Until recently, Israelis — leaders and citizens alike — avoided discussing in public the issue of a nuclear Iran. Such discussion was viewed as off-limits — an extension of the nation’s nuclear taboo, which holds that on nuclear matters, silence is golden. Indeed, this was the practice before Israel destroyed the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981 and then a quarter of a century later when Israel bombed the North Korean reactor in Syria in 2007. In both cases, no national debate preceded military action; in the Syrian case, nobody even knew what the strike was about for months.
This code of silence was shattered last June when former Mossad chief Meir Dagan decided to voice his serious concerns that the Israeli leadership — primarily Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak — was pushing the country into a dangerous and unnecessary war with Iran.
Dagan’s claims had a deep impact. In fairness, the discussion was initially not about the pros and cons of such an attack, but about the power struggle and behind-the-scenes domestic politics of such an attack. In response, senior members of the government, especially Barak, angrily denounced Dagan’s claims as false and irresponsible. It was at that point that the Israeli military censorship — the only institution that has the legal power to control such public discussion — effectively gave up enforcing silence on the Iranian subject.
In a recent interview with New York Times Magazine, Barak shattered the remains of the old taboo. Never before has an Israeli leader in office articulated so openly the case in favor of military action against Iran, including specifying the conditions that should be satisfied in order for Israel to take such action. Never before has an Israeli leader invoked a timetable for how long Israel could wait until Iran enters an “immunity zone,” where such action becomes militarily impossible. Finally, never before has an Israel leader created such a close (if implicit) linkage between Israeli military action and an American election.
Evidently, Barak was determined to convey a powerful and dramatic message: If no other means could stop the Iranian nuclear program before it reached that “immunity zone,” Israel will have to do the job on its own. It is a national obligation that Israel cannot escape from; Jewish history will not forgive Israel if it walks away from it. As Barak put it, if Israel (or the rest of the world) waits too long, “the question will remain very important, but it will become purely theoretical...[It will] pass out of our hands — the statesmen and decision-makers — and into yours — the journalists and historians.”
Barak’s message left the interviewer (and many of his readers) under the impression that war between Israel and Iran this year is nearly inevitable. Yet the arguments that Barak invoked to support the message were far from convincing. First, he argued, there is a concern over a new wave of proliferation if Iran is allowed to become a nuclear state. Second, there is the risk that a nuclear Iran would limit Israel’s freedom of action in the region.
The trouble with these arguments is that they are speculative, abstract and ultimately lack supportive evidence. Similar nightmares about a cascade of proliferation were voiced in the past, especially in the early to mid-1960s, but never materialized. These arguments are even weaker when weighed against current Iranian nuclear policy. While Iran defies and challenges the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it insists on remaining within the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear state, claiming that what it does is consistent with its legal obligations under the NPT. Despite four rounds of UN Security Council sanctions and countless IAEA reports that raised all sorts of questions about Iranian cooperation, Iran has not been declared in material violation of the NPT. It is doubtful that Barak’s scenarios are going to materialize under the present trajectory.
However, current Iranian nuclear policy sheds light on Barak’s real concern, a concern which he avoids uttering in public. Iran’s nuclear opacity policy — similar in some ways to Israel’s own posture — is unacceptable to Israeli leaders because it undermines, and ultimately erodes, Israel’s own regional nuclear monopoly.
It is this strategic asset, which took Israel decades to build and is now so closely associated with Israel’s image as the most powerful country in the region, that Barak and Netanyahu are loathe to compromise. Israel without a nuclear monopoly is like the biblical Samson without his hair. To shield its monopoly, Israel must demonstrate national resolve, including the willingness to risk a full-blown war with Iran. There are certain ironies here. One is that an Israeli military strike on Iran is most likely to generate the opposite results that it intends to produce. An attack will likely unify many Iranians and could transform Iran’s nuclear policy from cautious and opaque into a full formal withdrawal from the NPT and open declaration of its right to possess nuclear weapons.
Another irony is that an Israeli attack would inevitably force Iran to make a nuclear decision. As of now, most analysts believe that Iran has not yet formally decided whether to actually build weapons or only develop a credible breakup option. For the time being, it appears that the Iranian default plan is to maintain the status quo and not to be forced to make a decision. After all, by being perceived by others as so close to the bomb, Iran already gets some deterrence benefits and yet can still stay within the NPT and declare that its program is peaceful. To keep a virtual (but credible) breakout capability from within the NPT is almost as good for Iran as having actual nuclear weapons and yet gives Iran some political flexibility. An Israeli military strike on Iran, regardless of the damage, would most likely push Iran to make an explicit decision to become a full-blown open nuclear-weapons state.
Avner Cohen, an Israeli native, is a professor of non-proliferation studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies. He is the author of Israel and the Bomb (1998) and The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb (2010), both published by Columbia University Press.