Israel ponders a nuclear Iran

By Avner Cohen | August 17, 2010

Of all the international nuclear-related challenges facing Israel, the most urgent and important is the possibility of a nuclear Iran.1 Israel’s intense response to Iran tells us much about Israel’s own existential predicament. The consensus in Israel is that the advent of a nuclear Iran, albeit depending on what this would mean exactly, would pose an unprecedented threat to Israel. For the first time, Israel would confront a hostile state in the region that possesses nuclear weapons.

Is a nuclear Iran an existential threat? Often the phrase used to characterize the gravity of a nuclear Iran to Israel is “existential threat.” But there is no consensus or clarity among Israelis on this term. Until his election in early 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commonly used this phrase, implying that Israel should be committed to prevent the rise of a nuclear Iran, preferably with cooperation with others but, if necessary, on its own. (Since his election, however, Netanyahu appears to be minimizing the use of this phrase in his public speeches.)2

Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s national security adviser, continues to use this phrase, however, when he refers to preventing Iran from manufacturing nuclear weapons as an “existential imperative.”3 More recently, Mossad’s head, General Meir Dagan, whose organization has the overall responsibility of the Israeli effort to prevent Iran from acquiring such weapons, claimed that if and when Iran developed such weapons, it would pose “a significant existential threat to the state of Israel.”4 Some American civilian and military leaders reiterate this language. For example, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared in November 2009 that it is clear to him “a nuclear weapon in Iran is an existential threat to Israel.”5

But other Israeli national leaders have reservations about using the term existential threat in public. Ehud Barak, the Israeli minister of defense, was cited as declaring, “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,” although he did note that Iran was a challenge to the whole world.6 Others, among them the current opposition leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, and President Shimon Peres, have also expressed misgivings about this term, making the point that they refuse to legitimize statements to the effect that “Israel cannot live” with a nuclear Iran. They all insist that Israel is a strong state and it could protect itself under any circumstances.7

In any way, the Israeli reference to Iran as an existential threat is based on the connection Israelis make between the Iranian regime and its determined pursuit of a nuclear-weapons capability and the regime’s extreme open hostility toward Israel, particularly its rejection of its legitimacy as a state.8 The Israeli-based assessment sees Iran’s strategic intentions and capabilities as well formed, homogenous, and well defined, even as it sees Iran as occasionally amorphous and hesitant on matters of political tactics. That is, Israel views Iran as pursuing a full nuclear-weapons capability but also as flexible in the way it manages its strategic pursuit.9 Furthermore, Israelis’ assessments of Iran tend to be more alarmist than those of other countries. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran in November 2007, which concluded that Iran had halted its overt nuclear weaponization work in 2003, did not alter Israel’s basic assessment.10

In regard to the second issue, there is an abundance of evidence of the Iranian government’s extreme hostility toward Israel. This has been true since the Islamic revolution, but it became more pronounced after the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran. From a historical perspective, Ahmadinejad’s statements are a return to the old Arab discourse about the destruction of the Zionist entity, although this discourse is hardly ever found anymore in the Sunni Arab world (some would argue that this is partly due to the existence of the Israeli bomb). The difference between the anti-Israeli rhetoric in Ben-Gurion’s era and today’s is that now, for the first time, such threats are voiced by a president of a state that is seriously pursuing a nuclear-weapons capability. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is combined with Iran’s increasing involvement in other parts of the Middle East, most visibly through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.11

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.12 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.

In the Israeli view, Iran’s acquiring a nuclear capability could profoundly change the region’s political dynamics. As Uzi Arad pointed out, “We cannot live with a nuclear Iran because a nuclear Middle East would not be the same as the cold war nuclear stalemate. A nuclear Middle East would become a multi-nuclear Middle East, with all that entails.” Specifically, the first area of concern is that nuclear weapons could exacerbate concerns about other aspects of Iran’s foreign and defense policies by giving rise to more risk-prone and aggressive strategies. A nuclear Iran would pressure the Palestinians and possibly other Arabs (e.g., Syria) to take more extreme positions that would encourage terrorism and make peace negotiations with Israel even more difficult. Under the shadow of its bomb, Iran could become a source of political and military adventurism in the region. Furthermore, a mutual assured destruction (MAD) deterrent situation between Israel and Iran could be destabilizing, owing to the differences in size and population of Iran and Israel. Mutual hostility and the lack of communication between the two states would further increase the danger.13

The second concern is that if Iran becomes a recognized nuclear state, even opaquely recognized, this could lead to a spiraling nuclear-arms race in the Middle East.14 Israelis believe that a nuclear Iran would be dangerous because it would undermine the subtle nuclear order currently existing in the Middle East under the facade of Israeli nuclear opacity, possibly even unraveling it. A nuclear Iran would be the end of Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region. Israel would have to declare its capability.15

The third concern is the social and psychological impact that a MAD-like balance of terror with Iran might have on the Israeli public and its psyche.16 Some Israeli public figures who push the politics of Iranian scare (such as former Deputy Minister of Defense Ephraim Sneh, journalist Ari Shavit, and academic historian Benny Morris) assert that Iran might be able to “wipe the Zionist state off the map” without actually dropping the bomb.17 That is, the mere existence of the Iranian bomb or the fear that Iran has the bomb, they argue, might lead Israelis to leave Israel for a friendlier place where their existence is not threatened. After the Holocaust, Sneh argues, Jews would have no desire to live in the shadow of an Iranian bomb, waiting for another Holocaust. Those who have the means to leave would leave. Likud Party leader and Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has pushed this line of reasoning to its ultimate limit by comparing Ahmadinejad with Hitler.18

The Iranian Challenge

From an Israeli perspective, perhaps the most fundamental feature of dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue is understanding the nature of the problem and internalizing Israeli political and military limitations of acting alone. One may call it the choice between going alone versus forming an alliance. The Israeli government realizes that the challenge the Iranian nuclear issue poses to Israel will force it to think in a way very different from the familiar old way Israel used to think about its national security. Israel has very limited room to act truly alone on this issue. Israel must act on this issue with others, mostly the United States. While Israel is a major stakeholder on the Iranian issue, major decisions are ultimately made by others. Its power of dissent is limited, and Israel must be very cautious about using its limited freedom of action on the Iranian issue. Making mistakes on this matter could even be catastrophic.

To illustrate this point, one should compare the situation today with the situation in 1981 when Israel decided unilaterally to strike the Iraqi Osiraq reactor. An examination of the two cases shows that the difference is more striking than the resemblance. In 1981, Israel found itself virtually alone in dealing with the Iraqi nuclear issue. The international community did not consider the Iraqi nuclear issue to be an international problem. Furthermore, in 1981 the nature of the Iraqi nuclear program vis-a-vis Israel’s military capabilities left Israel with sufficient latitude to confront its dilemmas on its own. Prime Minister Menachem Begin consulted no one but his own cabinet. While the risks and uncertainties Israel was facing in 1981 were significant, Israel was in a position to take action on its own. A success or failure would have been Israel’s own.

The fundamentals of the situation with Iran today are radically different at least in four major respects. First, while Israel may see itself as being at the forefront of the Iranian nuclear threat, possibly the only country that may be existentially threatened by Iran, Israel is surely not alone in confronting the problem. In contrast with the situation in 1981, the Iranian issue has been dealt with as a collective global issue almost from the start. Second, the Iranian nuclear program is built geographically and organizationally in a way that makes it extremely difficult to be addressed by a country such as Israel. Third, the intensity of the expected Iranian retaliation if it were attacked would be much different. Fourth, due to distance and geography, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Israel to take action unilaterally against Iran. Due to these reasons (and more), Israel’s military option of acting alone is limited and difficult. The incentive for Israel to form a coalition with others is unprecedented.

With this in mind, one could sketch the basic dilemmas Israel has to confront. The closer that Iran is perceived to acquiring nuclear weapons, the more urgent it will be for Israel to draw its red lines, including its policy of nuclear ambiguity, otherwise known as amimut. As Iran has been crossing one technological milestone after another and as its enrichment program becomes almost a fait accompli, these policy challenges for Israel become more acute. The challenges I outline here are not ordered in chronological order but in a conceptual or logical order. In reality, decision makers could deal simultaneously with all these challenges. Stripped to their conceptual essentials, these challenges are as follows.19

The first challenge is organizing the Israeli decision-making process itself and the bilateral and multilateral politics surrounding it. Given the fundamental realization that Israel’s ability to act alone is limited and that it must act primarily with others on this issue, the first challenge is organizing the national decision-making system in a manner that is adequate to the problem. One aspect of the problem, for example, is dealing with the nation’s so-called lines in the sand: how to articulate, introduce, and convey them to its own people and to others. Israel’s leaders would also have to decide how much they are willing to compromise their own perspective and freedom of action in favor of keeping a coalition with others; how much they are willing to discuss with others the limits to their tolerance and the relevant intelligence, especially with the United States as well as other key allies. Moreover, since any diplomatic deal with Iran would entail a compromise, Israel would have to find channels to consult and convey to its close allies, especially the United States, what kind of compromise it could and could not accept.20

While Israeli assessments have determined that Iran is involved with various aspects of nuclear weaponization, the overall Israeli concern with the Iranian nuclear program has focused on its fissile material (currently uranium enrichment) capability.21 In the past, when Israeli officials used the phrase “point of no return,” it generally meant the point at which Iran would have mastered centrifuge technology. The implication was that once Iran mastered in full the enrichment technology, it would become a nuclear weapons-capable state, which would be a point of no return. But after criticism from both inside and outside the intelligence community that the term was conceptually and politically flawed, it was dropped.22 Israel now uses the phrase “technological threshold.” In July 2009, Arad referred specifically to this terminological/definitional issue:

The point of nuclear no-return was defined as the point at which Iran has the ability to complete the cycle of nuclear fuel production on its own; the point at which it has all the elements to produce fissionable material without depending on outsiders. Iran is now there. I don’t know if it has mastered all the technologies, but it is more or less there. However, the term “no-return” is misleading. Even if Iran has fissionable material for one bomb, it is still at a low grade of enrichment. And if it wants to conduct a test, it will not have even one bomb. It follows that Iran is not yet nuclear and not yet operational. Serious obstacles still lie in the way. The international community still has enough time to make it stop of its own volition.23

Israelis insist that even though a technological threshold is not equivalent to weapons capability, politically and strategically the conceptual difference between the two is misleading. Once the technological threshold has been reached and mastered, it would be much more difficult for intelligence agencies to ascertain the precise status of the Iranian nuclear program. Accordingly, the Israeli intelligence community rejected the implicit definition in the November 2007 NIE that weaponization is the defining feature of a nuclear-weapons program.24 One wonders to what extent might Israel assess Iran’s nuclear program by drawing on its own nuclear history.

At the time of this writing it appears that Iran has crossed that threshold and has made enrichment a fait accompli. Mastery of enrichment no longer appears to be a feasible line in the sand, even if it remains a formal demand of the United Nations Security Council. Even if a deal with Iran had been possible, Iran would have used it to legitimize its domestic enrichment activities.

The second challenge Israel may face is whether and how to act unilaterally if Iran reaches Israel’s point of no return. So far Iran continues to defy the will of the Security Council on the matter of enrichment, having mastered enrichment technology to the industrial level. If the international community either proves powerless to enforce those Security Council resolutions or reaches a deal with Iran that places it too close to manufacturing a bomb, Israel would face a difficult decision either to follow the lead of the international community and accept a nuclear Iran (by Israeli definition) or to take independent action and forestall the Iran nuclear program. That decision would amount to a strategic choice between prevention and deterrence. It would test Israel’s commitment to the 1981 Begin Doctrine: the commitment to take preventive action, including military action, against any hostile neighbor close to acquiring nuclear weapons.25

This obviously is a very sensitive issue, and little of the behind-the-scenes deliberations has been leaked. Israeli leaders have tended to keep silent on this subject, and when Minister Shaul Mofaz warned in June 2008 that Israel could not accept a nuclear Iran–implying that military action would be necessary–he was criticized.26 Against this official policy of silence, then, it was surprising that in his final interview before departing from office on the eve of the Jewish New Year (late September 2008), Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed openly as “megalomania” any thought that Israel should or would attack Iran on its own to halt its nuclear program: “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.” It is the international community, and not Israel, that should deal with Iran’s nuclear issue.27

Of course, if Iran openly acquired nuclear weapons and clearly signaled its intent by withdrawing from the NPT, it would simplify Israel’s choices by posing a more clear-cut casus belli and creating more international support for preemption. In addition to deciding whether to take military action, Israel would have to decide whether to change its own bargain with the bomb, that is, whether to adopt an overt deterrence policy and to dispense with amimut. There were some indications that Prime Minister Netanyahu entertained this seriously at one time. Notwithstanding the common wisdom in Israel that if Iran tested a weapon, Israel would have to follow suit in some fashion, Israeli policymakers might still see more benefit in not testing and letting Iran bear the brunt of international opprobrium if it declared its nuclear capability. In any case, Israel’s reaction to Iran’s departure from the NPT or even testing a device would not be automatic.

Apart from the need to overcome a domestic impulse to trade an eye for an eye, an overt weapons posture by Iran would simplify Israel’s options for deterrence and containment. At a minimum, Israel would make sure that the Iranians had no doubt about their ability to devastate Iran in retaliation, including using its sea-based assets. Israel also would strengthen its missile defense and pursue civil defense measures as a means of deterrence by denial. On the diplomatic front, it would amplify its efforts to sanction Iran and to deny it all trade that could assist its weapons capability.

Another, longer-term challenge pertains to deterrence, arms control, and containment. If prevention ultimately fails and a new kind of nuclear regime takes shape in the Middle East, how should Israel respond? During the height of the Cold War, as the world learned to live under the balance of MAD, the theory and practice of arms control were developed to provide a modicum of stability. But those dialogues took place against the declared presence of nuclear weapons. Would it be possible to have such a dialogue in a context of amimut on both sides? How would a conversation about nuclear weapons be possible when neither side acknowledged having them?

Apart from the political costs of diplomatically engaging Iran–for which there currently is almost no support in Israel–diplomatic engagement presents other difficulties, as it would be perceived as accepting, and thereby legitimizing, Iran’s nuclear capability. On the surface, as long as Ahmadinejad remains in power in Tehran, the issue of engagement is moot, since anti-Zionism is central to his and other hardliners’ worldview.

If prevention fails, it currently is unlikely that Israelis would propose arms control as a solution. In the face of a nuclear-capable and hostile Iran, the feasibility of changes in amimut would be unlikely. In theory, Israelis may prefer having no nuclear-weapons states in the Middle East, compared with there being two. But given Iran’s record and its anti-Israel posture, Israelis would not trust Iran to comply with disarmament measures. This distrust would be difficult to overcome, particularly because the traditional view of nuclear disarmament in the Middle East is based solely on the vision of a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWZ). The problem is that the NWZ vision is only a vision and thus is not anchored in the current political reality of the Middle East. For Israel, a NWZ is conditioned on peaceful relations among all the members of the region, which does not appear possible under the current regime in Tehran.

Still, under different political circumstances in Iran, with a different governing group, a new regional grand deal might be possible. If leaders think creatively, other conceivable versions of arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation might be compatible with the region as it is.

The Irony of Amimut

On May 30, 1961, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, met to discuss the future of the Dimona project, the secret Israeli nuclear project that had been discovered by U.S. intelligence only a few months earlier and that Kennedy opposed.28 Ben-Gurion had repeatedly pledged to Kennedy, both publicly and privately, that the Dimona project was for peaceful purposes only, but Kennedy was not convinced.

The minutes of the meeting were classified for some 30 years on both sides of the Atlantic, and not until the mid-1990s were they released for publication.29 The two leaders spent only the first 15 minutes of the meeting on the nuclear issue. Kennedy emphasized the importance of the Israeli pledge that the atomic initiative was for peaceful purposes only and also the importance of this commitment being not only stated but also seen by visitors. In response, Ben-Gurion told Kennedy about Israel’s future energy problems, repeated his pledge that Dimona was for peaceful purposes, added a caveat, and concluded in a somewhat vague manner:

We are asked whether it is for peace. For the time being the only purposes are for peace. Not now but after three or four years we shall have a pilot plant for separation, which is needed anyway for a power reactor. There is no such intention now, not for four or five years. But we will see what happens in the Middle East. It does not depend on us. Maybe Russia won’t give bombs to China or Egypt, but maybe Egypt will develop them herself.30

I recalled Ben-Gurion’s statement in February 2007 when I heard Ali Larijani (then the secretary-general of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and the head of its nuclear negotiating team) declare in public that Iran’s nuclear program is currently for peaceful purposes only, but as far as the future is concerned, he continued, nobody knows what is in store. If Iran is threatened, everything is open. It was not difficult to see the historical resemblance between Iran’s nuclear situation today and Israel’s nuclear situation in the early 1960s: both countries with an ambitious national nuclear initiative designed to create a nuclear-weapons option, but without a good idea yet of how far it could go. As was the case in Israel in the early to mid-1960s, the Iranians today seems to be committed to obtaining some sort of nuclear-weapons capability, but despite their determination, they still have no idea how far they will be able to push.

Important historical differences in the two countries’ nuclear situation make the Iranian pursuit easier in one way and more difficult in another. Technologically, today it is far easier to acquire nuclear weapons than it was in the early to mid-1960s, when only four countries had such weapons. Politically, however, now we have the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Apart from its political pledges to the United States, Israel is sovereign in terms of law and international norms and thus is free to pursue its nuclear ambitions, albeit secretly. Dimona has never been controlled by anything like the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). All Israel has had to deal with are the United States’ visits to Dimona, whose ground rules it controlled and which ended with the Nixon-Meir amimut deal in 1969. There was nothing illegal, or even improper, about having an opaque nuclear capability.

This is not the case with Iran today. Iran is a signatory to the NPT; that is, it has a legal obligation not to develop nuclear weapons. Iran also is under both the IAEA’s safeguards and today’s verification technology. With today’s technology, it is exceedingly difficult to disguise highly enriched uranium (HEU) production, even in small amounts, particularly because on-site environmental sampling (e.g., swipe samples) is now part of the IAEA’s accepted procedures. Thus, Iran will have difficulty hiding its production of HEU. But if Iran has undeclared secret enrichment facilities–a severe violation of its obligation under the NPT–the IAEA’s technology would be incapable of detecting this activity.

All signs indicate that, at the least, Iran wants to come very close to the nuclear-weapons threshold by maintaining a large-scale enrichment capability (while keeping enrichment at a low level) and keeping its weaponization activities secret. The Iranian political leadership may look at a nuclear Israel today and hope that they could follow the same course. But in reality, even apart from the Nixon-Meir political deal that relieved Israel from any doubts about going nuclear, Iran will have more difficulty doing likewise. Only by massive deception–say, by building large-scale undeclared enrichment facilities–could Iran develop nuclear weapons while still subscribing to the NPT. In sum, it would be difficult and politically dangerous for Iran to mimic Israel.

The worry about Iran’s enrichment at an industrial-scale capacity, what Israeli intelligence refers to as the technological threshold, is not that it can lead to secret nuclear weapons but that large-scale, low-enriched uranium (LEU) enrichment capabilities can quickly be reconfigured into a HEU mode of production, thereby giving little lead time to the international community. If Iran withdraws from the NPT that would clearly be a sign of nonpeaceful intent. It thus is a breakout that is the main worry. In contrast, Israel has never been under safeguards, so nuclear weapons under amimut always have been an option. Iran may create its own nuclear opacity, and the political differences between an actual bomb and industrial production are not significant for a country that chooses a strategy of opacity.

Again the question that dominates the Israeli discourse about Iran: How should Israel react to the emergence of an opaquely nuclear Iran? This depends on what is meant by a “nuclear Iran.” According to my analysis, as long as Iran remains within the NPT’s boundaries, there probably would never be a nuclear Iran, insofar as that means an Iran with actual nuclear weapons, even if they were not declared. In this respect, much of the Israeli discourse on a nuclear Iran is a scare campaign, which says more about the Israeli psyche than about Iran.

We are likely to face a nuclear Iran that develops a nuclear-weapons capability opaquely, under the guise of its peaceful program within the NPT, thereby blurring the difference between possession and nonpossession. All signs are that Iran already has that capability. This type of opacity, call it latent opacity, would be politically convenient for Iran precisely because it is a signatory to the NPT. Such opacity also is flexible, politically and technologically, because it rests on true ambiguity about Iran’s intentions and capabilities. Any explicit weaponization activities may remain concealed, disguised, or even put on hold.

Iran would gain a political advantage by having an advanced nuclear-weapons capability that brought it both deterrence and prestige. At the same time, it would allow Iran to maintain tension with the world within the parameters of its legal claims under the NPT. This means that Iran would continue to claim that its nuclear program was for peaceful purposes and that it had a right under the NPT to have access to the entire nuclear fuel cycle. At the same time, too, Iran would spread rumors that it was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons (or maybe already had) and therefore should be considered a de facto nuclear state, just as Israel is an undeclared nuclear state.

Iran’s choice of nuclear opacity would be a political challenge for the international nuclear system but even a far greater challenge to Israel, which was the first and only country to use amimut as a nuclear posture. The difference is that Israel’s amimut has succeeded because the world, particularly the United States, decided to accept its maintaining such a policy. Iran’s choice of latent opacity, however, would come after the world had explicitly expressed its opposition to anything resembling a nuclear program in Iran.

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.

The complexity of the Iranian nuclear situation is another incentive for Israel to maintain its current bargain using amimut. Israel would have little to gain by ending its own opacity, and it would have much to lose, including possibly sparking regional nuclearization and an unraveling of the NPT. This possibility became closer to reality with the Arab League’s announcement on March 6, 2008, that if Israel acknowledged it had nuclear weapons, the Arab states would collectively withdraw from the treaty.31

Israel presumably has prepared for the possibility that Iran one day may become an openly nuclear state, but Israelis agree that these preparations should be done under the cover of amimut. The strategic consensus in Israel is that it should preserve amimut as long as it can, that is, as long as Iran sticks to its declaration of peaceful nuclear activity. Amimut is not only the safest public posture, especially during times of strategic uncertainty; it is also a firewall against changes.

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from The Worst-Kept Secret by Avner Cohen. Copyright © 2010 Avner Cohen. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

1. This article is based in part on my “Israel: Nuclear Monopoly in Jeopardy,” in International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran (London: IISS, 2008).
2. This phrase was used by Benjamin Netanyahu when he was the opposition leader before his election in 2009. Others who used the phrase include former chief of staff and former minister of defense Shaul Mofaz, as well as columnists like Ari Shavit and Benny Morris. On Netanyahu’s extreme views on the gravity of the “Iranian threat,” see Ronen Bergman, The Secret War with Iran (New York: Free Press, 2008), pp. 343-44; and International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East, pp. 136-38.
3. Ari Shavit, “There Is No Palestinian Sadat, No Palestinian Mandela: An Interview with Uzi Arad,” Ha’aretz, July 17, 2009.
4. “Mossad: Iran Will Have Nuclear Bomb by 2014,” Ha’aretz, June 16, 2009.
5. Jason Ditz, “Mullen: ‘Nuclear Iran’ an Existential Threat to Israel,” Global Research, November 9, 2009.
6. Reuters, “Israel Defense Chief: Iran is Not a Nuclear Threat,” Jerusalem, September 17, 2009.
7. Gidi Weitz and Na’ama Lanski, “Livni Behind Closed Doors: Iran Nukes Posed Little Threat to Israel,” Ha’aretz, October 25, 2007.
8. Efraim Halevy, the former Mossad chief (1998-2003), was perhaps the most explicit in his criticism of the term. In an interview with David Ignatius, he suggested that official Israel should end using the claim that a nuclear Iran could pose an “existential threat” to Israel. The rhetoric is wrong, he argued, and it gets in the way of the diplomatic effort. “I believe that Israel is indestructible,” Halevy insisted. He also noted that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may tout his desire to wipe Israel off the map, but Iran’s ability to consummate this threat is “minimal.” “Israel has a whole arsenal of capabilities to make sure the Iranians don’t achieve their result.” Even if the Iranians did obtain a nuclear weapon, says Halevy, “they are deterrable,” because the mullah, survival and perpetuation of the regime is a holy obligation. See David Ignatius, “The Spy Who Wants Israel to Talk,” Washington Post, November 11, 2007.
9. For a mainstream Israeli analysis of these concerns, see Ephraim Kam, “A Nuclear Iran: What Does It Mean, and What Can Be Done,” memorandum no. 88 (Tel Aviv: Institute for National Strategic Studies, 2007).
10. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert highlighted this outlook in a public policy speech in Herzliya in early January 2007: “For many long years, we have followed Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, in the guise of a civilian nuclear program. They are working through secret channels in a number of sites spread out across Iran.”
11. Matthew Clark, “Egypt Slams Iran’s Hamas, Hezbollah Connection,” Christian Science Monitor, January 28, 2009.
12. National Intelligence Council, “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” National Intelligence Estimate, November 2007. For a dissenting Israeli view of the November NIE, see Bergman, The Secret War with Iran, especially pp. 338-40, 346-49.
13. Ronen Bergman, “Iran’s Worst Enemy,” Newsweek, December 12, 2009.
14. Yet some Israelis question whether the current religious leadership of Iran could be deterred at all by other nuclear weapons, given their views on Israel and Shiite religious beliefs and Israeli concerns that such beliefs could have an impact on Iranian leaders’ sense of rationality.
15. Shavit, “There is No Palestinian Sadat.”
16. This point was central to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Herzliya speech in January 2007: The Iran of today, whose leadership is motivated by religious fanaticism and ideological extremism, has chosen a policy of confrontation with us and threatens to wipe Israel off the map of nations. It supports terror and undermines stability in the region. The Iranian regime, in its aspiration to regional hegemony, bears responsibility for the riots perpetrated by the Hezbollah today to bring down the Lebanese government.
17. But some Israeli leaders, such as Benjamin Netanyahu (before he took office), believe that Israel’s deterrence must be explicit and crystal clear. In Netanyahu’s words, “Against lunatics, deterrence must be absolute, perfect, including a second-strike capability. The crazies have to understand that if they raise their hands against us, we’ll put them back in the Stone Age” (quoted in Bergman, The Secret War with Iran, p. 344.)
18. Cam Simpson, “Israeli Citizens Struggle amid Iran’s Nuclear Vow,” Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2006.
19. Benny Morris, “Using Bombs to Stave Off War,” New York Times, July 18, 2008.
20. In a speech in late 2006, Netanyahu declared, “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs. Believe him and stop him.” See “Netanyahu: It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany,” Ha’aretz, November 14, 2006.
21. Chuck Freilich, “Speaking About the Unspeakable: U.S.-Israeli Dialogue on Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Policy Brief no. 77 (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2007).
22. The substance of this section is taken from my “Israel: Nuclear Monopoly in Jeopardy.”
23. Ehud Olmert, “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Address at the 2007 Herzliya Conference,” Prime Minister’s Office, January 24, 2007.
24. I was one of the critics of this phrase. See Avner Cohen, “The Point of No Return?” Ha’aretz, May 17, 2005.
25. Shavit, “There Is No Palestinian Sadat.”
26. National Intelligence Council, “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” National Intelligence Estimate, November 2007.
27. Shlomo Nakdimon, First Strike: The Exclusive Story of How Israel Foiled Iraq’s Attempt to Get the Bomb (New York: Summit Books, 1987).
28. “Mofaz Criticised over Iran Threat,” BBC News, June 8, 2008.
29. Ethan Bronner, “Olmert Says Israel Should Pull Out of the West Bank,” New York Times, September 29, 2008.
30. This section is based in part on my op-ed, “The Nuclear Opacity Route,” Ha’aretz, February 12, 2007.
31. Avner Cohen, “Most Favored Nation,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 51, no. 1 (1995), pp. 44-53. Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 108-9.

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