All Writings
April 29, 2010

Iran’s Nuclear Program And Israel’s Options

*This essay was recently published in The Harvard International Review Magazine

Much has been written and argued about what Israel can do to effectively address Iran's nuclear program, which Israel views as a credible existential threat. Most Israelis believe that Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons and they remain skeptical about the prospect of a diplomatic solution to neutralize the Iranian threat. There is hardly any public discussion in Israel concerning the acceptance of a nuclear Iran, and the question of the nation's course of action is willingly left to the defense cabinet and a small group within the intelligence establishment.

What has largely been missing from the Israeli public discussion is an analysis of the circumstances under which an Israeli attack on Iran could take place. To understand Israel's strategic thinking it is necessary to look into the country's national mindset, the internal debate and the international context in which an attack on Iran could occur. In addition, it is critical to review Israel's nuclear doctrine, its military capabilities and its national resolve to neutralize Iran's nuclear weapons program. By virtue of Israel's special relations with the United States, the importance of the American position must also be explored, as Israel's national security concerns are intertwined with America's strategic regional calculus. Finally, while many Israelis weigh the Iranian threat against the risks of attacking or not attacking, Israel will ultimately determine how to address Iran's nuclear ambitions once it reaches breakout capacity. That is if Iran reaches the technological breakthrough necessary to create a nuclear device, then Israel will attack Iran regardless of the consequences that such an attack would cause.

Israel's National Mindset:

No dialogue about Israel's concerns with Iran's nuclear program is complete without a discussion of Israel's national psychological disposition, and an understanding of what causes this mindset. More than sixty years of independence with demonstrable military prowess has not mitigated the national security obsession amongst Israelis, as the threat of being a target for annihilation remains grounded in their collective consciousness. No Israeli leader takes Israel's ability to defend itself for granted, regardless of the proven military superiority of the Israeli Defense Forces. Even the minimal risk of exposing Israelis to an Iranian attack would not be accepted by a country that still lives in the shadows of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of more than six million Jews. Many Israelis feel that dismissing the Iranian threat would come at their peril, as Iran has directly and repeatedly threatened Israel's existence. Iran also continues to financially and militarily support proxy groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas that have vowed to destroy Israel.

Israel's defense doctrine is based on the premise that no enemy should be able to muster the capability to threaten Israel's existence with impunity, and all measures must be taken to avert and neutralize such threats. With this doctrine in mind, Israel lends no credence to the idea floated by several American scholars-including former national security advisors, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft-that Israel's nuclear arsenals constitute an effective deterrence.

The Internal Debate:

Most of Israel's political, academic, and security apparatuses view Iran's nuclear program and the international debate that surrounds it from a unified perspective, even if some elements differ concerning the steps that must be taken and how much time Israel has to act. There is a general agreement on four points among these groups. The first is a consensus that Iran is committed to maintain a nuclear program with uranium enrichment capabilities with the objective of developing nuclear weapons. The second is that Iran seeks to become the region's hegemon and sees Israel as the principle obstacle to achieving this ambitious goal. Third, Iran's insistence on its right to pursue a nuclear program, ostensibly for peaceful purposes, brings into focus Israel's own nuclear arsenals and that a nuclear Iran would mitigate Israel's own regional nuclear superiority and further embolden Iran to undermine Israel's regional interests. Finally, once Tehran is able to acquire nuclear weapons, many Arab states will likely be forced to ally themselves with Iran out of strategic necessity, even though many quietly support Israel's position to prevent Iran from doing so.

There is very limited Israeli public debate surrounding Iran's nuclear program and what Israel's next step must be, as the public generally trusts the political leadership and the security apparatus to handle the problem in an effective manner. Any deliberation concerning national security matters of the highest order is largely left to intelligence elites and the defense cabinet, made of ministers with special expertise in the field of national security. Party politics do not play a role in the assessments of the intelligence community and there is a clear consensus among the Israeli public that their interests will be represented. The current right-of-center Netanyahu government may hype up the Iranian threat, but would not act or change policy without the explicit endorsement of the defense establishment.

Considering America's deep involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the overall Western trepidations concerning a new regional conflict with a Muslim state, and the strong likelihood that Iran would act against American interests, Israelis largely agree that it would be ill-advised to attack Iran unilaterally unless as an absolute last resort. In this respect, there is a clear understanding among Israel's academic, security and intelligence sectors that at the present juncture, there is no viable alternative to coordinating Israel's strategy towards Iran with that of the United States. This stems from the conviction that such an attack would have disastrous regional consequences and could potentially sabotage efforts towards a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal.

There is a very small minority of Israelis led by scholar and defense analyst, Reuven Pedatzur, who argue that Israel might have to live with a nuclear Iran. He maintains that Israel should abandon its nuclear ambiguity and instead declare its nuclear capabilities to warn Iran openly of the catastrophic consequences should its leadership seriously challenge Israel's existence. This group suggests that Iran may be using Israel as a convenient ploy to justify the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal, as the Iranian leadership is mostly concerned with internal dissidence and increasing opposition to its government. The logic follows that volatile situations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq pose a destabilizing threat to Iran, and thus it seeks defensive weapons not necessarily to target Israel. That being said, Israeli parties of all political colorations, from Meretz on the extreme left to Likud and Israel Bateinu on the right, simply do not accept this argument.

The International Context:

From the time it became public in 2002 that Iran had been pursuing a discrete nuclear program for the previous 18 years, Israeli officials have made every effort to portray it as an international problem rather than an exclusively Israeli one. Israel was displeased with the European negotiating efforts with Iran during the Bush presidency because the United States was not involved in the negotiations at the time. Iran showed tremendous capacity for stalling and outwitting European negotiators, such as Javier Solana, and for making significant progress in their enrichment program. The Europeans have underestimated Iran's determination to maintain a nuclear program on its soil and the prestige the nation hopes to engender from it. For this reason, the EU's repeated efforts to entice Iran to give up its enrichment program for a generous economic package failed to gain real traction in Tehran.

Knowing that sanctions against Iran will not be effective without full European enforcement, Israelis are disappointed and concerned about the increase in trade of the European states since 2003. In 2008 the combined imports and exports of goods between the EU and Iran reached a staggering 25 billion Euros, solidifying the EU as Iran's largest trading partner. In August of 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Europe to make the Israeli case, carrying with him what Israeli intelligence officers characterized as credible intelligence that clearly attests to Iran's significant progress and determination to build nuclear weapons.

The EU attitude toward Iran has taken a sharp turn since the discovery of a secret Iranian nuclear enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom. European leaders seem now more determined to do something about Iran's continued violation of UN Security Council resolutions. France's President Nicholas Sarkozy echoed the sentiment of other leading European nations when he said in September that "I support America's extended hand, but what have these proposals for dialogue produced for the international community? Nothing but more enrichment of uranium and more centrifuges. And last but not least, it has resulted in a statement by Iranian leaders calling for wiping off the map a member of the United Nations. What are we to do? What conclusion are we to draw? At a certain moment hard facts will force us to make decisions." Although the EU's rhetoric has hardened, most Israelis remain skeptical about whether this new attitude will yield concrete results.

Israel has been particularly displeased with Russia as they have refused to scale down their cooperation with Iran in order to induce it to comply with the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) requirements. Israel's concerns were further heightened by the discovery that Russian scientists have been helping Iran build a nuclear warhead. Israel was also extremely concerned about Russia's decision to sell Iran the S-300 anti-aircraft/anti-missile system, which has greater range and accuracy than Iran's present defense system. When questioned, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev responded, "We have never delivered anything to Iran. We will not deliver anything to Iran which is beyond international law. This implies that we have something to deliver. But they're always defensive systems. That's our clear-cut position. And I will adhere to that when adopting [Russia's] final decision on all existing contracts with Iran." He further elaborated that, "Our task…[is] not to enhance Iran or to weaken Israel, or vice versa."

Russia's bilateral relations with Iran have been complicated in recent months, not least because of Russia's interest to balance its relations with the West against its financial and strategic interests in Iran. Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently ruled against the latest proposal for new sanctions, in late September he characterized Iran's missile test as "worrisome," adding that, "I am convinced that restraint is needed." His remarks were further reinforced by Medvedev, who said in the wake of the Qom discovery that "sanctions are seldom productive, but they are sometimes inevitable." Still Russia is not willing to abandon its lucrative relations with Iran, as it insists that maintaining good relations allows Russia to exert greater influence on the Iranian government. It seems as if Russia wishes to create a situation where the road between Iran and the West must go through Moscow.

Like Russia, China has also refused in the past to support stiffer United Nations sanctions against Iran. But China's position is currently going through some review in the wake of the latest revelations about Iran's new clandestine enrichment plant. China is one of Iran's largest trading partners and China relies on Iran for 15 percent of its oil imports. As a major developing industrial country with its own questionable standing in the Human Rights community, China rarely supports reigning in a nation's behavior through trade sanctions.But with President Obama repeatedly urging cooperation with Hu Jintao, the Chinese President has begun to urge "credible steps" to end nuclear proliferation.

Recent American intelligence assessments, continued Iranian intransigence, and the IAEA's latest report stating that Iran has not stopped its uranium enrichment and weaponization programs have all created impatience with Iran amongst the Germans, British and French. Meanwhile, Israel is making every effort to convey to the EU and Russia that living with a nuclear Iran is not an option, and that states in Europe should not turn a blind eye to what could usher in regional turmoil of unimaginable consequences.

Israel has also appealed to the Arab states that would be adversely affected by the realization of Iran's regional ambitions and its greater ability to intimidate Sunni neighbors. Although the Arab states-with the exception of Egypt-have thus far refused to cooperate publicly, the Arab oil producing states have suggested that they can offer incentives to both Russia and China to persuade them that their long-term interest lies in trading with the Arab states rather than Iran. Saudi Arabia in particular has offered to purchase billions of dollars of weapons from Russia if Moscow agrees not to sell sophisticated weapons and missiles to Iran. Writing in the pan-Arab newspaper, Al Quds Al Arabi, its editor, Abdel-Beri Atwan, concluded that with recent developments "the Arab regimes, and the Gulf ones in particular, will find themselves part of a new alliance against Iran alongside Israel." Other prominent Arab policymakers have noted off-the-record on numerous occasions that it might be better if the West or even Israel strike Iran instead of letting it emerge as a nuclear power. Statements such as these show the substantial change in the tone and urgency among many Arabs.

The Importance of the American Position:

Although former Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, did not publicly state it, they viewed President Bush's strategy towards Iran's nuclear program as misguided and counterproductive. The Bush administration lost invaluable time by refusing to negotiate with Iran directly and by failing to enact effective internationally-orchestrated sanctions to force Iran to halt its nuclear program. From the Israeli perspective, President Obama's readiness to engage with Iran directly and to seek a diplomatic solution-although viewed by some with skepticism-is the only viable option for defusing the Iranian threat. The United States and Israel are closely collaborating on matters of intelligence while keeping all options including a military strike on the table.

There are some Israelis who are suspicious of President Obama's stance on the nuclear issue. Chief among their concerns is the fear that Obama will call for a nuclear-free Middle East and therefore bring Israel's nuclear program into question. Such a development would run contrary to the American-Israeli agreement forged between Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Nixon in September 1969, which commits both the United States and Israel to never publically acknowledging Israel's nuclear arsenals. There is also an objection to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's idea that the United States could offer a defense umbrella to all its Middle Eastern allies as protection against Iran. Some Israelis, such as Israel's Likud minister for intelligence, Dan Meridor, contend that this suggests implicit acceptance of a nuclear Iran, which Israel rejects on principle.

President Obama seeks to replace President George W. Bush's plan to build a missile defense system with what he believes "will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies." The new system will equip the American navy with SM-3 interceptors to quickly and accurately provide defense against potential Iranian aggression in the Middle East. By bolstering naval defense units, it will be possible for the United States to attack Iran from the south without violating the airspace of any neighboring Arab countries. This change of course is an attempt by the administration to meet the increasing threat of a nuclear Iran, and to mitigate the Israeli fear of an attack, preempting any defensive action. To this point, Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, added that: "We hope that it will reassure [Israel] that perhaps there's a little more time here."

As Israel and the US close ranks about Iran's nuclear problem, the two allies appear to be developing a modus operandi which may bring them even closer together if an agreement on when Iran will reach breakout capacity can be reached. This American-Israeli collaboration comes on the heels of new American intelligence that suggests Iran has created enough material to make a rapid, albeit risky leap for nuclear-grade enriched uranium, which supports the Israeli intelligence assessment that Iran can produce a nuclear weapon in less than a year. While this will make it more difficult for the Obama administration to persuade the Israelis to give more time for diplomacy, Israel remains for the time being wedded to the American strategy.

Israel's Nuclear Doctrine:

From the early 1950s, Israel's nuclear strategy has been based on nuclear ambiguity, which neither confirms nor denies Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. This doctrine was born out of what the Israelis consider a strategic necessity; in one respect, it is designed against confronting or intimidating the Arab states with a nuclear challenge, and in doing so relieves the Arab governments from public pressure to pursue a nuclear weapons program of their own. Secondly it works to instill the fear that Israel may have the nuclear capability to inflict considerable damage at any time should it feel threatened. Moreover, by maintaining nuclear ambiguity, Israel is not required to submit to IAEA inspections or monitoring. Israel has repeatedly stated that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the region and that it will not threaten other states or deploy its weapons unless its very survival is at stake. In addition, Israel has determined not to allow any potential enemy to develop nuclear weapons that would negate its military superiority.

Israel's nuclear ambiguity has been an effective policy for more than five decades. There have been three attempts by Arab states to acquire nuclear weapons. In 1981, after Israel had concluded that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of completing nuclear facilities with the Oziraq reactor in Iraq, the site was promptly bombed by the Israeli Air Force. In September 2007, Israel bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site built by North Korea. Under American coercive diplomacy, Libya's strong man Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003, which Israel was prepared to destroy had Qaddafi not heeded to American and British pressure.

This background gives some perspective to Israel's determination to prevent a nuclear Iran, and to what length Israeli leaders will go to see that Ahmedinejad never realizes his nuclear agenda. Moreover, the fact that Israel may possess some 200 nuclear weapons, as some experts have suggested, changes neither Israel's nuclear ambiguity nor its nuclear deterrence strategy towards Iran. From the Israeli perspective, if deterrence could work against Iran, Israel would have changed its ambiguity by declaring its possession of a nuclear stockpile years ago. Israel is likely to suspect that Iranian officials do not conform to the Western doctrine and logic of deterrence, and the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), because of religious and cultural factors. The idea that a single nuclear attack on Israel that could wipe out more than half of the Israeli population will still leave Israel with a second strike capability-as mutual deterrence postulates-is utterly unthinkable to the Israeli defense establishment.

Israel's Military Capabilities:

For obvious reasons, the Israelis do not divulge their military strategies nor the weapons they could potentially use to execute an attack. But Israeli defense analysts and senior officials have made it known that Israel is seriously considering a military option, knowing full well the vast implications a strike would create. Should Israel decide to attack Iran, it will most likely focus on three known targets: Natanz, where most of Iran's centrifuges are located, Arak, where the heavy water reactor is built, and Bushehr, where Iran's light water nuclear power reactor is located.

The Israeli Air Force has demonstrated that it is one of the most sophisticated in the region. It has refueling ability as well as precision guided air-to-ground missiles, and Israeli planes can reach targets more than 1500 nautical miles away. In addition, Israel can also employ bombs such as the GBU-28 "bunker busters" which it has acquired from the United States and which and are designed to destroy underground fortifications. Israeli sources suggest that it may also have its own bombs, with a miniature nuclear head that can cause tremendous damage without much nuclear radiation fallout. In addition to its formidable Air Force, Israel has a small but a robust naval force that includes six Dolphin class submarines, three of which are said to carry nuclear missiles. By dispatching these vessels openly in July 2009 through the Suez Canal, Israel wanted to demonstrate not only that it has the military capability to attack Iran, but that the Arab states such as Egypt, which controls the Suez canal, are willing to cooperate with Israel in some capacity. These vessels and the weapons they carry allow Israel to attack Iran from the south without violating the air space of Turkey or any Arab country separating Israel from Iran. Finally, Israel has bolstered its air defense with the ability to intercept incoming missiles with a high degree of accuracy.

Israel is also fully aware that unlike its attacks against Iraq and Syria, which completely destroyed their nuclear facilities, an attack on Iran's nuclear plants will not obliterate its entire program. These facilities are widely dispersed in remote areas, and many are built deep underground and are fully fortified to withstand heavy bombardments. Israeli officials will be content if an Israeli attack only delays Iran's nuclear buildup, with the hope of creating a new political environment that might force Iran to forgo its nuclear ambitions.

Israel's National Resolve:

Completely ruling out an Israeli attack will only be possible once Israel is satisfied that the United States is taking every measure necessary to successfully prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But based on the facts available, there are specific conditions under which Israel would still take unilateral action against Iran. The first would be if Israel were to conclude that the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, China, Russia, Britain, France plus Germany) are failing and that Iran was aggressively approaching a breakout capacity. The second condition would come if new heavy sanctions fail to yield the intended results. Third, if Israeli intelligence were to unequivocally confirm that Iran was on the verge of acquiring a nuclear device, and that the Iranian threat against Israel was deemed imminent, and no other country was willing to act. Under these circumstances, Israel will likely strike unilaterally because the risk of inaction in the face of an imminent threat could outweigh Israel's unique relations with the United States and any regional or global repercussions, however catastrophic they may be.

For these reasons, it is critically important for the United States and Israel to develop a comprehensive and mutually agreed upon strategy that deals with any contingency. The Obama administration ought to focus on six strategic moves that the Iranians would trust to serve their intended purpose without losing face.

Firstly, since the priority of the Iranian Islamic regime is to fulfill the goals of the Islamic revolution with its leaders in power, the Obama administration must continue to convey that the United States has no design against the government and is willing to formally recognize Iran upon settling the nuclear issue. Secondly, the United States ought to immediately open a second track of negotiations to address grievances against each other and make every effort to settle nagging issues. For example, Iran's frozen assets and the United States' concern over Iran's support of extremist Islamic groups should all be hashed out at length. Next, the United States should refrain from threatening Iran publicly. The Obama administration must employ third party assistance from a Muslim majority, such as Turkey, to convey any threats, such as divulging the nature of the crippling sanctions, should the negotiation fail. Fourthly, the Obama administration should also invite Iran to establish a comprehensive economic and security framework to dispel the notion that the United States' long-term objective is to exploit Iran's resources and weaken its national security interests. Iran fears the United States more than any other power and only the United States can mitigate these fears through improved bilateral relations. Following this notion, since Iran has never admitted to seeking nuclear weapons yet is committed to have a nuclear program on its soil, the Obama administration could offer an arrangement where Iran can enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under tight international control. Although Israel may object to this, the Israeli concerns may be alleviated if American and European monitors take the lead in observing and reporting, and if they are assured that sanctions on their oil-and-gas industry are in place should Iran be caught cheating. The last point is that the United States must also consider Iran's regional interests especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the latter, it is particularly in Iran's interest to cooperate with the United States as Iran is a predominantly Shiite Muslim state and is concerned about the rise of the extremist Sunni regime led by the Taliban to the east.

Israeli impatience and threats to attack Iran could be a useful leverage of the United States to pressure Iran. The longer Iran defers the numerous calls to cooperate with the IAEA and international community, the closer it will find the partnership between the United States, the European Union, Russia, China, and the Arab states. Most Israelis believe that the US-Israeli collaboration, which was born out of necessity and a long tradition, must now be used as the bulwark to force Iran's hand in giving up its nuclear program.