’s demands repeatedly under-fulfilled.

Enormous numbers of planes and precision-guided munitions would be critical not just for an initial strike on Iran but for the larger regional war with Iran’s terrorist proxies that would be almost sure to follow, above all against Hezbollah. During last May’s Gaza conflict, Hamas fired hundreds of rockets at Israel on a daily basis. Hezbollah’s arsenal could be 10 times the size of Hamas’s, allowing it to sustain rocket salvos in the thousands, almost certainly overwhelming Israel’s much-heralded missile defenses.

What’s more, unlike Hamas, Hezbollah’s order of battle includes a growing number of its own precision-guided munitions (received courtesy of Iran) capable of accurately striking Israel’s most critical targets with warheads as large as 1,000 pounds. Under almost any scenario, the chances are high that the Israeli home front would suffer destruction on a scale unprecedented in the country’s history. But having a sufficient supply of precision-guided munitions on hand to destroy as many Hezbollah missiles as possible before they can be fired could make the difference between mere disaster and outright catastrophe for Israel. Such a preemptive war would of course also mean the devastation of Lebanon, especially in light of Hezbollah’s strategy of hiding its missiles in densely populated civilian areas.

Uzi Rubin, a former head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization and a preeminent missile expert, has a chilling presentation he gives on the all but existential threat posed by precision-guided munitions to small states. Rubin uses Greece as an example, but it’s obvious he’s really talking about Israel. By perusing easily available public sources, Rubin suggests there are roughly 30 facilities in all of Greece that allow modern society as we know it to function there—systems for water, fuel, electricity, sea and air transport, and communications. Generously assuming his tally of critical targets undercounts the actual number by a factor of three, Rubin soberly makes the point that with fewer than 300 precision-guided munitions, an adversary could quickly make life unviable for Greece’s 10 million citizens.

If anything, tiny Israel may be even more vulnerable than Greece. Though the two countries are close in population, Israel’s land area is not even 20 percent of Greece’s. And while Israeli counterproliferation efforts have severely limited Iran’s ability to transfer precision-guided munitions along various routes to Hezbollah, some Israeli officials privately suggest that the terrorist group could already have several hundred in its arsenal. Once it acquires 1,000, it could fire 10 precision strikes at each of Israel’s 100 most critical pieces of national infrastructure. Even assuming a 90 percent success rate for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense, the math at that point will favor Hezbollah, putting the possible paralysis of Israeli civil society within its reach.

That, of course, is precisely Iran’s objective: to ensure Hezbollah is able to inflict such an unacceptable level of damage on Israel that the idea of an attack on Iran’s nuclear program becomes unthinkable, thereby allowing Tehran to cross the nuclear weapons threshold unhindered. Preventing the emergence of that scenario and ensuring the viability of an Israeli military option should now be among the highest priorities for any U.S. official or member of Congress still serious about stopping Iran from getting the bomb.

Who will lead that effort in the U.S. government? In decades past, prominent senators, such as Henry Jackson and Daniel Inouye, understood the value to U.S. national security of an Israeli military that could defend itself by itself and defeat any emerging threat to its existence. These leaders worked tirelessly with their colleagues in Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and resistance to ensure Israel had everything it needed to confront the enemies seeking its destruction.

Who will be today’s Jackson or Inouye? Which U.S. officials will make it their mission to get Israel the systems it needs as quickly as possible—from tankers to fighter jets to precision-guided munitions—to maximize the effectiveness of a strike on Iran’s nuclear program, should one become necessary? Who will find ways to help Israel pay for these new capabilities at minimum cost to U.S. taxpayers? As Iran crashes through one nuclear red line after another, the day when Israel is forced to act could be much closer than many people think. Given the unprecedented threat to Israel’s existence that an Iranian nuclear bomb would entail, the United States should do everything in its power to arm its closest Middle Eastern ally, which could very soon be the final obstacle standing between Iran and the bomb.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.