When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared
last week at the Herzliya conference that Israel could not risk another "existential
threat" such as the Holocaust, he was repeating what has become the dominant
theme in Israel's campaign against Iran that it cannot tolerate an Iran
with the technology that could be used to make nuclear weapons, because Iran
is fanatically committed to the physical destruction of Israel.
The internal assessment by the Israeli national security apparatus of the Iranian
threat, however, is more realistic than the government's public rhetoric would
Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in August 2005, Israel
has effectively exploited his image as someone who is particularly fanatical
about destroying Israel to develop the theme of Iran's threat of a "second
Holocaust" by using nuclear weapons.
But such alarmist statements do not accurately reflect the strategic thinking
of the Israeli national security officials. In fact, Israelis began in the early
1990s to use the argument that Iran is irrational about Israel and could not
be deterred from a nuclear attack if it ever acquired nuclear weapons, according
to an account by independent analyst Trita Parsi on Iranian-Israeli strategic
relations to be published in March. Meanwhile, the internal Israeli view of
Iran, Parsi told IPS in an interview, "is completely different."
Parsi, who interviewed many Israeli national security officials for his book,
says, "The Israelis know that Iran is a rational regime, and they have
acted on that presumption." His primary evidence of such an Israeli assessment
is that the Israelis purchased Dolphin submarines from Germany in 1999 and 2004
that have been reported to be capable of carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles.
It is generally recognized that the only purpose of such cruise-missile equipped
submarines would be to deter an enemy from a surprise attack by having a reliable
Despite the fact that Israel has long been known to possess at least 100 nuclear
weapons, Israeli officials refuse to discuss their own nuclear capability and
how it relates to deterring Iran.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a former Pentagon official who
visited Israel last November, recalls that Israeli officials uniformly told
his group of eight U.S. military analysts they believed Iran was "perfectly
willing to launch a first strike against Israel," if it obtained nuclear
But when they were asked about their own nuclear capabilities in general, and
the potentially nuclear-armed submarine fleet in particular, Francona says,
the Israelis would not comment.
In fact, Israeli strategic specialists do discuss how to deter Iran among themselves.
An article in the online journal of a hard-line think-tank, the Ariel Center
for Policy Research, in August 2004 revealed that "one of the options that
has been considered should Iran publicly declare itself to have nuclear weapons
is for Israel to put an end to what is called its policy of 'nuclear ambiguity'
The author, Shalom Freedman, said that in light of Israel's accumulation of
"over 100 nuclear weapons" and its range of delivery systems for them,
even if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons within a few years, the "tremendous
disproportion between the strength of Israel and an emergent nuclear Iran should
serve as a deterrent."
Even after Ahmadinejad's election in mid-2005, a prominent Israeli academic
and military expert has insisted that Israel can still deter a nuclear Iran.
In two essays published in September and October 2005, Dr. Ephraim Kam, deputy
head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a
former analyst for the Israeli Defense Forces, wrote that Iran had to assume
that any nuclear attack on Israel would result in very serious U.S. retaliation.
Therefore, even though he regarded a nuclear Iran as likely to be more aggressive,
Kam concluded it is "doubtful whether Iran would actually exercise a nuclear
bomb against Israel or any other country despite its basic rejection of
Kam also pointed out that the election of a radical like Ahmadinejad would
not change the fundamental Iranian policy toward Israel, because even the more
moderate government of President Mohammad Khatami had already held the position
that the solution to the Palestinian problem should be the establishment of
a Palestinian state in place of the Zionist Israeli state. Furthermore, he wrote,
Iran's basic motive for aspiring to nuclear weapons in the first place had not
been to destroy Israel but to deter Saddam Hussein's Iraq and later to deter
the United States and Israel.
Despite the existence of a more realistic appraisal of the actual power balance
and its implications for Iranian behavior, Israeli officials do not see it as
in their interest to even hint at the possibility of deterring a nuclear Iran.
"They don't talk about that," Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst
based in Tel Aviv, told IPS, "because they don't want to admit the possibility
of defeat on Iran's nuclear program. They want to stop it."
Occasionally, Israeli officials do let slip indications that their fears of
Iran are less extreme than the "second Holocaust" rhetoric would indicate.
Last November, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh explained candidly in an
interview with the Jerusalem Post that the fear was not that such weapons
would be launched against Israel but that the existence of nuclear capability
would interfere with Israel's recruitment of new immigrants and cause more Israelis
to emigrate to other countries.
Sneh declared that Ahmadinejad could "kill the Zionist dream without pushing
a button. That's why we must prevent this regime from obtaining nuclear capability
at all costs."
Israel's frequent threat to attack Iran's nuclear facilities is also at odds
with its internal assessment of the feasibility and desirability of such an
attack. It is well understood in Israel that the Iranian situation does not
resemble that of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, which Israeli planes bombed
in 1981. Unlike Iraq's program, which was focused on a single facility, the
Iranian nuclear program is dispersed; the two major facilities, Natanz and Arak,
are hundreds of miles apart, making it very difficult to hit them simultaneously.
In mid-2005, Yossi Melman, who covers intelligence issues for the daily newspaper
Ha'aretz, wrote, "According to military experts in Israel and elsewhere,
the Israeli Air Force does not have the strength that is needed to destroy the
sites in Iran in a preemptive strike
." He added that that the awareness
of that reality was "trickling down to the military-political establishment."
Javedanfar, Melman's co-author in the forthcoming book on Iran's nuclear program,
agrees. "There is no way the Israelis are going to do it on their own,"
That is also the conclusion reached by Francona and other Air Force analysts.
Francona recalls that he and two retired U.S. Air Force generals on the trip
to Israel told Israeli Air Force generals they believe Israel does not have
the capability to destroy the Iranian nuclear targets, mainly because it would
require aerial refueling in hostile airspace. "The Israeli officers recognized
they have a shortfall in aerial refueling," Francona says.
In the end, the Israelis know they are dependent on the United States to carry
out a strike against Iran. And the United States is the target of an apocalyptic
Israeli portrayal of Iran that diverges from the internal Israeli assessment.
(Inter Press Service)