Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defence Minister, has warned that Iran’s supposed development of nuclear weapons is the “greatest challenge” facing not only the Middle East but the world today. Because of Iran’s pariah status within the international community it is understandable that states, both regional and global, should express some concern at the continuing refusal of the Islamic Republic to 1) acknowledge it’s nuclear weapons program and 2) abandon it.
The general consensus in Israel, particularly within Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling party, appears to be that unless Israel strikes first then a nuclear-equipped Iran will some day destroy the Jewish state for good. Such is the intensity of this concern that it is believed that several contingency plans have been drawn up for a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if it does not cease enriching uranium.
What has been forgotten by the Israeli leadership is that even if Iran attains nuclear weapons, the Ayatollah and his President know that their use would mean virtual state suicide. If the Israelis were unable to retaliate to an Iranian nuclear attack, you can guarantee that the Americans would be able to do so.
If anything, it is the Iranians that should feel vulnerable to attack and their belligerence in pursuing their economic policy suggests that they feel this. Iran has few regional allies and Israel is a severe existential threat possessing both nuclear weapons, in addition to a variety of other offensive and defensive armaments bought from, or developed with, America. As such, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may help to establish a more even balance of power in the Middle East, albeit a precarious one.
There is no reason why such a nuclear power balance should automatically fail. Indeed, one need only look at India and Pakistan for a contemporary example. When India conducted its “Smiling Buddha” nuclear test in 1974, panic ensued within the Pakistani political and military hierarchy.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Prime Minister at the time, responded with outrage at the UN. He later recalled:
Pakistan was exposed to a kind of nuclear threat and blackmail unparalleled elsewhere…If the world’s community failed to provide political insurance to Pakistan and other countries against the nuclear blackmail, these countries would be forced to launch atomic bomb programs of their own.
Unsurprisingly, Pakistan did pursue its own nuclear programme in the subsequent decades and finally achieved its goal by conducting an underground nuclear test at Ras Koh Hills in May 1998. Again, there were global concerns that nuclear armageddon was about to be unleashed and that, with nuclear weapons pointing across the heavily-militarised Kashmir frontier, Pakistan and India would destroy each other.
Nevertheless, if anything was ever going to happen it would have been during the years that India held nuclear supremacy. Yet, despite conducting further tests, there was never any real suggestion that India would strike at Pakistan. Quite simply, a state cannot use nuclear weapons with impunity. A nuclear strike against another country is unforgivable and would trigger an international response from other global nuclear powers.
Therefore, the panic over the Iranian nuclear programme is overhyped. Israel is overreacting in the hope that it wins support from America for a tactical strike against the facilities of its main rival in the region, a state that supports Hezbollah operations against the Jewish people.
What we should be concerned about is the potential for nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state entities; i.e. terrorists. They are unconstrained by state rationality and have a track record of suicidal destruction. That is why nuclear proliferation must be curtailed, not just to serve the interests of Israel or other states eager to cling on to regional ascendancy.