What if our leaders and pundits had reacted to the Iranian nuclear program in a completely different way than they actually have? What if they had not viewed an Iranian bomb as an "existential threat" and instead treated it as something that, even if it became a reality, would be a major global political problem, but not a military threat - because Iran (like every other nuclear state) would never be able to use a nuclear bomb as an operational military weapon?

What if Israel had treated Iran's nuclear project as an exhibitionist, even childish, attempt by a nation mired in a deep identity crisis to exploit the prestige and mystique of nuclear power to create a national ethos of technological progress at home, as well as a diplomatic miracle cure that would enable it to challenge the West and move to the center of the international stage?

Such a reaction would not (and should not) have minimized the gravity of the challenge Iran poses to the worldwide nuclear order, but it would have left the battle in the hands of the true guardians of this nuclear order (of which Israel is not one). Moreover, this view would not oblige Israel to attack Iran.

And what would have happened if we had refused to see ourselves as existentially threatened by Iran's push toward the nuclear threshold, viewing ourselves, as the world has already viewed us for decades, as a responsible nuclear weapons state that does not threaten other states but is also not vulnerable to nuclear threats?

What would have happened if we had refused to become hysterical and apocalyptic, and had instead remained calm at the existential level, just as the Iranians are calm with regard to us? After all, the Iranians are convinced that we have nuclear weapons - and a lot of them. Yet despite this, while they see us as a military threat to their nuclear program, they do not see us as an existential threat to the Iranian nation. Adopting such a strategic view would not oblige Israel to attack Iran, because Tehran could not pose an existential threat to Israel.

Ultimately, we need to internalize the insight that even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad voiced this week, when he said that all the talk about an Iranian bomb is irrational and meaningless. This is not simply because any Iranian attempt to destroy Israel via a nuclear bomb would kill countless Palestinians, but because it would surely lead to the destruction of Iran itself by Israel and the United States. Therefore, the idiotic claim that Iran could bring about Israel's destruction does not hold water. While it is true that Ahmadinejad would love Israel to implode of its own accord, a self-confident and strong nation should not take such statements too seriously. And it certainly should not view them as an existential threat.

Unlike other weapons, the sway of nuclear weapons depends less on the physical characteristics of these weapons and much more on how these weapons are perceived. Nuclear weapons are almost entirely political weapons, built on perceptions and anxieties. This is even clearer today than earlier in the nuclear age. It is now agreed that except in dire emergencies, it is inconceivable that any country would use a nuclear weapon.

The taboo that has emerged as the reality of the nuclear era - and to which Israel has made its own contribution by its responsible behavior during the 1973 Yom Kippur War - is not nearly a normative one; it is based on political and military realism.

It is a great pity that through our own conduct, and especially the irresponsibly alarmist voices emerging from among us, we have inflated a political problem into an existential threat. And it is an equally great pity that we have granted legitimacy to nuclear bombs being viewed as weapons, instead of helping to delegitimize this useless weapon.

The writer, author of the book "Israel and the Bomb," is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.