A Nuclear-Armed Iran: How Would Israel Respond?

In the last few years, one of the main topics of speculation regarding a potential weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program has been Israel’s likely response to an Iranian nuclear bomb.

First, the good news. The U.S. intelligence community continues to assess that Iran has not made a decision to acquire weapons grade fissile material. While experts have estimated that it would take a couple of months for Iran to ‘break-out’ and develop enough material for one nuclear bomb, if successfully implemented the six-month, first step deal reached between the P5+1 and Iran roughly doubles this break out time, and a more comprehensive and permanent deal could put Iran many months, if not a year, away from breakout.

However, the success of diplomacy is by no means assured. The acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons is unfortunately not inconceivable. Nor is the speculation surrounding Israel’s probable response to such a development trivial. The Israeli reaction to a nuclear-armed regional adversary would have consequences not just for the Middle East, but, due to Israeli military alliances, for the wider international security environment as well.

Boston Globe Journalist Farah Stockman has provided one of the more interesting theories about the impact of an Iranian bomb on the Middle East. She argues that Israel may support the creation of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)-Free-Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East if Iran did decide to develop a nuclear weapon. Because Israel’s historic fear of total annihilation would become very real if Iran developed the ability to destroy Israel through a nuclear attack, Israel would have a strong incentive to rid the region (and by extension Iran) of this doomsday weapon.

At first glance Stockman’s logic seems sound. The fear of annihilation and the resulting policy goal, namely; ensuring that Middle Eastern adversaries do not possess nuclear weapons, have traditionally been hallmarks of Israel’s foreign policy. A WMDFZ, if successfully implemented, ensures the absence of WMDs (including nuclear weapons) through a comprehensive and effective verification mechanism. Today, WMDFZs that specifically prohibit nuclear weapons exist in South America and Africa; regions that contain no nuclear-armed states. If a WMDFZ could rid the Middle East of WMDs, it would provide a viable solution to Israel’s traditional policy goal.

Unfortunately, Stockman’s theory lacks plausibility when the Israeli establishment’s traditional view of multilateral non-proliferation measures is considered.

Throughout its history, Israel has remained skeptical of the effectiveness of these institutions and their ability to ensure regional non-proliferation. Tel Aviv has consistently resisted international pressure to ratify the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), while at the same time it has shown little enthusiasm to implement Arab proposals for the establishment of a Middle East WMDFZ.

This skepticism primarily results in part from what the Israeli security establishment believes is the failure of these institutions to effectively counteract the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Since the NPT’s founding, a number of Middle Eastern adversaries have pursued and, in some cases, developed a nuclear weapons capability despite their ratification of the treaty.

Because these multilateral non-proliferation measures are viewed as ineffective, Israel has relied on the military option to maintain a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. In 1981, the country launched an airstrike against a nuclear reactor in Iraq and, more recently, it destroyed an undeclared nuclear reactor in Syria in late 2007. From Tel-Aviv’s perspective, the country’s military power, not international norms and treaties, successfully prevented nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

And indeed, Israel has repeatedly threatened to use this military option against Iran to prevent it from acquiring a breakout capability. However, it has hesitated making such a decision primarily as a result of pressure from the US and its other close allies, all of whom are attempting to resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse through diplomacy.

If Iran suddenly decides to change course and cross the nuclear threshold, the establishment of a Middle East WMDFZ would likely be the very last option that Israel would pursue to rid Iran of its nuclear weapon. Iran is a NPT signatory and its development of a nuclear weapon would almost surely confirm the utter failure of multilateral non-proliferation mechanisms in the eyes of the Israeli security establishment.

Vindicated in its belief about the disutility of multilateral measures, Israel would likely pursue one of a number of ‘plan B’ unilateral military responses. The country may conduct a conventional or nuclear first strike against Iran’s nuclear arsenal while it is still relatively small. Alternatively, it may consider a strategy of nuclear deterrence to deter Iran from deploying its nuclear arsenal against it. While the response could take a number of forms, the probability that the response will be a military one is far higher than one centered on support for a Middle East WMDFZ as contended by Stockman.

Of course, an Israeli military response resulting from Iranian weaponization would almost certainly have a destabilizing effect in the wider Middle East. A conventional or nuclear first strike by Israel could escalate into a full-blown nuclear war between Tel-Aviv and Tehran, which in turn could draw in other regional powers. On the other hand, a strategy of nuclear deterrence could just as easily lead to a nuclear arms race between Israel and Iran as each country attempts to negate the other country’s build up; a development that significantly increases the likelihood of inadvertent nuclear launches and general nuclear crises.

Unfortunately these outcomes are a very real possibility if Iran were to ever weaponize its nuclear capabilities. As a result, they should remind us why it remains imperative to continue with ongoing diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons from its existing nuclear infrastructure.