Setting aside the comic book narrative that portrays suicidal “mad mullahs” plotting to commit a second Holocaust, it is widely assumed that if Iran actually succeeded in becoming a nuclear-armed state, it’s nuclear weapons would be a strategic asset. The thinking goes that nuclear strength offers a layer of protection that will deter military adventurism among ones adversaries. But could Iran be confident that calculus would apply to Israel?
Fred Kaplan describes the reasons why deterrence is weaker if nuclear adversaries are much closer together than the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In the case of Iran and Israel however, proximity is not the only issue. In the cost-benefit analysis the Iranians have presumably had under long review, they must surely have asked and be asking themselves this question: How great is the risk that Israel might launch a nuclear strike on Iran preemptively because its leaders panicked?
As much as Israel has sought to cultivate its mad dog image, it’s hard not to also see that Israel’s political leaders have a long history of overreacting to threats that were much smaller than perceived. This tendency to overreact, far from presenting the image of a country that is supremely vigilant about its security, suggests a kind of institutionalized and culturally embedded hyper-vigilance. Israel acts like a state in perpetual trauma — a country that displays the symptoms of PTSD. If it operates on a hair-trigger now, susceptible to being “set off” by tiny “threats” like flotillas and flytillas, how much more sensitive would that hair-trigger become if the threat was the possibility of a nuclear strike from Iran?
Netanyahu and others in Israel might for political purposes frequently overstate their own fears about Iran, but the question Iranians and everyone else should be asking is whether Israel’s use of its own nuclear weapons will sooner or later become inevitable and if the consensus is that it will, then the most urgent task becomes: What would it take to disarm the most dangerous nuclear state in the world?
Moscow and Washington are 5,000 miles apart. If they were 900 miles apart (as Tehran and Jerusalem are), there probably would have been a nuclear war at some point in the last 50 years. It takes a half hour for an ICBM to fly from Moscow to Washington; that’s just barely enough time for the president to decide what to do if a blip on the radar screen suggests an attack is underway. It takes about five minutes for a short-range missile to fly from Tehran to Israel. That’s probably not enough time.
There were several times during the Cold War when America’s finely tuned radars mistook a flock of geese for a flight of Soviet missiles or when a software glitch produced a false warning of an attack. In all these instances, the leaders could afford to wait a bit to see how the signals panned out. According to David Hoffman’s frightening book The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, there was an incident in 1983 when a Soviet early-warning satellite picked up signals of an American missile attack. The signal in this case was never straightened out; the system kept warning of an attack all the way until the point when the warheads would have exploded, had there really been an attack. Luckily, the Soviet lieutenant colonel at the monitoring station, thinking that this couldn’t really be happening, decided—on his own authority—to tell his commander that it was a false alarm and, therefore, there was no need to launch the Soviets’ own ICBMs. He was lying: According to the warning system, the attack was real. But by lying, he probably prevented World War III.
It’s not at all clear that an Iranian or Israeli officer would keep his cool under similar circumstances (or that he’d be so laid back to begin with)—especially if the false warning coincided with a diplomatic crisis or a military exercise or some other moment of extraordinary tension.
I don’t think the Iranian nuclear program constitutes an urgent danger. But if there is a way to nip this whole panoply of nightmare scenarios in the bud—if there’s a diplomatic route to keeping Iran from going nuclear—then it’s worth pursuing, at some effort and cost.