Israeli leaders claim an Iranian nuclear programme is an existential threat to Israel but also a menace to world security. “The threat that Iran poses is very grave for the state of Israel, for peace in the Middle East and the whole world,” warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His sabre-rattling, not different from Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s, is fraught with constructed fear. Without a doubt, the Iranian regime is repressive, has regional ambitions, and is indifferent to international law. But equally true is the absurdity that Iran’s nuclear bomb is an Armageddon in the making.
Countries acquire nuclear weapons for three reasons: to win wars against adversaries, to deter attacks from adversaries armed with superior conventional arms or nuclear arms, and for national prestige. Historical evidence suggests that the mullahs are not an offensive but a defensive regime. Since they came to power in 1979, they have not initiated a single war and have made no use of any chemical weapons (nor did they smuggle them to terrorist organizations). Despite their quarrels with western and Middle Eastern countries, the mullahs are not interested in all-out war, especially not with superior powers.
Even an offensive Iran, with or without the bomb, poses no existential threat to Israel. With over $3 billion dollars of US military support and guarantees to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over neighbouring countries, the Israeli army is the most powerful in the Middle East. Equipped with the most advanced military technology in the world, including Arrow Two ballistic missiles and the Iron Dome air defense system, the Israeli army has the capability to intercept long and short range Iranian ballistic missiles. In addition to this formidable defense capability, Israel is armed with an estimated 200 nuclear bombs. So much stronger than Iran is Israel that a perception of Iran endangering Israel’s security is a mockery of common sense.
If not for offensive reasons, then why might Iran seek the bomb? Cautious of its conventional military inferiority, the bomb offers the Iranian regime a cheaper solution than a conventional arms race for greater security: not an impossible but improbable claim in the light of history. Since at least 1975, the Arab states have lived next door to their archenemy, Israel, armed with a pile of nuclear weapons, yet no other Arab country, with the exception of Iraq, has felt compelled to attain the bomb. Even in the case that Iran (or for that matter any other Arab states) acquire the nuclear bomb, it would not undermine Israel’s security. Deterrence theory proved to be irrefutable for five decades. Throughout the Cold War, fear of retaliatory attack prevented the two major superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, from plunging into a direct military confrontation. It is unlikely that the logic of deterrence will end political hostility between Israel and Iran, but most likely it will reduce the chance of a war of annihilation.
The most credible reason for attaining the bomb is that the Iranian regime hopes to improve its prestige at home and abroad. Nuclear capability confers on countries a badge of honour, a testimony of scientific progress and accomplishment, especially for a regime embattled by homegrown protests and international sanctions. At the same time, denying Iran the bomb could bring about the opposite effect: a weakening of the credentials and standing of the Iranian regime.
In reality - if there is ever an Iranian threat to Israel - the threat is neither existential nor direct. What is at stake is not Israel’s security but regional hegemony. Both countries aspire to increase their influence in the region, but there can be only one hegemon. In this game of power politics, both countries seek to tighten the noose around each other, with Israel relying on the US to reinforce its military capability and political muscle, while Iran is relying on a strategy of asymmetric warfare, including supporting the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas. Shrewdly, Israeli leaders have exploited Iran’s nuclear programme to strike a devastating blow against the Iranian regime. Israel hopes to squeeze the Iranian regime into a humiliating surrender of its nuclear programme or castration under the weight of international sanctions.
The irony of all this is that the Iranian regime is its own worst enemy. Its policies have left Iran divided, isolated, and weak with poor governance, political and social repression, and economic mismanagement. The latest US-EU ban on importing Iranian petroleum and petroleum products and other financial restrictions have significantly crippled Iran’s access to oil revenues. How much longer the regime can hold on to power is hard to tell, but one thing is sure: the clock is ticking. Meanwhile, if the mullahs get the bomb first, it is not the end of the world.