Seven Myths About a Nuclear Iran

Both those who adamantly oppose and those who support an attack on nuclear Iran are unrealistic, argues Professor Yitzhak Ben-Israel, who rebuts some of the arguments on each side, as well as what he terms myths about Iran and its potential to harm Israel.

al-monitor Israelis hold placards as they protest against a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, in Tel Aviv March 24, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Nir Elias.

Topics covered

war, strike, nuclear facilities, nuclear, myths, israel, iran

Aug 16, 2012

1. A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel. One atom bomb will destroy us.
The death radius of the kind of atom bomb that Iran is developing is between 500 and 1,000 meters (less than a mile). The estimated number of fatal casualties — assuming a strike in central Tel Aviv — is about 20,000. That is a large, painful number but cannot be equated with the annihilation of a country or even a city. There are larger and more destructive bombs in the world (hydrogen bombs), but they are not within Iran’s reach.

2. Iran will have a bomb in a few months.
Two factors determine when Iran will have the bomb: the decision by Iran, and the impediments put forth by the world. Currently, the Iranians have enough machines (centrifuges) and raw material (low-enriched uranium) in order to produce fissionable material (highly enriched uranium) within a few months to a year for the first bomb. But the Iranians aren’t doing this yet. They are justifiably concerned that once they advance to high enrichment, the world (Israel? The United States?) will attack the facilities during the time needed to produce the uranium, and in the end they will not have a bomb. Therefore they are waiting, and meanwhile accumulating more and more material. This has been the situation for a number of years already, and is likely to continue as long as the threat of attack hovers above their heads.

3. The bombing of the enrichment facilities will buy us only a short amount of time, therefore it is not worthwhile.
This was also the argument of those who opposed the bombing of the Iraqi reactor in 1981. It is true that there, too, the bombing gained “only” a bit of time: Saddam Hussein turned to the electro-magnetic enrichment channel, and in 1991 he already began to create enriched uranium. But then along came the First Gulf War, and the enrichment facilities were bombed — thus giving more time. The end of the story is known: Saddam was eliminated before he reached nuclear ability. Our elders have already taught us: Time is not a trivial matter. In the meanwhile, “either the dog will die or the squire will die." This maxim has its origin in the story of a Polish country squire approaching his Jewish estate steward with the request to teach his favorite dog to speak, giving him money for this task. The Jew undertakes teaching the dog to speak. His friends claim he is a fool because he will fail to produce the results within the year, which will cost him his head. To this warning the steward answers, “A year is a long time: The dog may die, the squire may die, and I may even teach the dog to speak.”

4. Better to allow the Americans to do the bombing and not us, because that will lower the chances that the Iranians will retaliate against us.
The Iranians do not see a difference between us and the Americans. They have already announced — and the experts feel that they are as good as their word — that in the event of an assault, they will retaliate against Israel as well as the American forces in the Gulf.

5. The bombing will initiate a hideous war between Iran and Israel, in which our home front will endure devastating damage.
The Iranian capacity for harming us today (without nuclear weapons) is not great. Of course they can launch their ground-to-ground missiles at Israel, but we do have the Arrow (Hetz) Missile Defense Interceptor system. Given that, we can assume that the quantity of missiles that would penetrate the Hetz system and blow up in Israel will be, at worst, no more than twice or three times the number that rained down on us during the First Gulf War in 1991. Since their current warheads and precision-levels have not changed much, the damage is likely to be (in the worst-case scenario) from 2 to 4 times as great as 1991. Thus, the number of fatal casualties would not exceed two digit figures. It could be even double that, given bad luck. Even 100 or 200 fatalities would cause terrible grief and suffering, of course, but it still would not constitute a national catastrophe. Also, the advance warning time would probably be more than 10 minutes. It is likely that Hezbollah would “join the festivities” and launch its rockets, but assuming that the Israeli Defense Forces would not repeat its mistake of 2006 in the Second Lebanon war and instead would take quick control over the launching areas in Lebanon, the damage would be limited in its duration and scope.

6. Sanctions don’t help because the Iranians are not rational.
Sanctions have a pronounced influence on the Iranian economy, which is sliding quickly down a very steep slope: The inflation is hundreds of percentages a year, the fuel is rationed, the gross national product is declining sharply, etc. The really painful sanctions were only recently implemented, and their signs are already visible. True, economic processes are relatively slow, but when they mature — they are likely to even lead to a change in regime. The regime in Iran is fundamentalist but not irrational. On the contrary, their decisions and actions to date have been definitely rational. True, their goals and value system are inherently different than the values of Western democracy, but so far Iran has exhibited significant flexibility and pragmatism in their objective of achieving their goals. In the eyes of the world, Israel is already a nuclear superpower, and the Iranians are aware of this consideration — as fanatic as they may be.

7. A decision must be made: to attack, or to come to terms with a nuclear Iran.
The real question is: What is the right way to reach our goal — and our goal is: Iran without the bomb. All the military experts oppose a nuclear Iran, and not because of the dangers of a lone atom bomb over Tel Aviv. Rather, they are very concerned that a nuclear Iran will generate a chain reaction leading to a nuclear Middle East and the secret transfer (or leakage) of the bomb to terrorist groups. The dispute is only over the timing, and arguments are over the best alternative to reach our goal.

The bottom line is that reality does not support either of the two platforms taken by the hard-line supporters and opposers of an assault in Iran. There are supporters who view an assault as imperative, more important than anything else, and ignore the rest of the considerations. Then there are the opposers who tend to view an attack as a national disaster. Neither side is grounded in reality. Nuclear Iran is a very complex, nuanced issue, with pros and cons on both sides.

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