Israel's Fight-or-Flight Response

October 30, 2008 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation Tags: Heads Of State

Israel's Fight-or-Flight Response

Mini Teaser: A nuclear Iran may not be the biggest threat to Israel. Fear is a danger in and of itself.

by Author(s): John MuellerIan S. Lustick

An attack would also further radicalize Muslim countries and likely reduce Arab-Iranian hostilities. In addition, it would weaken moderate Arab regimes whose populations even now barely tolerate their willingness to make peace with the Jewish state. A more radical and outraged Pakistan could potentially proffer atomic assistance, or even the fraternal loan of a bomb or fissionable material. If this in turn inspired fears that, in this atmosphere, a bomb might find its way to Israel's current nemesis, Hezbollah, these fears could lead to evacuation and real panic in Israel.

Undoubtedly, an Iranian bomb might make life in Israel seem more precarious, but the aftermath of an attack on Iran certainly would make it so. Increased Muslim hostility and deeper Iranian determination to achieve nuclear-power status are potential consequences of what would be a physically ineffective Israeli attack.


IF IRAN does develop nuclear weapons under present conditions (and it is far from certain that it will), the process-contrary to intelligence exaggerations persistently proffered by Israel-will likely take years, or even decades if the Pakistan experience is any guide. And, if and when Tehran does develop the bomb, Iran scarcely has a viable delivery system for nuclear weapons and nothing thus far in the way of adequate missile capacity.

Moreover, if Iran develops nuclear weapons, it is exceedingly unlikely it will ever detonate them. It is also unlikely that they will pass the weapons along to a substate group like Hezbollah, not least because the rational Tehran leadership would fear they would be implicated as the source of the weapon, inviting devastating retaliation. In other words, if Iran does develop nuclear weapons, it will most likely find them useful, as the experts say, but not "usable." Iran will "use" the weapons in the same way all other nuclear states have: for prestige and deterrence. While hostile and unpleasant in many ways, the leadership in Tehran does not consist of a self-perpetuating gaggle of suicidal lunatics.

At some level it would seem the Israeli experts do understand this. According to one observer, participants at a conference on "A Nuclear Iran" held at Hebrew University in Jerusalem grouped themselves into two camps. One, mostly made up of scholars of Iran and the current regime there, argued that a nuclear Iran, while hostile, would out of necessity pursue a pragmatic and risk-averse policy. The other camp, mostly comprised of nonspecialists, insisted that any pragmatism in Tehran would somehow be overthrown as soon as Iran obtained the bomb-which they would then use directly or indirectly against Israel.

If Iran does develop nuclear weapons and then foolishly brandishes them to intimidate others in the area, it will likely find that those who are threatened will not capitulate. Rather, other regional powers will most likely ally with one another (and even the United States and perhaps Israel) to stand up to, and confront, the intimidation. Iran's neighbors are more likely to take that path than embark upon lonely and costly nuclear programs of their own.

We should not assume that the current Iranian president is typical. The fulminations of Ahmadinejad, which conjure the specter of wild-eyed mullahs armed with nukes, may have stoked the fear of atomic annihilation at the hands of Iran. But Ahmadinejad is merely a clever populist windbag whose tenuous hold on office has been enhanced by foreign overreaction to his swaggering anti-Israeli and anti-American pyrotechnics. Although his ravings can be distinctly unsettling, he does not have final control of the military. He is also in considerable disrepute within Iran because of domestic economic difficulties and may well not be reelected in 2009.

And, while Ahmadinejad is distinctly hostile to the Israeli state, apparently he meant his call for Israel to be "wiped off the map" (as it is routinely translated) to mean that the state of Israel should eventually disappear from history, not that its Jewish population should be physically exterminated. The United States and Western Europe lived for decades under a similar sort of threat from the Soviet Union, which possessed an impressive arsenal of nuclear weapons (though inferior to that of the West) and was explicitly dedicated to overthrowing their form of government and economy. From time to time, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would heighten alarm by casually pointing out how it would only take a few of his nuclear bombs to annihilate France or Britain.


IT IS simply not true that "Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran," as the common mantra has it. If Iran does develop something of an atomic arsenal, it will likely find, following the experience of all other states so armed in our "nuclear age," that the bombs are of very little value and, indeed, a very considerable waste of money and effort. On the other hand, there is a danger that in pursuing its current hysterical policy toward Iran's as-yet-limited (and legal) atomic program, in wallowing in its atomic obsession, Israel will scare itself into the sort of extinction Ahmadinejad fantasizes about.

There is no avoiding the fact that a nuclear but prudent Iran, oriented toward regional leadership but not domination, might enhance its prospects for achieving that goal. In the end, if Israel plans to remain in the Middle East, it will have to either make peace with its neighbors or tolerate the anxieties of not doing so. In the long run, it simply does not have the capacity to prevent Middle Eastern Muslim states from achieving a level of prestige and power matching its own wealth, size and technological capacities.

There is plenty of room for the development of sensible Israeli and international policies toward the undeniable capacity of Iran and other potentially nasty states to develop atomic weapons. In Israel's case, the keystone of such a policy is peace with its neighbors, achieved while still protecting its truly vital interests, naturalizing its presence in the region and serving no aggrandizing purposes. This will require overcoming the panic and irrationality associated with fear of nuclear holocaust. That these emotions rise so forcefully and so naturally within the Jewish state makes this challenge tougher, but not less crucial.


John Mueller is a professor of political science at Ohio State University. His book, Overblown, deals with the exaggeration of national-security threats. His Atomic Obsession will appear in 2009.

Ian S. Lustick is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of Trapped in the War on Terror, explaining its origins and irrationalities. For further development of some of the points in this article, see Lustick's "Israel: Abandoning the Iron Wall" in Middle East Policy, Fall 2008.

Essay Types: Essay