Why Israel Fears Containment of a Nuclear Iran

"For Israelis, their country is too small to comply with existing mutual-deterrence models, because only two or three bombs are what it would take to wipe out their entire country."

The past seventy years have taught Americans that nuclear weapons can promote stability, but Israel learned a different lesson. While scholars and policy makers in Western capitals contemplate containment scenarios in Iran, Israeli leaders defiantly state: before containment, we will choose preemption.

For containment advocates, Israel’s insistence seems combative and hegemonic. Astute scholars such as Robert Jervis argue that a nuclear Iran might not be disastrous at all, and if handled correctly, may even stabilize the region. After all, North Korea became nuclear, and no nuclear arms race or war has resulted. A nuclear standoff between Israel and Iran, the line goes, would instill more caution into these regional rivals, as has happened between India and Pakistan or the two Cold War superpowers.

But in Israel, a different history was written. In their region, the Cold War wasn't cold at all, but rather an era of bloody proxy wars against Soviet-backed Arab countries. Regardless, Israelis are predisposed to believe that their enemies are irrationally bent on destroying the Jewish state, even at the face of nuclear retaliation. For Israelis, their country is too small to comply with existing mutual-deterrence models, because only two or three bombs are what it would take to wipe out their entire country.

Nuclear deterrence theory requires a “stable nuclear dyad”. But Israelis see themselves as faced with not a single enemy that can be deterred, but rather with a broad league of states and nonstate entities who are out to get them. Such a quantitative asymmetry, Israeli doctrine goes, can only be balanced by securing an overwhelming qualitative advantage. A nuclear-capable Iran, from that perspective, would unravel the existing balance and would leave Israel defenseless against various types of provocation.

In the summer of 1981, Israel attacked Iraq’s nuclear program for precisely those reasons. Israel's leaders chose the risks of confrontation over the potential loss of Israel’s qualitative advantage. Internal records of the Israeli decision-making process demonstrate how integral this calculus was in leading Israel to strike. “We did the [right] deed, not to allow these crazy Arabs to possess nuclear weapons,” said Rafael Eitan, the Israeli Chief of Staff, as he reflected back on the operation. “Three Hiroshima-type bombs could have destroyed Jerusalem.. Tel Aviv.. [and] Haifa” wrote the Israeli prime minister in a private letter to Ronald Reagan, a day after his jets bombed Iraq.

Israel's uncompromising approach may be rooted in its particular culture and history, but for Israeli realists, it is the result of a clear-eyed, pragmatic analysis. There are major challenges in applying deterrence theory in the context of the Middle East, and a historical view of Iraq's nuclear ambitions aptly demonstrates that. Records seized in Saddam Hussein’s palace now validate some of the exaggerated suspicions Israel was accused of in that era. While advocates for Iran’s containment refute some of Israel’s basic assumptions today, it is worth noting that these assumptions turned out being right about Saddam and should at least be seriously considered.

From Pharaoh to Khamenei

Israel’s hypersensitivity is commonly attributed to the tragedies of the Second World War, but its origins run even deeper. Jewish and Israeli children are taught a historical sense of being eternally persecuted and hated just for being Jews. Every year, around the Passover table, Jewish families recite a verse in the Haggadah that asserts: “In every generation, they rise against us to annihilate us,” and even Israel's secular school curriculum includes the reading of similar biblical tales.

In middle school, Israelis are taught the horrible history of the Holocaust, and many students make trips to the death camps. When the Nazis were faced with their defeat, it is emphasized, their leaders sent more troops to the camps rather than to reinforce the front lines. The underlying lesson is that Nazi hatred of the Jews ran so deep and was so irrational that they would pursue it even over self-preservation.

To the average Israeli, the Islamist regime in Tehran is but a continuation of that mystically unending pattern. They view Iran’s leaders as fundamentally opposed to the Jewish state’s very existence, to such an extent that the Ayatollahs would be willing to take high risks and pay a substantial price in order to annihilate it. Statements by Iran's Supreme Leader that “Israel must be burnt to the ground," or Ahmadinejad's “Israel must be wiped off the map,” only serve to reaffirm these entrenched Israeli preconceptions.