Israeli Perceptions of Iran

Will Israel succeed in creating a second coming of the anti-Iranian front and dragging the United States and its NATO allies along with it? How far is it willing to go to shift the region’s priorities back in a direction which it prefers? What is it willing to do if it cannot resurrect the alliance?

If the evidence is lacking to substantiate the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, regardless, this has not dissuaded Israel from imagining its existence. With paranoia replacing analysis, the debate in Israel is not whether or not such a program is even being developed but how to attack Iran irrespectively.

It is clear that Iran’s current nuclear program – even one based upon the peaceful use of the atom – has provoked a level of insecurity in Israel. A nuclear Iran threatens Israeli self-confidence by crossing two “redlines” in the Israeli strategic psyche.

  1. First, the arsenal of a single country would pose an existential threat. Focusing on Iran’s ultimate destructive capability rather than its intentions, Israeli strategists therefore view a nuclear Iran apocalyptically.
  2. Second, many Israelis believe that the end of Israel’s nuclear monopoly would terminate the country’s ultimate insurance policy, fundamentally undermining Israel’s general deterrence posture.

Three schools of thought have emerged within the Israeli defense establishment concerning Iran crossing the nuclear threshold

  • The first school sees a nuclear Iran as a cold-mindedly pragmatic country, which represents the ultimate strategic challenge.
  • The second school perceives a nuclear Iran as a reckless, irrational regime, which constitutes a fully materialized existential threat.
  • The third – and smallest — school sees an opportunity for reconciliation through mutual disarmament.

The proponents of the first school – those who subscribe to the Cold War notion of mutual assured destruction (MAD) – would reconcile themselves to the new strategic environment. For political and operational reasons, the MAD school considers military action against Iran ineffective and impossible after Iran’s nuclearization.

Constructing a New Balance of Terror

Assuming that Iranian leaders are radical but reasonable, MAD proponents rely on Israel’s ability to influence Iran’s cost-benefit considerations. This tendency approximates the Iranian nuclear mentality to the Soviet one. They assume that a nuclear weapons program reduces Iran’s sense of vulnerability, thus enabling more constructive dialogue and a higher degree of stability despite significant differences in strategic cultures and ideologies.

Determined to construct a “balance of terror” model, the MAD school favors termination of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity policy. To them, revealing Israel’s nuclear capabilities, outlining its nuclear posture, and communicating redlines and the prices for crossing them to a certain extent bolsters the credibility of Israeli deterrence.

The second school – those subscribing to the hard-nosed doctrine of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin — refuses to accept the new strategic environment, maintaining instead that Iran should be removed forcibly from the nuclear club, in much the same way as Israel approached Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981 and, reportedly, the Syrian reactor in 2007.

Many in this group view Iranian leaders as reckless decision-makers, ready to commit collective martyrdom or transfer nuclear weapons to radical proxies, and therefore they would consider nuclear deterrence irrelevant. Others argue that a stable MAD regime with Iran is impossible because Iranian decision-makers might misinterpret Israel’s strategic considerations.

Appealing to the history of the Arab-Israeli wars, several of which were preceded by inaccurate Arab strategic estimates, the proponents of this view emphasize the disproportionally higher price of miscalculation this time. Advocates of this school question the value of terminating the policy of ambiguity, arguing that even a “bomb in the basement” preserves sufficient deterrent power, whereas disclosure might expose Israel to international pressure and stimulate a regional nuclear arms race.

In light of the world’s unwillingness to intervene, members of the Begin school argue that Israel alone is responsible for preventing Iran from gaining the necessary technology.

Their optimism regarding the possible Iranian retaliation is based on the history of Israeli resilience in the face of Iraq’s scud attacks in 1991, and Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s rocket strikes. Also, they take solace in the widespread belief in the inaccuracy of Iran’s missiles and would place their trust in Israel’s Arrow and PAC-3 missile defense capabilities.

The third school – a distinct minority – challenges prevailing views in the Israeli security establishment and among the public by calling for Israeli nuclear disarmament. These nuclear abolitionists suggest dismantling Israel’s nuclear capabilities as part of a comprehensive regional peace agreement, which would presumably enable regional cooperation and the construction of anti-Iranian security architecture. However, in order to verify their basic assumptions, many abolitionists might first gravitate toward the MAD school, which they would perceive as an intermediate stage on the path toward their final goal.

For political and operational reasons, the Israeli security establishments are reluctant to strike Iran without U.S. support. The three schools disagree on whether a nuclear Iran or a deteriorating relationship with the United States would pose a greater threat to Israel’s security.

The Begin school argues that when its existence is at stake, Israel does not need permission from anyone to determine its own fate.

The MAD group is probably opposed to an attack, in light of Washington’s reservations. After all, an Israeli strike might cause Iranian retaliation against U.S. regional targets, increase anti-Americanism worldwide, drag the United States into an undesired military confrontation. This was clearly spelled out few days ago by the US Secretary of Defense: disturb the oil market and shipping lanes, and eventually sour the special relationship between Israel and the United States, thus ultimately eroding Israel’s deterrence posture.

Developing a nuclear deterrence posture for the non-existing Iranian threat, would run counter to Israel’s long-standing view of the “bomb in the basement” as a last resort, to be used only when the country’s survival is threatened. Alternatively, if Israel chooses to maintain this traditional position, then it will be forced to develop a new and credible deterrence posture based on its conventional capabilities.

This group believes that the establishment of a communications channel between Iran and Israel, similar to that introduced by Moscow and Washington following the Berlin and Cuban crises, would be indispensable for developing a stable deterrence relationship and preventing deterioration due to miscalculations.

In order for Israel to live with Iran, its strategic mentality would have to adjust and its leaders would have to grapple with several cognitive dissonances. First and foremost, the Israeli government would have to wrestle with the image of Iran that it has constructed. Deconstructing and reworking the image will not be easy. For years, Israeli leaders have appealed to popular fears by cultivating the specter of a second Holocaust in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is equated with Hitler and Iranian leadership as fanatical and irrational.

If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, the Israeli government will likely seek to assure its population that Israel possesses effective countermeasures and that a stable MAD regime is feasible. However, to make this explanation convincing, the Israeli establishment will have to spell out that Iran is a rational strategic player that can be deterred. Such a message would be confusing and disorienting for Israelis because it contradicts everything that the Israeli government has been preaching to itself, its citizens, and the world for decades.

Second, if the MAD school prevails, Israeli strategists will be forced to adapt to a new reality that runs against their very nature. Israel has long seen military superiority as the cornerstone of its security and its deterrence posture.

Third, given the regional redistribution of power, Israel’s military action would be relatively restricted and diplomatic channels might take on greater importance, upending the Israeli tradition of marginalizing diplomacy when it comes to matters of national security.

Fourth, Israel might have to project a new image of itself as a careful and composed actor rather than the “crazy when furious” reputation that the Israel Defense Forces have cultivated. In a nuclear standoff, this traditional image would not necessarily contribute to a stable deterrence regime.

Israel is dragging the world to the edge of a precipice. Let us hope that the more rational sources there win the day. The alternative is unthinkable.

Read Part 1.

Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint Ph.D. program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.