Of course, Israel’s own nuclear arsenal should be sufficient to deter Iran, but an American nuclear guarantee would add an extra measure of assurance to Israelis. If the United States guarantees Israel a nuclear umbrella, then Iran knows no matter what damage it may inflict on Israel, Washington will be able to retaliate with overwhelming force. Iran would have no delivery system capable of striking back at the U.S. homeland. It would be the target of both whatever residual capability Israel retained and the vast American nuclear arsenal. That is a deterrent indeed.
It would be made even stronger if the administration could develop a multinational nuclear deterrent for Israel by making Israel a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Under Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, an attack on any member is an attack on the whole. As a NATO member, Israel would automatically enjoy the same nuclear umbrella as the existing twenty-eight members. Israel is already a member of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue and conducts limited military exercises with several NATO partners besides the United States, notably including both Greece and Turkey.
Of course, getting Israel into NATO would be a very hard sell, as many of the European allies believe Israel has done too little to bring about peace with its Arab neighbors and would probably condition support for Israeli membership on concrete and public moves toward a final peace agreement. European public opinion is increasingly wary of enlarging NATO in any direction, and many would find Israel an unattractive ally which could commit Europeans to fighting Arabs and Persians. In the wake of May’s Gaza flotilla incident, Turkey might veto Israeli membership.
This is why, in the meantime, the administration should go another step and actually assist Israel in developing its own second-strike capabilities further. Already the United States has been deeply involved in building Israel’s defense against an Iranian missile strike. For almost two decades the Pentagon has been working closely with Israel to perfect the Arrow anti-tactical ballistic-missile (ATBM) system. The two countries have shared extensive technology on the question of ATBMs, including integrating Israel into the most advanced American early-warning radar systems to provide the earliest possible alert of an incoming attack. This defensive cooperation should be continued and enhanced.
The next step would be to ensure Israel has the delivery systems that would safeguard a second-strike capability. The F-15I probably already does so for the immediate future, but it is worth examining the wisdom of providing the F-22 stealth aircraft to the IDF as an even-more-sophisticated attack system that would be able to assure Israel’s deterrence far into the future. Prime Minister Barak raised this issue with President Clinton at the Camp David summit in 2000, and it too should be reexamined. We might look at providing Israel with advanced cruise-missile technology or even nuclear-powered submarines with missile capabilities to enhance its capacity to launch from platforms at sea.
THE ERA of Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East is probably coming to an end. Israel will still have a larger arsenal than any of its neighbors, including Iran, for years if not decades. It will face threats of terror and conventional attack, but it already faces those. With American help it can enhance its deterrence capabilities considerably. It has no reason to lose its self-confidence. But to avoid the potential for all-out war not only between Israel and Iran but also between the United States and the Islamic Republic, Washington needs to act now. Only by enhancing Israel’s nuclear capability will America be able to strongly and credibly deter an Israeli attack on Tehran’s facilities.
The clock is ticking on the IDF’s plans. And the lives of hundreds, if not millions, are at stake.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues in the White House on the staff of the NSC.
1 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Special National Intelligence Estimate: Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, SNIE Number 4-1-74, August 23, 1974, declassified DocID: 1472492.
2 This argument was made by the expert the London Sunday Times called in to debrief Vanunu, Frank Barnaby, in his book The Invisible Bomb: The Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East (London: Taurus, 1989).
3 See Avi Shlaim, Lion Of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace (London: Penguin, 2007): 508.
4 Barton Gellman, “Israel Gave Key Help to UN Team in Iraq,” Washington Post, September 29, 1998.Image: Pullquote: To avoid the potential for all-out war not only between Israel and Iran but also between the United States and the Islamic Republic, Washington needs to act now.Essay Types: Essay