08 September 2010

Israel ponders a nuclear Iran

There is a very thought-provoking article, Israel ponders a nuclear Iran, by Avner Cohen, historian of the Israeli nuclear weapons program, in the latest (2 September 2010) online edition of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Cohen is the author of Israel and the Bomb (New York, Columbia University Press, 1998) and the article is excerpted from his latest book, The Worst Kept Secret (New York, Columbia University Press, 2010).

The article analyses the significance for Israel, and the choices it would face, in the event of Iran proceeding to the development of a nuclear weapons capability.  Should Israel abandon its longstanding policy of ambiguity about its nuclear weapons program? Should Iran be “outed”, or would Israel’s interests be better served by parallel ambiguity about Iranian capability?

Cohen begins by analysing whether an Iranian capability would pose an “existential threat” to Israel, an assertion that used to be made by Binyamin Netanyahu, but is not much heard from him these days. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen declared so in 2009.

Others deny the proposition. Defence Minister Ehud Barak says, "I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel. Israel is strong, I don't see anyone who could pose an existential threat."   

Cohen states the core problem for Israel as follows:

To Israelis, the Iranian nuclear threat is not that Iran may one day drop the bomb on Israel. Most Israeli strategists agree that it is extremely unlikely that Iran, unprovoked, would attack Israel with nuclear weapons because Iranians are aware of the catastrophic consequences of such an act. Rather, a nuclear confrontation between Israel and Iran might arise from misperceptions and miscalculations during a conventional crisis. Israel must also consider the possibility (however low) of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch by Iran and the risk of terrorist organizations acquiring nuclear weapons from Iran.

The real problem as perceived by the Israelis is that Iran's acquiring a nuclear capability could profoundly change the region's political dynamics. A second concern is that if Iran becomes a recognized nuclear state, even opaquely recognized, this could lead to a spiralling nuclear-arms race in the Middle East.  A third is that the mere existence of the Iranian bomb or the fear that Iran has the bomb might lead Israelis to leave Israel for a friendlier place where their existence is not threatened.

Cohen counsels that Israel must be very cautious about using its limited freedom of action on the Iranian issue, and goes on to discuss a number of challenges that Israel must face in the light of this potential threat: how to organise its own decision-making processes on the issue and its multilateral diplomacy; how to articulate, introduce, and convey its “lines in the sand” to its own people and to others; what precisely is meant by terms like “nuclear threshold” and “point of no return”; whether and how to act unilaterally if Iran reaches that point of no return.

This is a sensitive subject within Israel decision-making circles and unsurprisingly is one which arouses strong sentiments. In his last interview before leaving office in 2008, for example, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said:

Part of our megalomania and our loss of proportion is the things that are said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion about itself.

For Olmert, the international community, not Israel, should deal with the problem of a nuclear Iran.

After a fascinating discussion of the history of the Israeli policy of amimut (nuclear ambiguity) and the parallels between the things the Israelis used to say about their nuclear program in the 1960s and the things the Iranians say about theirs now, Cohen poses the question:

When should Israel and the international community remove the mask of amimut? When should the world start calling the Iranian capability a virtual bomb? Is it preferable to remove the mask from Iranian ambiguity, or is an opaque Iran preferable to an openly nuclear Iran? At what point should we insist on international nuclear accountability? And what will be the future of Israeli ambiguity in such a world? Until now, these questions have seldom been asked, but they demand a great deal of thinking, both worldwide and in Israel.

This article, and no doubt the book from which it is excerpted, is a “must read” for those who are interested in the triangular Israel-Iran-United States relationship that so much dominates the shape and future of the Middle East. Read the full article here.

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