Nuclear Iran not likely to use arsenal to attack either Israel or the U.S.
Despite Iran's fiery rhetoric, it is unlikely that the Iranian regime would risk certain destruction by pre-emptively attacking Israel.
First, the good news. It is difficult to imagine a practical scenario in which Iran would initiate the actual use of nuclear weapons against Israel. Iran has to take into account that Israel is reputed to be a nuclear power. Thus, any nuclear attack might result in a counterstrike and in a "Tel Aviv for Tehran" exchange or even a broader one. Iran certainly has a deep theological commitment to Israel's destruction and has already proven its willingness to devote considerable resources in pursuit of this divine vision, but what price is Iran ultimately willing to pay? At what point does its cost-benefit calculus change? Would it accept thousands dead, tens of thousands? Probably. Hundreds of thousands, as it lost in the Iran-Iraq war? Maybe. Untold destruction?Again, presumably not. As extreme as Iranian ideology is, Iran has pursued a largely "rational" policy over the years, in which its national interests have usually taken precedence over theological ones and which has generally adhered to a carefully calculated course. Iran has fundamental national security reasons, totally unrelated to Israel, for seeking a nuclear capability. Iran fears a future resurgence of Iraq, its traditional nemesis, and views the United States as the primary long-term threat to its security. It also lives in a highly unstable region in which two of its neighbors are already declared nuclear powers and many more are exploring nuclear capabilities. As aggressive as Iran's stance toward Israel is, it genuinely fears Israel's intentions, totally unwarranted as this may be, except in a reactive sense.
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The issue of Palestinian collateral damage is one of the most important political and ideological issues facing Iranian strategists, although it is seldom mentioned in discussions of Iranian strategic options. It is not possible to attack Israel with nuclear weapons without also subjecting large numbers of nearby Palestinians to radioactive fallout. The lethal range of such fallout is difficult to determine since it depends upon a variety of factors including wind direction, type of explosion (ground or air), and explosive yield. Nevertheless, high lethality rates can be expected as far away as 20 miles under normal conditions.16 Additionally, a number of Israel's one million Arab citizens and resident aliens live near Jewish population centers. There is a distinct possibility that Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza would also be subjected to fallout. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, Iranian targeting accuracy for its long-range missiles is highly suspect. The capabilities of these systems is quite doubtful due to ongoing problems associated with Iran‚Äôs missile testing program. If Iranian missile accuracy is off even slightly, the Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, or Syrians may pay a higher price for an Iranian nuclear strike than the Israelis. This problem is further compounded because, unlike Israel, none of the Arab countries has a modern civil defense system to shelter populations, and certainly no ballistic missile defense program. While it is conceivable that Iran might accept the deaths of a large number of Muslims, such a decision would not be taken lightly by Iranian leadership and is not consistent with their nonstop statements of concern for the Palestinians.
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Additionally, some of the leadership in Tehran could be expected to have reservations about any attack on Israel that might risk harm to Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam. Iranian rhetoric on restoring Jerusalem to the Palestinians is often intense and directly relates to Tehran's claims of leadership of the Muslim world. In particular, the Iranian leadership treats the Jerusalem issue as a concern that transcends Palestinian national rights and is better understood as an Islamic issue. Iran seeks Muslim sovereignty over Jerusalem and not its destruction. A belief that it is acceptable to destroy the city and kill a large number of Muslims is inconsistent with Iranian rhetoric and the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Khomeini expressed public anger regarding what he called the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and supported spurious claims that Israel had attempted to destroy the al Aqsa mosque in 1969 when a fire set by a deranged person caused serious damage. In the headier days of the Iran-Iraq War various Iranian leaders claimed that the Islamic Republic would "liberate Jerusalem" after it finished with Iraq. Khomeini also established "Jerusalem Day" as a time to call for the destruction of Israel and the conquest of Jerusalem.
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Future Iranian nuclear attacks against Israel are not strategically impos sible, but there are a number of reasons to be confident that Iran will be deterred from taking such action. Bernard Lewis maintains that the Iranian regime will not be deterred by the fact that a nuclear attack against Israel would also kill a staggeringly high number of Palestinians and Muslim citizens in neighboring states. However, what Lewis fails to recognize is that the portrayal of itself as the foremost defender of Palestinians is an image that Iran has pursued with vigor since the 1979 revolution. The acceptance by any Iranian leadership of a large number of Muslim deaths is simply not consistent with this long-standing expression of concern for the Palestinians.24 The relevance of his comparison between a potential Iranian nuclear attack against Israel and the 1998 al-Qaeda African embassy bombings is also questionable. Al-Qaeda ideology has exploited Islamic concepts such as takfir and jihad to justify the killing of other Muslims. The Iranian leadership does not ascribe to this militant extremist vision and is therefore unlikely to view collateral Muslim casualties as acceptable on the grounds that they have been granted “a quick pass to heaven.” The prospect of damage to the holy city of Jerusalem (the third holiest location in Islam) is also likely to deter Iran from initiating a nuclear conflict with Israel.
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Even if the Iranians were sufficiently confident in their ability to initiate nuclear attacks against Israel without damaging Jerusalem or harming dis proportionate numbers of Muslim civilians, there is still reason to be opti mistic about the prospects of deterrence. A November 2007 study for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimated the Israeli nuclear arsenal at more than 200 boosted and fusion weapons, most with a yield of between 20 and 100 kilotons and some reaching one megaton.25 In a hypothetical nuclear exchange, these high-yield weapons, combined with accurate delivery systems, would give the Israelis the option of strik ing all major Iranian cities while maintaining a reserve strike capability to ensure that no other Arab states could capitalize on the military distraction caused by an Iranian nuclear strike.26 Israel’s fleet of at least three Dolphin- class submarines armed with nuclear missiles also provides the Jewish state with a second-strike capability that nullifies any effort on the part of Tehran to conduct a decapitation strike and remove Israel’s capacity for retaliation. Finally, aside from the credibility of Israeli deterrent capabilities, the Iranians must also consider the implications of US security guarantees to Israel. In her 2008 presidential campaign, then senator and now secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned that if Iran were to “consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.”27 Al though the credibility of such a threat is questionable, US defense com mitments to Israel are nevertheless a factor the Iranian leadership will have to take seriously.
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Myth 2: Iran is an existential threat to Israel.
This is a claim frequently accepted at face value in many American circles, but is vigorously debated in Israel. Israel is widely assessed to have several hundred nuclear bombs with the capability to deliver them anywhere in the region, and is demonstrably the region’s strongest and most capable military power. Admitting to this basic reality, Ephraim Halevy, former Mossad Director, noted, “I think Israel is strong enough to protect itself, to take care of itself. I think ultimately it is not in the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel.”12 Similarly, Dan Halutz, former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff, has concluded that “Iran poses a serious threat but not an existential one.”13
Busting both of these aforementioned myths allows policymakers and intelligence analysts to develop a more honest assessment of both the scale and urgency of any potential threat from Iran to either US or Israeli interests. For now, Iran is a middling regional military power with limited capability to threaten its neighbors. Furthermore, any Iranian attack on American or Israeli interests could be met quickly with a devastating blow from the superior conventional and unconventional military might of either the United States or Israel. A nuclear-armed Iran would change these calculations somewhat, but primarily by providing Iran a meaningful deterrent to a massive military intervention designed to overturn the regime in Tehran—something for which neither the American public nor the Obama administration would likely have any appetite.
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Our findings related to Iran going nuclear explain the relative passivity of some NWSs at allowing Iran to march ever closer to obtaining nuclear weapons and Israel’s vociferous resistance to the possibility. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would pose only mild existential threats to the rest of the nuclear club, while it would make Israel the second most existentially vulnerable NWS in the world. These findings illustrate why President Obama’s administration might be willing to gamble on striking a grand bargain with Iran with respect to its nuclear program even if the potential exists for Iran to cheat and secretly acquire nuclear weapons. Iran’s acquisition of a small nuclear arsenal would not pose a major existential threat to the United States, even though it would to Israel. This suggests that Israel might be willing to take large risks and endure significant costs in preventing Iran from going nuclear.
Our findings also indicate, though, that Iran would become the world’s most existen- tially vulnerable NWS were it to go nuclear. This might still be viewed as an improvement over existing conditions for Iranian leaders, as Iran currently lacks the capability to pose reciprocal existential threats to those countries that threaten its existence. Yet, the relatively weak existential threats their nuclear arsenal would pose to most other NWSs besides Israel suggests that there would be limits to how emboldened the regime could become. Our analysis suggests that Iran likely would not obtain nearly as much security by going nuclear as it leaders may think. For the United States, one potential implication of our analysis is that traditional nuclear deterrence policies should work against Iran given its significant existential vulnerability.
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Furthermore, a logical national security threat is lacking, as the United States possesses the world’s largest military budget and one of the largest nuclear stockpiles in the world. Considering the fact that the United States has a military expenditure that is nearly comparable to the rest of the world’s combined military expenditures, and the fact that Iran has no confirmed nu- clear weapons, it is no secret that the United States is adequately capable of defending itself. Moreover, it is seldom acknowledged that the Islamic Re- public has never initiated an offensive attack on another country, but instead continually reiterates their right to self-defense—a right that is considerably important for the Iranian nation that still remembers the devastation caused by Saddam Hussein’s nearly decade-long assault on Iran in the 1980s. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the power to wage war (rather than the president) has repeatedly and publicly stated: “the Islamic Republic of Iran considers the use of nuclear, chemical and similar weapons as a great and unforgivable sin.” While this information may make it difficult to think of a reason for the United States to consider attacking Iran, it is also important to highlight that it is the responsibility of third party agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations, not the United States alone, to ensure that Iran develops their nuclear program in compliance with IAEA policy and the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, which the Islamic Republic of Iran has both signed and ratified.
So although a renewed Shiite messianism does create some cause for concern about the potential uses of an Iranian bomb — in particular because it suggests that Ahmadinejad may be more a utopian than a realist — it is almost certainly a mistake to anticipate that Iran would use its nuclear power in a way that would provoke large-scale retaliation and assured self-destruction. Iranian leaders have been more than ready to sacrifice their own citizens in large numbers. During the Iran-Iraq war, major efforts went into recruiting young boys to the Basij militias, which were then sent to the front lines on what were essentially suicide missions. Religion played the central part in motivating the teenage soldiers, and it is reasonable to believe that religion helped salve the consciences of those who ordered these children into battle. Yet even this discounting of the value of human life — in a war started by Saddam Hussein, not by Iran — fell short of voluntarily putting an entire nation at risk. Ahmadinejad surely understands the consequences of using a nuclear bomb, and Shiite Islam, even in its messianic incarnation, still falls short of inviting nuclear retaliation and engendering collective suicide.
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It is occasionally suggested that Iran in particular, because of its leaders' undisguised hatred for the state of Israel, and quite open assertions that the Middle East would be better off if Israel disappeared, might act to make their fantasies a reality. Iran could use its future nuclear weapons to annihilate the state of Israel, unconcerned about Israeli nuclear retaliation because Iran is a large country that would somehow survive a nuclear exchange with Israel, while Israel is a small country that would be entirely destroyed. A few fission weapons would horribly damage the state of Israel, and a few fusion weapons would surely destroy it. But neither kind of attack could reliably shield Iran from a devastating response. Israel has had years to work on developing and shielding its nuclear deterrent. It is generally attributed with as many as 200 fission warheads, deliverable by several different methods, including Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile. Were Iran to proceed with a weapons program, Israel would surely improve its own capabilities. Though Iran's population is large, and much of it is dispersed, about a quarter of Iranians (over fifteen million people) live in eight cities conservatively within range of Israel's Jericho II missile. Much of Iran's economic capacity is also concentrated in these cities. Nuclear attacks on these cities, plus some oil industry targets, would destroy Iran as a functioning society and prevent its recovery. There is little in the behavior of the leaders of revolutionary Iran that suggests they would see this as a good trade.
Netanyahu fears a second Holocaust, but even top security officials say Tehran is unlikely to use a bomb if it had one. Yet the emboldening of the ayatollahs, and a likely regional arms race, are worrying enough.
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