Israeli Perceptions of Iran
Will Israel succeed in creating a second coming of the anti-Iranian front and dragging the United States and its NATO allies along with it? How far is it willing to go to shift the region’s priorities back in a direction which it prefers? What is it willing to do if it cannot resurrect the alliance?
It is clear that Iran’s current nuclear program – even one based upon the peaceful use of the atom – has provoked an unprecedented level of insecurity in Israel, an insecurity that has triggered an even greater wave of, as the Israeli’s refer to it, `existential fear’.
A nuclear Iran threatens Israeli self-confidence by crossing two “redlines” in the Israeli strategic psyche.
- First, the arsenal of a single country would pose an existential threat, conjuring memories of Nazi Germany. Focusing on Iran’s ultimate destructive capability rather than its intentions, Israeli strategists might therefore view a nuclear Iran apocalyptically.
- Second, many Israelis might come to believe that the end of Israel’s nuclear monopoly has terminated the country’s ultimate insurance policy, fundamentally undermining Israel’s general deterrence posture.
Three schools of thought have emerged within the Israeli defense establishment concerning Iran crossing the nuclear threshold
- The first school sees a nuclear Iran as a cold-mindedly pragmatic country, which represents the ultimate strategic challenge.
- The second school perceives a nuclear Iran as a reckless, irrational regime, which constitutes a fully materialized existential threat.
- The third–and smallest—school sees an opportunity for reconciliation through mutual disarmament.
The proponents of the first school – those who subscribe to the Cold War notion of mutual assured destruction (MAD) – would reconcile themselves to the new strategic environment. For political and operational reasons, the MAD school considers military action against Iran ineffective and impossible after Iran’s nuclearization.
Constructing a new balance of terror
Assuming that Iranian leaders are radical but reasonable, MAD proponents rely on Israel’s ability to influence Iran’s cost-benefit considerations. This tendency approximates the Iranian nuclear mentality to the Soviet one. They assume that nuclearization reduces Iran’s sense of vulnerability, thus enabling more constructive dialogue and a higher degree of stability despite significant differences in strategic cultures and ideologies.
Determined to construct a “balance of terror” model, the MAD school favors termination of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity policy. To them, revealing Israel’s nuclear capabilities, outlining its nuclear posture, and communicating redlines and the prices for crossing them to a certain extent bolsters the credibility of Israeli deterrence.
The second school–those subscribing to the hard-nosed doctrine of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin—refuses to accept the new strategic environment, maintaining instead that there is still time to forcibly remove Iran from the nuclear club, in much the same way as Israel approached Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981 and, reportedly, the Syrian reactor in 2007.
Many in this group view Iranian leaders as reckless decision-makers, ready to commit collective martyrdom or transfer nuclear weapons to radical proxies, and therefore they would consider nuclear deterrence irrelevant. Others argue that a stable MAD regime with Iran is impossible because Iranian decision-makers might misinterpret Israel’s strategic considerations.
Appealing to the history of the Arab-Israeli wars, several of which were preceded by inaccurate Arab strategic estimates, the proponents of this view emphasize the disproportionally higher price of miscalculation this time. Advocates of this school question the value of terminating the policy of ambiguity, arguing that even a “bomb in the basement” preserves sufficient deterrent power, whereas disclosure might expose Israel to international pressure and stimulate a regional nuclear arms race.
The Begin School
In light of the world’s unwillingness to intervene, members of the Begin school argue that Israel is alone responsible for preventing another Holocaust. They seek to strike Iran’s rudimentary nuclear infrastructure before Iran can expand its arsenal, diversify its delivery systems, and develop a second-strike capability. They view this as the last window of opportunity to exploit Iranian vulnerability while the balance of power remained in Israeli favor.
Their optimism regarding the possible Iranian retaliation is based on the history of Israeli resilience in the face of Iraq’s scud attacks in 1991, and Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s rocket strikes. Also, they take solace in the widespread belief in the inaccuracy of Iran’s missiles and would place their trust in Israel’s Arrow and PAC-3 missile defense capabilities.
The third school–a distinct minority– challenges prevailing views in the Israeli security establishment and among the public by calling for Israeli nuclear disarmament. These nuclear abolitionists suggest dismantling Israel’s nuclear capabilities as part of a comprehensive regional peace agreement, which would presumably enable regional cooperation and the construction of anti-Iranian security architecture. However, in order to verify their basic assumptions following Iran’s nuclearization, many abolitionists might first gravitate toward the MAD school, which they would perceive as an intermediate stage on the path toward their final goal.
For political and operational reasons, the Israeli security establishment would likely be reluctant to strike Iran without U.S. support. The three schools disagree on whether a nuclear Iran or a deteriorating relationship with the United States would pose a greater threat to Israel’s security.
The Begin school argues that when its existence is at stake, Israel does not need permission from anyone to determine its own fate.
The MAD group is probably opposed to an attack, in light of Washington’s reservations. After all, an Israeli strike might cause Iranian retaliation against U.S. regional targets, increase anti-Americanism worldwide, drag the United States into an undesired military confrontation, disturb the oil market and shipping lanes, and eventually sour the special relationship between Israel and the United States, thus ultimately eroding Israel’s deterrence posture.
Reshaping the Israeli-Iranian Narrative
Developing a nuclear deterrence posture for nonexistential threats would run counter to Israel’s long-standing view of the “bomb in the basement” as a last resort, to be used only when the country’s survival is threatened. Alternatively, if Israel chooses to maintain this traditional position, then it will be forced to develop a new and credible deterrence posture based on its conventional capabilities.
Presumably, following Iran’s nuclearization, other regional actors would seek to develop their own nuclear capabilities. This development might generate a counterintuitive meeting of interests between Iran and Israel. First, both Iran and Israel would be equally interested in preserving the regional exclusivity of the nuclear club. Second, both countries would be interested in avoiding internationally imposed nuclear disarmament. Finally, Iran and Israel would be equally concerned about the radicalization of regional Sunni regimes possessing nuclear or advanced ballistic capabilities.
Establishment of a communications channel between Iran and Israel, similar to that introduced by Moscow and Washington following theBerlinand Cuban crises, would be indispensable for developing a stable deterrence relationship and preventing deterioration due to miscalculations.
In order for Israel to live with a nuclear Iran, its strategic mentality would have to adjust and its leaders would have to grapple with several cognitive dissonances. First and foremost, the Israeli government would have to wrestle with the image of Iran that it has constructed. Deconstructing and reworking the image will not be easy. For years, Israeli leaders have appealed to popular fears by cultivating the specter of a second Holocaust in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is equated with Hitler and theUnited States is equated with Neville Chamberlain’sUnited Kingdom. The Iranian leadership has consistently been presented as fanatical and irrational.
If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, the Israeli government will likely seek to assure its population that Israel possesses effective countermeasures and that a stable MAD regime is feasible. However, to make this explanation convincing, the Israeli establishment will have to spell out that Iran is a rational strategic player that can be deterred. Such a message would be confusing and disorienting for Israelis because it contradicts everything that the Israeli government has been preaching to itself, its citizens, and the world for decades.
Second, if the MAD school prevails and the balance of terror between Iran and Israel works, then Israel will enjoy a stable deterrence regime. However, Israeli strategists will be forced to adapt to a new reality that runs against their very nature. Israel has long seen military superiority as the cornerstone of its security and its deterrence posture. Now, Israel’s security and deterrence would be directly linked to living under the constant threat of total annihilation and mutual vulnerability.
Third, given the regional redistribution of power, Israel’s military action would be relatively restricted and diplomatic channels might take on greater importance, upending the Israeli tradition of marginalizing diplomacy when it comes to matters of national security.
Fourth, Israel might have to project a new image of itself as a careful and composed actor rather than the “crazy when furious” reputation that the Israel Defense Forces have cultivated. In a nuclear standoff, this traditional image would not necessarily contribute to a stable deterrence regime.
Israel is dragging the world to the edge of a precipice. Let us hope that the more rational sources there win the day. The alternative is unthinkable.
Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint phd program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News