A nuclear Iran is virtually a fait accompli. A military strike by Israel, the United States or both may delay but will not prevent the Islamic Republic from eventually acquiring such capability.
Decision-makers ought to consider devising a new security architecture, one that would deter Iran and guarantee Israel's long-term survival. A radical alternative to war is required - one that would make Israel a member of NATO, protected by the "one-for-all, all-for-one" policy of the 28-member alliance.
Injecting the alliance's reach into the Middle East could provide it with a renewed sense of mission in the post-Cold War environment, especially as the NATO combat presence in Afghanistan is about to draw down in two years.
Iran's quest for a nuclear option dates back to 1957, when it signed a civil-technical cooperation agreement with the United States under the "Atoms for Peace" program. However, eventual development of nuclear weapons was regarded as reflecting the nation's greatness and its ambitions to become the region's preeminent power. After the 1979 revolution, such weapons were also viewed as a potential deterrent vis-a-vis Israel's nuclear arsenal or other external threats. No credible evidence exists that the regime is irrational or suicidal - as claimed by some - but the current Iranian leadership's true intentions are unknown and therefore Israel's concerns are legitimate.
It seems that all the alternatives advocated to deal with the present crisis - sanctions and negotiations, a military strike, or deterrence - will be insufficient by themselves to address Israel's long-term security. Even if Iran acquires an atomic bomb, it would not dare to attack a NATO member. By itself, an explicit guarantee by the United States to defend Israel might not be taken seriously by the Iranians. But Iran cannot ignore a NATO commitment backed by the full membership.
Israel, already a de-facto member of the alliance, maintains close ties with several member states. Germany, for example, has built for the Israeli navy several Dolphin-class submarines, which are capable of carrying cruise missiles with nuclear warheads - viewed as Israel's second-strike capability.
During an interview with this writer in January 2012, a senior member of the German Bundestag acknowledged his country's commitment: "We subsidize and build these submarines for Israel because guaranteeing Israel's security has become an integral part of Germany's identity."
Notwithstanding the unique German-Israeli relationship, the clear obstacles confronting an Israeli membership in NATO include: Turkey, Israel's estranged ally, the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel's own image as a self-reliant power.
Israeli-Turkish ties deteriorated significantly due to the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010, among other reasons. In all likelihood, Turkey would veto Israel's accession to NATO (all existing members of the alliance must approve the admission of a new member ). Sooner or later, however, Jerusalem will have to cede to Ankara's demands for a formal apology for the killing of the pro-Palestinian activists on the Turkish boat and compensation to the victims' families. Normalization of relations with Turkey - NATO's largest Muslim member - is a vital Israeli national interest. Such a rapprochement is also a NATO interest.
Perhaps Israeli membership in NATO could become part of the "reconciliation package" between the two countries. A possible incentive for Turkey is to link renewed efforts to seriously address the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to the accession process. Failure to make real progress on the Palestinian issue, as even Defense Minister Ehud Barak has reportedly warned recently in Israel, will likely result in resumption of large-scale violence in the occupied territories, a development dreaded by most Israelis, and could lead to a serious overload on the overstretched Israel Defense Forces. Turkey, which regards itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause, could be offered a special role in restarting the derailed peace process.
Ironically, though, Israel could prove to be the staunchest opponent of its own NATO membership. Its national ethos espouses self-reliance and the motto "never again" is ingrained in the nation's collective psyche. The notion that the international community is taking responsibility for the country's security and survival might be difficult for Israelis to swallow, especially if a genuine compromise on the Palestinian question is also linked to Israeli membership in NATO.
Israelis may have to face up to the fact that despite their potent military, the threats against their country are at such a level that Israel must become a member of a regional security system. Moreover, they also have to realize that as long as the Palestine issue remains unresolved, the survival of Israel as a Jewish state will continue to be challenged, as is the case now with Iran.
Israeli membership in NATO is a type of a bold, long-term structural solution to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East that policy makers should seriously consider as the foundations of a new security system in the most volatile region of the world.
"A bomb or to bomb" - the popular Hebrew expression meaning living with a bomb or bombing Iran - need not be the only options available.
Yehuda Lukacs is associate provost for international programs and director of the Center for Global Education at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia.
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