“Israel would … be taking a very great gamble to think that the United States will save it from Iran’s nukes.”
A broad international coalition agrees that Iran must freeze its nuclear weapons program and may not develop either of the ingredients—sufficient highly enriched uranium and a usable warhead and delivery system—that could result in a bomb for the Islamic Republic. The International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors, the UN Security Council, and the governments of almost every influential country—including the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Britain, and France, acting as the P5+1 negotiating group—have not only reached consensus on this demand but acted upon it. Increasingly tough sanctions have been imposed on Iran to force it to stop what is obviously a military program aimed at building a usable nuclear weapon. These diplomatic steps and these tightened sanctions reflect a wide consensus about the dangers that an Iranian nuclear weapon would bring.
But those dangers, ranging from the risk of further proliferation to the likelihood that a nuclear Iran would be an even bolder supporter of terrorism, do not affect all nations equally. In fact, they are a matter of principle but not much of a danger to many countries, while of much greater interest to Iran’s immediate neighbors and to the United States. And then there is Israel. The dangers it faces from an Iranian nuclear weapon are unique and, I will argue, are dangers no nation should be asked to accept.
The only case today in which a UN member country is calling for the destruction of another member is Tehran’s repeated threats to obliterate Israel, and there is no reason to believe the Iranians don’t mean it. Official Iranian comments about Israel are continually genocidal in nature. A good example is an article in the Iranian press in February—circulated by the Revolutionary Guard’s Fars News Agency but originating at the website Alef, which has ties to the supreme leader—that calls for the destruction of the Jews. The author, Alireza Forghani, a chief strategy specialist, is a significant figure in Iran; more important is that key regime websites are promoting his views. A report at the WND news website summarizes the central paragraph of Forghani’s analysis of the necessity for destroying lsrael and its people this way:
Under this pre-emptive defensive doctrine, several Ground Zero points of Israel must be destroyed and its people annihilated. Forghani cites the last census by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics that shows Israel has a population of 7.5 million citizens of which a majority of 5.7 million are Jewish. Then it breaks down the districts with the highest concentration of Jewish people, indicating that three cities, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, contain over 60 percent of the Jewish population that Iran could target with its Shahab 3 ballistic missiles, killing all its inhabitants.
This call for genocide is acceptable discourse in the Islamic Republic. It follows various statements by Iran’s president calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, and as recently as February 3rd, Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, again called Israel a “cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut.”
It is not necessary to believe that Iran would launch a nuclear attack at Israel the day after acquiring that capability to understand that Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of this regime. In addition to the threat of state action, Iran could also provide such a capability to Hamas, Hezbollah, or some other terrorist group with which it has connections as a way of masking its own role in the attack. Iran could also use a newly acquired nuclear capacity to defend stepped-up terrorist activities, both against Israel proper and against Israeli and Jewish individuals and sites around the world. The recent attacks on Israeli Embassy officers in India and Georgia and the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires in the 1990s were all conducted when Iran did not have the added protection of a nuclear weapon. Similarly, Hezbollah and Hamas rocket attacks and terrorist bombings and kidnappings have all occurred when their benefactors in Tehran did not yet have the bomb. How much more aggressive would the mullahs be if the threat of retaliation against such attacks were neutralized by nuclear warheads? Israel has paid a great price in blood and treasure to survive in the decades when it had a nuclear monopoly in the region. To confront the same hostility, terror, and aggression when that monopoly is gone could undermine its ability to survive.
No nation, of course, can defend preemptively against an unexpected sneak attack. But if Iran acquires nuclear weapons (which it has already indicated a willingness to use), it will not come as a surprise to Israel or to its main ally, the United States. Instead, Tehran’s acquisition of such weaponry would give the lie to the stated determination of both nations to prevent that outcome. All the speeches about what we would and would not accept would be shown to have been mere talk; all the determination would be shown to have been mere show; and every observer would conclude that we allowed ourselves to be cowed by Iran into an inaction that would continue to have ramifications for years to come even if, by some miracle, Tehran did not soon act on its genocidal threats. We would have watched their program grow year after year, and done nothing—or nothing that worked. So the image of Israel as indestructible, resolute, tough, and ready to act—as it acted against the nuclear programs of Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007—would be gone, as would the United States’ own image as the dominant power in the Middle East and one committed to preserving Israel’s existence.
And what will the Middle East be like when Iran possesses that nuclear weapon and its top officials continue to say that Israel must be eliminated? It would be easy for Iran to bring Israeli life to a standstill by launching a missile or a plane whose mission might, just might, be a nuclear attack. The chances that miscalculation or misperception would bring war and catastrophe would be enormous.
All of this helps explain why the so-called “international community,” an entity not known to be friendly to Israel, has nonetheless almost unanimously said Iran must not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons. The question is therefore whether we mean what we say. There is a great gap between saying an Iranian nuclear weapon is so terrible to contemplate that we will speak against it and sanction Iran’s economy, and saying we will act to prevent it. While some American leaders, mostly Republican candidates for office, have said we should use military force to stop Iran, that is not the official position of the United States. In 1980, the Carter Doctrine announced that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” No president has said anything like that regarding Iran’s nukes. The more anodyne “all options are on the table” formula has not scared the ayatollahs and never will.
Given this lack of urgency, Israel would, then, be taking a very great gamble to think that the United States will save it from Iran’s nukes. We might, under this president or the next, or we might not. Iranian nuclear weapons are, after all, an existential threat to Israel, not to the US. It is not America that is regularly threatened with genocide by Tehran, however much its rulers may believe it the Great Satan.
Should Israel then take it upon itself to act? There are three main arguments against such a course. The first is that it is impossible: Israel can’t do the job, and would only set Iran back a few months by an attack that would nonetheless bring significant reprisals. If it is true that the “window” has already closed and Israel cannot much damage the Iranian effort, the argument is over. If it can do substantial damage, there is not much point in arguing over whether setting Iran back three or five or seven years is sufficient to justify the attack. There is no magic number here, any more than there is a magic number revealing how many years this hated regime will rule in Iran before the people rise up against it. A corollary to this argument suggests that an Israeli attack would give the regime a new lease on life by rallying all Iranians, including the presumably growing numbers of dissidents, to the flag. But who knows if this is true, especially given the fact that the attack would be over before Iranians were even aware it had happened; that civilian targets would have been spared; and that the mullahs’ regime is very widely despised? It could equally be argued that an attack would have the same consequences as in the late Soviet period, when military setbacks (Afghanistan, Central America) hastened the demise of the regime by showing its weaknesses and by intensifying internal tensions. The same might be true in Iran if it were shown that its much-vaunted, immensely expensive nuclear program had now gone up in smoke, and that the years of privation and isolation under sanctions had been for naught. In any event, the goal of an attack would not be to decapitate or overthrow the regime, but only to destroy or slow down its nuclear program.
The second argument against Israeli action is that it would set off a giant Mideast war, a spreading conflagration of immeasurable size and consequence. This is not persuasive either. Who would fight for Iran, especially given that its only client and ally in the region, Syria, is currently embroiled in an internal war of its own against its own people? There will be no wider war because Arab governments do not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons either, and would not react much to an Israeli strike. Demonstrations against Israel, which are predictable, would pass after a few days. Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz or to attack American bases and allies in the Gulf are not really credible either, and are almost surely a sort of psy-op against Washington. Such actions would draw the United States into a conflict with Iran when the US acted to re-open the Strait, which it could and would do—with world support—and these actions would bring far more damage to Iran’s military (especially naval) capacity than an Israeli attack would accomplish. Why would Iran call down US power on the head of its Islamic revolutionary state? Why would it attack American bases and thereby kill hundreds of Americans, knowing that this would bring devastating retribution from the United States? Similarly, would Iran really attack Arab states across the Gulf, some of which have decent air forces of their own (the UAE and Saudi Arabia) and can expect to rely on American help? If the Iranian leadership would engage in such suicidal actions, it confirms the Israeli position that such an irrational group cannot be permitted to have nuclear weapons in the first place.
Israel must expect Iranian terrorist attacks, and missiles targeting its own nuclear facilities at Dimona. The real danger, and the only one that might trigger a war, is an attack by Hezbollah. If it threw all of its arsenal at Israel, another conflict perhaps larger than the 2006 war would ensue. But is it certain that Hezbollah would sacrifice its future for Iran at this juncture? Recall that its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said after the 2006 war, “If I had known on July 11?.?.?.?that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.” And that was said when Iran and the Assad regime in Syria were riding high, and able and willing to rearm the group after the conflict—as they indeed did. With Assad desperately focused on his own survival and Iran’s own prestige and power damaged by an Israeli strike, would Nasrallah push Lebanon into a war its people cannot possibly want and that would do immense and possibly irrecoverable political and military damage to Hezbollah? Israel must anticipate the worst and prepare for it, but that is not to say it will happen.
The third argument against an Israeli strike is that a nuclear-armed Iran could still be “contained.” It is never explained how this would be achieved. Containment is not a diplomatic strategy but at bottom a doctrine enforced by military power: red lines are set and may not be crossed without clear consequences. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, this would mean that all such red lines had been crossed and that US warnings had been proved to be mere words. After Iran has gained status as a nuclear weapons state, how could Washington threaten war to contain it when it was unwilling to act when it did not have nuclear weapons? This cannot be seriously advanced as a realistic proposition to make Iran think twice about the course it has set.
President Obama, like many world leaders, has called an Iranian nuclear weapon “unacceptable.” He is right, and that should remain the US position—not just that it would be a bad outcome, not just that we would be angered by it, but that we refuse to accept it and, as the president also once said, will prevent it. If we are unwilling to act, or to act soon enough, it should be our position that Israeli action is justifiable.
Elliott Abrams served as deputy national security adviser from 2005 to 2009 and is currently a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.