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What's to fear?
A challenge to Israel's strategic primacy


January 5, 2006

For more than 14 years, Israel has been the primary force countering Iran's nuclear advances. Though Israel presents the prospect of a nuclear Iran as a global rather than an Israeli problem, it has compelled Washington to adopt its own red lines and not those of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

To Israel, nuclear know-how is tantamount to a nuclear bomb; once Iran controls the fuel cycle, Israel maintains, it can weaponize at will in spite of its obligations under the NPT. Consequently, Israel's position has held that Iran's nuclear program should be halted well ahead of the red line of uranium enrichment, even though enrichment is permitted by the NPT and is conducted by numerous states.

What lies at the heart of Israel's campaign to halt Iran's nuclear advances, however, is not necessarily the fear of a nuclear clash, but the regional and strategic consequences nuclear technology parity in the Middle East will have for Israel.

In spite of its rhetoric, Israel views the regime in Tehran as rational (but extremist), calculating and risk-averse. Even those Israeli officials who believe that Iran is hell-bent on destroying the Jewish state recognize that Tehran is unlikely to attack Israel with nuclear weapons due to the destruction Israel would inflict on Iran through its second-strike capability. With its nuclear-equipped submarines, Israel has a guaranteed second-strike capability. "Whatever measure [the Iranians] have, they can't destroy Israel's capability to respond," Ranaan Gissin, spokesperson for Israel's prime minister, told me.

Instead, the real danger a nuclear-capable Iran brings with it for Israel is twofold. First, an Iran that does not have nuclear weapons--but that can build them--will significantly damage Israel's ability to deter militant Palestinian and Lebanese organizations. It will damage the image of Israel as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region and undercut the myth of its invincibility. Gone would be the days when Israel's military supremacy would enable it to dictate the parameters of peace and pursue unilateral peace plans. "We cannot afford a nuclear bomb in the hands of our enemies, period. They don't have to use it; the fact that they have it is enough," Member of Knesset Ephraim Sneh explained to me.

This could force Israel to accept territorial compromises with its neighbors in order to deprive Iran of points of hostility that it could use against the Jewish state. Israel simply would not be able to afford a nuclear rivalry with Iran and continued territorial disputes with the Arabs at the same time. "I don't want the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to be held under the shadow of an Iranian nuclear bomb," Sneh continued.

Second, the deterrence and power Iran would gain by mastering the fuel cycle could compel Washington to cut a deal with Tehran in which Iran would be recognized as a regional power and gain strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel. This has been a major Israeli fear since the end of the Cold War, when Israel's strategic utility to Washington lost considerable justification due to the absence of a Soviet threat.

Under these circumstances, US-Iran negotiations could damage Israel's strategic standing, since common interests shared by Iran and the US would overshadow Israel's concerns with Tehran and leave Israel alone in facing its Iranian rival. The Great Satan will eventually make up with the ayatollahs and forget about the Jewish state, Israeli officials fear.

A US-Iran breakthrough would alter the order of the Middle East in favor of Israel's strategic rival, Iran. Over the past 15 years, Israeli-Iranian tensions have peaked at every opportunity to reconfigure the Middle East's geopolitical map. The end of the Cold War and the launch of the peace process made Iran a front-line state against Israel, a position it had actively avoided during the first decade of the revolution. The tremors that shook the Middle East system after the 9/11 attacks, in turn, put Israel again in a position in which it risked becoming a burden rather than an asset to the US, while Iran's help in Afghanistan was sorely needed.

The recent plethora of leaks and hints of Israel's readiness to take out the Iranian nuclear facilities should be seen in light of Israel's fear of a US-Iran deal. The Israeli leaks have not coincided with major advances in Iran's nuclear program, but rather with hints of an American preparedness to strike a compromise with Tehran that would grant it the dreaded know-how and limit Israel's strategic maneuverability.

Since Israel itself is incapable of neutralizing Iran's program through air strikes, the veiled threats coming out of Tel Aviv are aimed at pressuring Washington not to moderate its stance, by warning it about the real consequences of an Israeli assault on Iran: a major escalation of the violence in the region that ultimately would fall into America's lap. Whether it liked it or not, Washington would get sucked into the ensuing mess. And whether Washington gave a green light to the assault or not, it would escape neither the blame nor the responsibility to restore order.

Using this as leverage against the US, Israel is playing hardball to prevent Washington from cutting a deal with Tehran that could benefit America, but deprive Israel of its military and strategic supremacy.

-- First published

Trita Parsi is a Middle East specialist at Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He is writing a book on Israeli-Iranian relations (Yale University Press).

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