One of the biggest distortions about the Iranian nuclear threat is Israel’s explanation of its basis for fearing it. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cites Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying the Israeli regime should be wiped off the map, invoking powerful imagery to lead the Israeli public and the world to fear a second Holocaust. But is that really what he and his intelligence assessments fear?

The top officer in the Israeli military’s planning directorate, Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, presented Israel’s fear of a nuclear-armed Iran in a less existential and more strategic context last month. Israel, he said, would be deterred from entering into conventional wars with its traditional adversaries, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria, if their Iranian sponsor became a nuclear power.

Nuclear deterrence, Eshel explained, would dramatically alter Israel’s strategic military posture in the region. “If we are forced to do things in Gaza or Lebanon under an Iranian nuclear umbrella, it might be different.”

Another major fear, shared by the United States and regional actors in the Middle East, is that Iranian proliferation will set off a regional arms race.

Speaking at the Davos Conference late last month, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that if Iran is allowed to develop an atomic bomb, “major powers in the region will feel compelled to turn nuclear.” Traditional, new and possible adversaries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, he explained, would feel the need to match Tehran’s military might.

Although Israel is not in direct or immediate conflict with those states, the “military qualitative edge” Jerusalem and Washington have invested years and billions of dollars in maintaining will be neutralized if Arab states become nuclear powers.

Even partial parity of military power – conventional and nuclear – between Israel and other Middle Eastern states would pose a great risk, not necessarily to Israel’s existence, but to the strategic military planning it has had in place for the past 45 years.

Moreover, a nuclear-armed Iran and the arms race its proliferation would lead to pose major concerns for Israeli military planners. Since the Yom Kippur War, the last time Israel felt its existence was threatened, it has relied on a doctrine of deterrence to ward off military threats. That deterrence has been almost completely effective against state-based threats and to a limited extent, also vis-à-vis non-state actors, specifically Hezbollah and Hamas.

If Israel’s adversaries were to obtain nuclear power, the freedom of military action it has enjoyed for decades would be limited. “When the other side has a nuclear capability and [is] willing to use it, you think twice,” Eshel said. “You are more restrained because you don’t want to get into that ball game.”

Iran as a rational actor

Aside from the fear that nuclear deterrence would limit Israel’s military freedom of action, however, the very concept of deterrence expressed by Eshel and others shines light on Israel’s projected perceptions of Iran and its regime as a madman with its finger on the trigger.

In countless venues across the world, Netanyahu has laid out what he turned into somewhat of a mantra in Jerusalem: Iran must sense a “credible threat” of military action in order for any other measures to be effective in stopping its nuclear program.

“The only way to ensure that Iran is not armed with nuclear weapons is to create a credible threat of military action against it,” he told US Vice President Joe Biden a year and a half ago, something he repeated in his speech to the US Congress and in numerous interview and appearances since.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have advocated the ratcheting up of economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

By buying into and promoting the effectiveness of a credible military threat combined with economic sanctions, Netanyahu and top Israeli officials are essentially admitting that Iran can be deterred – as a rational actor. Such an admission undermines the implied irrational genocidal threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, instead giving credence to the notion that it would simply undermine Israel’s position of superiority in the region. While still a threat, that is far from a potential second Holocaust.

Nevertheless, that is not to say Israel and its decision makers would not take military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or simply to protect its regional superiority.

Is Iran even making nukes?

There appears to be a consensus in Israel and the Western world that Tehran is at the least building up its capability to develop nuclear weapons. But does Israel truly believe Iran is doing acting on that capability? Top defense officials in Jerusalem and Washington do not believe so.

Speaking at the Herzliya Conference last month, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz warned that from the moment Iran decides to develop a nuclear weapon, it could do so within a year. Specifically, he did not say it has begun that process.

Last week, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reiterated to a Congressional committee that although Iran is continuing to enrich uranium, it has made no decision to proceed with developing a military nuclear program.

What would an attack accomplish?

So if Israel does not view a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence and does not believe it is even actively developing nuclear weapons, how likely is a military strike against it? The question comes down to a cost-benefit analysis of an attack against Iran.

Most Israeli and American military and intelligence officials estimate that even if Israel has the means to effectively strike Iran’s nuclear program, the best it could hope to accomplish is to set it back a few years.

In December, Panetta said that “at best,” an Israeli strike “might postpone (Iran) maybe one, possibly two years. It depends on the ability to truly get the targets that they’re after. Frankly, some of those targets are very difficult to get at.”

Eshel, the IDF planning directorate chief, boasted that the Israeli Air Force could cause serious damage to any of its adversaries, but he warned not to expect any decisive “knock-out” blows.

The fallout from an attack, however, could very well outweigh the very limited, short-term benefits. Security officials estimate that in response to an Israeli strike, Iran and its proxies would fire thousands of missiles on the Israeli home front for months. In addition, Tehran can be expected to launch terror attacks against soft Israeli and Jewish targets around the world.

While some, like Ehud Barak, argue that the price paid at home for a strike against Iran would not be as bad as the consequences of allowing Iran to arm itself with nukes, there is little doubt that Israelis would suffer one of the most sustained attacks against civilians in the state’s history.

The head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, said last month that there are some 200,000 rockets aimed at Israel. Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor warned that if there is a war, Israel’s enemies will not just hit military targets, “the main aim is at civilian populations.”
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