U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah
U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah wave during a group photo at the G20 Summit in Toronto, Ontario, June 27, 2010. Photo by Reuters
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The following scenario troubles the Pentagon and the White House: Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, or is the turn of a screw from having one, and declares that if it finds itself in a long war, like the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, it will not hesitate to use it, including on its own territory to destroy invaders. Would the response to such a declaration be similar to the one that would follow if a nuclear bomb fell outside Iran's borders? Very unlikely.

If the Iranians calculate that the world will grit its teeth and hold back if it crosses the nuclear threshold, the next stage in the scenario is that they will use their nuclear umbrella for non-nuclear action on another country's territory. In the Pentagon's scenario, whose echoes appear this month in the quarterly of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Iran invades Saudi Arabia. Or, with its forces (Revolutionary Guards ), or proxies ("volunteers" ), it helps the Shi'ite population in the kingdom's eastern oil-rich territory rise against the Sunni Saud dynasty and break away from the country.

Whether or not officials in Washington believe such a scenario, it is sufficient that people believe it in Riyadh, so the Saudis will ignore American wishes and independently prepare to counter the problem. They will not rely on U.S. intervention against a nuclear Iran, but will move to acquire their own nuclear weapons in exchange for a great deal of cash that will be paid to Pakistan, or any other source.

The Saudi nuclear weapon does not need to be strategic, the kind that requires the fitting of a warhead to a missile launched from the ground or a submarine. It would be enough for it to be a tactical weapon - dropped by aircraft, or attached to short-range missiles, artillery shells or even mines.

All these were available during the Cold War. NATO still has many such items in its arsenal. Most are controlled by the United States or Britain, but a half dozen other countries have them (including Turkey ). Saudi Arabia would probably, at the first stage, acquire such a weapon for blocking an invasion and countering a rebellion. A strategic nuclear force to threaten Tehran would require more time.

There is also a sub-scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that wants the Arabs to have nuclear weapons, takes over Cairo after President Hosni Mubarak is gone. Under all the scenarios, giving in to a nuclear-capable Iran breaches the Middle Eastern dam, whether in the Israeli context or beyond it.

Holding on to the benefits of the balance of terror during the Cold War, which balanced the Americans and the Soviets, is an illusion and a mistake. Deterrence did prevent World War III, but there were many confrontations that came close to one, first and foremost the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. A precondition for removing the finger from the trigger was, and still is, the existence of rational national leaders. There is no certainty that such leaders will head regimes (or groups ) that are fanatically religious.

The sad fact is that behind that same nuclear umbrella, wars with hundreds of thousands of dead took place including Korea and Vietnam; and there were the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and many crises. Such a situation is unacceptable in the Middle East.

These scenarios lead one to conclude that it is worthwhile to believe U.S. President Barack Obama when he says he will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Israel still needs to prepare to act independently against such a development, gather intelligence and get ready for actions by Hezbollah and Hamas, and possibly also for the launching of Shahab missiles in response to a U.S. operation. The Iranians still do not believe Obama, so they will not be deterred from moving toward acquiring a nuclear capability.