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Azeem Ibrahim Headshot

Why Israel Is Safer (From Iran) Than It Might Seem

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Is Iran's nuclear energy program just a cover for making nuclear weapons? If so, can it be prevented? And if not, will it attack Israel?

In thinking about these questions, it might help to imagine a scenario in which Iran did have nuclear weapons capability. I believe that doing so reveals three reasons why they would be unlikely to use it directly against Israel. None of these make it any less likely that Iran would seek to transfer their know how to Hizbollah, Hamas, or other groups. They just mean that the direct threat to Israel from an Iranian strike has been exaggerated.

First -- Ahmadinejad does not control Iran's foreign policy.

Most of the arguments that Iran is a threat to Israel center around Iranian President Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitism and holocaust denial. But he does not make Iranian foreign policy, Khameini does. Khameini has been in office since 1989, throughout the period of relative detente with the West during Khatami's presidency, and through the violent and volatile Ahmadinejad years. Yes, there is evidence that Khameini is a tyrant comfortable sanctioning violence to hold onto power in Iran; no, there is no evidence that he is a psychopath whose hatred of Israel would drive him to order the murder of millions. Yes, there is evidence that he sanctions the sponsorship of anti-Israel terrorism to increase his influence in the region, but no, there is no evidence that he values a confrontation with Israel the reprisal from which would inevitably cause Iranian casualties and threaten the regime's already weak power structure (from within even if not from without).

Second -- Mutually assured destruction would prevent a nuclear first strike in the middle east, just as it did in the Cold War.

Renowned nuclear thinker Sir Michael Quinlan's (architect of decades of British nuclear policy and world expert on nuclear strategy) excellent thesis on nuclear strategy takes as its premise that nuclear weapons prevents conventional war between those states which possess them. Since their first use in 1945 that has remained true. He argues that they guarantee that any war between nuclear states stays within very limited confines as a result of their both having nuclear weapons. The Cold War seems to bear this out.

The counterargument is that the above rules do not apply because Ahmadinejad is crazy. The two counterarguments to this are that:

  • Iran has not actually shown irrationality in its foreign policy
  • As explained, Ahmadinejad doesn't run the foreign policy anyway

In short, if Iran had nuclear weapons, both Iran and Israel would know that any nuclear first strike by either would have unthinkable results and they wouldn't do it.

Third -- A nuclear first strike would not serve any realistic conception of Iran's interests.

There is plenty of evidence that Iran's strategy has been to increase its influence in the region. If this is so, a nuclear strike would not realistically serve that agenda.

  • Iran would alienate all allies
  • ...lose any moral authority it may have acquired with allies such as Chavez etc
  • ...very likely harm Palestinians due to extreme geographical proximity between Jewish and Palestinian populations, contributing further to the above two points

Fourth -- Israel has a sophisticated -- and tested -- anti-missile system called Arrow, which could knock out a potential Iranian first strike.

The Iranians are trying to buy an equivalent anti-missile system from Russia. But until they do, Israel can defend against Iranian missile attacks.

Conclusion -- Yes, there is a real danger that if Iran had nuclear weapons capability it could transfer that to Hizbollah, Hamas, or other groups, like they have in the past. Although Israel has conventional military superiority in the regions where those groups operate, that threat is not to be belittled.

But the particular threat that Israel is talking up -- that of a conventional nuclear strike from Iran if it makes nuclear weapons -- is overblown.