The possible emergence of a nuclear-armed, Islamist Iran committed to the destruction of the Jewish state is the key security issue currently occupying the attention of Israel’s political and security elite. It is one of the few issues upon which there is near (but not total) consensus. Israel has watched the growing power of radical elements within the Iranian ruling elite in the last half-decade with concern. These elements, of which President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is the most prominent representative, openly reject Israel’s right to exist. Ahmedinejad’s comments advocating Israel’s destruction and denying the Holocaust are part of a larger project to recover the original fervour of the 1979 Islamic revolution. The expansion of Iran’s regional role is also part of this, and Israeli strategists note that the influence of Iran in all areas of key strategic concern to Israel is being felt, in a negative way. Iran’s alliance with Syria underwrites Damascus’s increasingly bellicose stance. Iran’s creation and sponsorship of Hizbullah has enabled it to come to constitute the powerful militia opponent seen in last year’s war. Iranian assistance to Hamas and Islamic jihad may be in the process of turning these organisations into analogous forces.
Iran’s active policy of subversion toward Israel, and stated desire for its destruction, make the possibility of a nuclear Iran inconceivable to Israeli policymakers. It is not only the scenario of an Iranian nuclear attack that is focusing concerns. Rather, there is concern that a nuclear Iran would use the “immunity” purchased by a nuclear capability to increase its support for countries and organisations hostile to Israel. Some Israeli policymakers, such as the deputy defence minister, Efraim Sneh, regard this as itself an existential issue. Sneh has stressed that a nuclear Iran could render life in Israel untenable – through support for terror groups, and the possibility that all determined Israeli attempts to oppose Iranian aggression would lead to immediate nuclear crisis.
An alternative, minority viewpoint exists within the Israeli policy elite, according to which Israel could successfully deter a nuclear Iran, and therefore the problem, while acute, is of less existential dimensions. Former Mossad Head Efraim Halevy is understood to support this view.
Israel’s response so far on the Iranian nuclear issue has been to support the imposition of tougher sanctions. Senior officials have been involved in recent weeks in an international campaign to bring home to European states the common danger posed by a nuclear Iran.
Nevertheless, should it become apparent that all attempts to reverse Iran’s progress toward a nuclear capability have failed, and Iran indeed stands on the cusp of a nuclear weapons capability, then the possibility of unilateral Israeli military action to prevent a nuclear Iran would come onto the agenda.
It should not be assumed from Ahmedinejad’s claims this week that Iran has begun to operate 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium at Natanz, that Israel will now conclude that this moment has been reached. Ahmedinejad made a similar claim in April, and Israel suspects that the Iranian regime is keen to give the impression of greater progress than has in fact been made.
For the moment, therefore, efforts toward further sanctions are likely to continue. But the consensus in the Israeli intelligence community is that Iran may be as close as two years away from a nuclear weapons capability. So if Tehran cannot be brought to abandon its nuclear ambitions through strengthened sanctions and international pressure – then pre-emptive Israeli action to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-powered Islamic Republic of Iran is an increasing possibility.
Regarding the likely results, should such action take place: to some degree, a precedent exists in Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear programme at Osirak in 1981. The Israeli move then was universally condemned in public, and in private, at least retrospectively, was quietly welcomed as having prevented the need for the world to confront a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. Once again, it’s important to note that Israel’s hopes regarding the possibilities of toughened sanctions are genuine. But one may also discern in recent statements by President Bush and President Sarkozy a commitment to the prevention of a nuclear Iran of similar firmness to that of Israel. As such, should the moment of decision arrive, and a consensus be reached that sanctions have failed, it is likely that action by Israel will have no major effect on Israel’s relations with its allies.
Regarding the likely Iranian response: the Iranians may choose to increase their already existing aid to insurgents in Iraq, they may seek to strike at Israel through proxy and client organisations such as Hizbullah and Hamas, they may seek to hit at western, Gulf and Jewish targets through terrorism. The fallout in terms of regional anger and protests will no doubt be immense. Israeli strategists conjecturing such issues, however, may well consider that an angry, vengeful but non-nuclear Iran is a more preferable prospect than a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic, triumphant and filled with the ambition for regional hegemony which possession of nuclear weapons would bring.