An Iranian Bombshell; How Israel Can and Will Respond

By Ben-Meir, Alon | Harvard International Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

An Iranian Bombshell; How Israel Can and Will Respond


Ben-Meir, Alon, Harvard International Review


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 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.

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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 and the internal debate surrounding the possibilities of an attack on Iran. 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 US 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 US 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.

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