Can Iran risk acquiring nuclear weapons and can the world risk Israel keeping them?

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?

Fred Kaplan writes:

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.

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3 thoughts on “Can Iran risk acquiring nuclear weapons and can the world risk Israel keeping them?

  1. delia ruhe

    Excellent intro to Kaplan, Paul. Israel is indeed “the most dangerous nuclear state in the world.” It’s something I’ve spent the last 12 or 13 years mulling over.

    When Israel translates a certain statement in Farsi to mean “Iran will wipe Israel off the face of the earth,” when it actually reads, “Zionism will disappear from the pages of history,” we know very well what political machinations are at work. But the fact that Israelis have come to actually believe the false translation suggests that there is also a psychological mechanism at work — namely, projection or displacement. Many Israelis would like to see Iran annihilated but cannot face their annihilation fantasies, since it was someone else’s annihilation fantasies that, when realized, wiped out two-thirds of European Jewry. Instead, these Israelis displace/project their annihilation fantasies on to Iran.

    Back in the early 1990s I read the following statement in an article by a Jewish Canadian anthropologist:

    “… Israel seems proof to me, like to most Jews, that another Holocaust would not be possible. This time we know how to use arms. If, God forbid, we have to go again, we will not go without a fight and we will not go without taking our enemies with us” (Ivan Kalmar).

    I remember wondering at the time if this idea was unique to Kalmar, or if it was common among diaspora Jews and among Israeli Jews as well. After that, it seemed I was repeatedly seeing that startling sentiment – “we will not go without taking our enemies with us” – all over the place in Israeli-authored newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, either explicitly or implicitly stated. And now that it’s permissible to talk openly about Israel’s nuclear weapons, I find that sentiment more than just startling, more than unsettling. Given the wide streak of irrationality in Israeli foreign policy, together with Israelis’ sense of eternal victimhood and their long-standing psychic strategy of projecting their own unacceptable thoughts on to others, there is probably more than a 50 percent chance of Israel using its nukes in the combined suicidal-homicidal act implicit in Kalmar’s statement.

    I could care less whether Israel survives as a state or not. I have no love for states, as they are all still based upon the militaristic reasons for the emergence of states way back at the dawn of civilization. What I do care about is cultures and the peoples who embody them, whether they live in diasporas or states. States embrace exactly the opposite values: cultures and peoples exist to be sacrificed in order to preserve the State, should it feel threatened.

  2. dickerson3870

    MY COMMENT: Imagine having some Israeli like Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner (or even Avigdor Lieberman) with his finger on the Israel’s nuclear launch button.

    FROM WIKIPEDIA [Samson Option]:

    (excerpts) The Samson Option is a term used to describe Israel’s alleged deterrence strategy of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons as a “last resort” against nations whose military attacks threaten its existence, and possibly against other targets as well.[1] . . .
    . . . Some have written about the “Samson Option” as a retaliation strategy. In 2002, the Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece by Louisiana State University professor David Perlmutter which has been seen as justifying a Samson Option approach.[19] He wrote:

    “Israel has been building nuclear weapons for 30 years. The Jews understand what passive and powerless acceptance of doom has meant for them in the past, and they have ensured against it. Masada was not an example to follow—it hurt the Romans not a whit, but Samson in Gaza? What would serve the Jew-hating world better in repayment for thousands of years of massacres but a Nuclear Winter. Or invite all those tut-tutting European statesmen and peace activists to join us in the ovens? For the first time in history, a people facing extermination while the world either cackles or looks away—unlike the Armenians, Tibetans, World War II European Jews or Rwandans—have the power to destroy the world. The ultimate justice?”[20]

    . . . In 2003, Martin van Creveld [professor of military history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – J.L.D.] thought that the Al-Aqsa Intifada then in progress threatened Israel’s existence.[21] Van Creveld was quoted in David Hirst’s “The Gun and the Olive Branch” (2003) as saying:

    “We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force. Let me quote General Moshe Dayan: ‘Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.’ I consider it all hopeless at this point. We shall have to try to prevent things from coming to that, if at all possible. Our armed forces, however, are not the thirtieth strongest in the world, but rather the second or third. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.”[22]

    Ron Rosenbaum writes in his 2012 book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III that in the “aftermath of a second Holocaust” Israel’s surviving Dophin-class nuclear missile submarines would retaliate not only against Israel’s attackers, but “bring down the pillars of the world (attack Moscow and European capitals for instance)” as well as the “holy places of Islam.” He writes that “abandonment of proportionality is the essence” of the Samson Option.[23] . . .

    SOURCE –

  3. Patrick Cummins

    Fred Kaplan suggests that a difference existed in the strategic calculations for the US and USSR vs. those of Israel and Iran, becuase “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.” The 5000 mile separation is contrasted with the 900 mile separation between Israel and Iran, leaving insufficient time for a response.

    This certainly seems like a spurious comparison. The US and USSR both had submarines capable of launching muclear-armed ballistic missiles. These missiles could have been fired in much closer proximity to their intended targets than 5000 miles. The time available for a response was, in fact, really no different during the cold war than it would be now in the Middle East.

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