For Israeli leaders, it has been fifteen years since the sky started falling. “It’s 1938,” declared Benjamin Netanyahu in 2006, “and Iran is Nazi Germany.” Iran with a nuclear bomb, he insisted, would mean a second Holocaust. He demanded that the world should overthrow the Islamic Republic, or at least assist an Israel strike to prevent Teheran from joining the nuclear weapons club. According to the new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, and his Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, the sky is still falling. Like Netanyahu before them, they are doing everything they can to delegitimize and destroy diplomatic efforts to limit Iran’s access to nuclear weapons.
In Israel, the oy-veyism about atomic weapons in Iranian hands is normal. For Israel, problems are not simply problems; they are “existential threats.” Indeed, the politicians of no other country portray their state’s survival as threatened so regularly and from so many different angles. Iran at the threshold of the nuclear threshold is the existential threat du jour—the conjured menace that is currently pumping more hysteria into the Israeli political system than any other. As the noted Israeli columnist and author Arie Shavit wrote recently, the Iranian “wolf” is not only “at the door” it is “polishing its teeth and sharpening its claws.” “It is rushing to go nuclear,” he wrote. The time for the “encounter with the wolf” has come.
Because of Israel’s intimate ties to the United States, its military preponderance in the Middle East, and the power of the Israeli lobby in domestic American politics, hysteria in Israel inevitably spills into international politics. Combined with Trump’s foreign policy nihilism it effectively destroyed the JPCOA. If efforts to resurrect or replace that agreement fail, and Israel leaders are doing everything they can to prevent success, the odds of a catastrophic war with and in Iran zoom upward.
That is why it is crucial to go beyond understanding Israeli fears. The American public, American policy-makers, and their European, Russian, and Chinese colleagues seeking a diplomatic path forward, must also understand the three falsehoods that form the basis of Israel’s anti-Iran marketing campaign.
Fear Feigned and Genuine
The first falsehood is the idea that the Israeli government genuinely fears an Iranian nuclear attack. Regardless of what many ordinary Israelis have been encouraged to feel about their country as a “one-bomb state,” neither Israeli security nor political elites have ever thought that if Iran has the bomb it will drop it on Israel. Israel’s nuclear arsenal includes at least 90 warheads, enough plutonium for 100 more, and multiple advanced delivery systems.
Truly colossal sums have been spent on this “ultimate deterrent.” It is a gigantic investment entirely devoted to ensuring Israel’s ability to deter any potential adversary from using weapons of mass destruction against it. To claim that Israel cannot feel secure against an Iranian nuclear weapon would constitute a devastating repudiation of what the entire political and military establishment in Israel has insisted for decades: that massive expenditures on its “Dimona Project” are justified.
So, what really perturbs Gantz, Bennet, Netanyahu, and so many other Israelis who speak about Iran in such apocalyptic in frenzied terms? Simply put, they fear the loss of Israeli hegemony. An Iranian state capable of perhaps using a nuclear weapon would end Israel’s status as the confidently preponderant military power in the region by adding uncertainty and risk to military action of any kind. That Israeli leaders now decry Iran for its ambition to become the regional hegemon only adds to the depth of the chutzpah they exhibit by denouncing Iranian trickery and lies about nuclear ambitions. After all, Israel is the Middle Eastern state, thanks to decades of dissimulation, that has deployed a world-class nuclear arsenal while denying it has “introduced” atomic weapons into the region.
The real problem, in other words, is not that Iran as a nuclear threshold state might lead to an incinerated Israel. The problem is that it would lead to a partially deterred Israel. Indeed, Hezbollah’s massive retaliation capacity in Lebanon already gives Israeli planners the bitter sense of themselves being deterred from their past practice of using sabotage and military force in relatively costless ways in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and, of course, in Iran.
Triggering a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East
The second falsehood is the claim that if Iran gets the bomb, it will trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. That is false because the arms race has already begun. Iran’s intensive, expensive, and not-so-plausibly-deniable nuclear program is precisely a reaction to Israel’s nuclear weapons, its hegemonic posture, and its ruthless animosity toward the Islamic Republic.
As my mentor, Kenneth Waltz, one of the outstanding international relations theorists of our time, put it in 2012, “power begs to be balanced.” What made the Middle East unstable, he argued, was not Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it was Israel’s nuclear monopoly. What country, faced with threats it deemed existential, and which had the technological and material means to gain a nuclear insurance policy against attack, would not seek to do so? That’s why, Waltz argued, “Iran Should Get the Bomb.” I will argue that there is another way, but Waltz’s point is solidly grounded in all we know and have experienced about the balance of power and terror in the nuclear age.
Israel Will Take Matters Into its Own Hands
The third falsehood is the pretense – actively promulgated by Israeli security and political leaders – that if the world does not fix the Iranian problem, Israel is “crazy” enough to try to do so unilaterally. Last month Israel’s Chief of Staff, Aviv Kohavi, gave orders to “start the afterburners in preparations for action in Iran.” We can soon expect a repeat of a 2012 exercise simulating an attack on Iranian facilities by sending 100 Israeli warplanes to Gibraltar and back.
This is a charade. Israel is not actually practicing for a war that none of its serious military experts think it could win. Every Israeli planner knows that the nuclear technology genie is out of the bottle in Iran, and can never be put back in. By pretending otherwise, Israel triggers fears in Washington that its uncontrollable ally will act in utterly destructive and dangerous ways. The intention is to push the United States beyond whatever limits it has set on its willingness to pressure Iran toward regime change. And even if these scare tactics do not produce an American military solution to the Iranian problem, they can lead American negotiators to maximize demands on Iran, thereby minimizing chances for renewing the JCPOA.
So, what is an acceptable end game? Waltz’s suggestion of nuclear proliferation is shockingly logical, but it is also politically impossible for any President – even if “containment” as an option does effectively mean the same thing.
An equally logical vision is the pursuit of a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. That would satisfy Iran since Teheran’s need for nuclear weapons is a direct function of its competition with a nuclear-armed Israel. Israel has also said it favors the idea, at least in principle.
From a practical point of view, Israeli governments already act as if the country has no nuclear deterrent, including by insisting on the need for pre-emptive war to avoid threats that its nuclear weapons were supposedly designed to neutralize. Clearly, then, the staggering sums spent on its nuclear weapons are wasted. If Israeli nukes cannot be relied upon to deter Iranian nukes, then there can be no greater assurance against a nuclear attack on Israel than making sure that there are no nuclear weapons in the region at all. With skillful diplomacy, such a denuclearization could be extended to include both Pakistan and India.
The great stumbling block on the way to this kind of outcome is that the United States refuses to acknowledge the reality of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Here, again, we find that politics is all. For Washington to define the problem accurately would mean explicitly discussing Israel’s nuclear capacity and its regional and international security implications. But that would trigger the application of U.S. laws against giving foreign aid to Israel as a country with unauthorized nuclear weapons. In domestic political terms, it is difficult to imagine any foreign policy move more costly than that.
That makes it all the more important for those of us not in positions of political or policy authority to make clear what really is and really is not at stake in the Israeli-Iranian confrontation. We have had enough wars launched on false pretenses and for unattainable goals—Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. We don’t need another one in Iran.
Ian S. Lustick
Ian S. Lustick holds the Bess W. Heyman Chair in the Political Science Department of the University of Pennsylvania. A founder and past-president of the Association for Israel Studies, he the author of scores of books and articles on Arab-Israeli relations, most recently Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality.