Opinion |

On Nuclear Iran, Israel Faces Two Terrible Options

An Israeli attack on Tehran’s nuclear installations would probably ignite an all-out Middle Eastern war – a frightening scenario, but also frightening is the prospect of living in the shadow of a nuclear Iran

Benny Morris
Benny Morris
A mock Shahab-3 missile next to a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on Saturday.
A mock Shahab-3 missile next to a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on Saturday.Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP
Benny Morris
Benny Morris

The bottom line is simple and clear: Either Israel, to the best of its ability, using missiles and bombs, destroys Iran’s nuclear installations, or it will have to live with a nuclear Iran in the years to come.

Unfortunately, those are the only options and there are no others. The United States, whose military capabilities are far greater than Israel’s, won’t do the work for us (or for itself or for the rest of the world). It didn’t do what was necessary in recent decades, not under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush (when there was a realistic possibility; instead it attacked the easier target, Iraq) or Barack Obama.

The United States didn’t do it under that loudmouth, President Donald Trump, and it certainly won’t do it under Joe Biden, who is surrounded by appeasing advisers like Robert Malley, the administration’s special envoy to Iran.

As for Biden, the certainty that he will not do what is necessary was reinforced by his shameful abandonment of Afghanistan and America’s Afghan helpers and their families (and, apparently, dozens of American citizens), an abandonment purportedly based on the excuse that a year earlier Trump had signed an agreement with the Taliban to pull out the troops and Biden was bound by it. (Regarding all other issues, did Biden, when he became president, blindly follow through with Trump’s policies?)

Like his predecessors, Biden simply doesn’t have what it takes, just as they didn’t have what it takes when it concerned the policy to be adopted against the development of a nuclear arsenal by Trump’s “friend” Kim Jong Un of North Korea. The situation today reminds one of the 1930s, when the Western powers opted not to strike preemptively against an expansionist Japan and a menacing Germany.

To be sure, there will be those who argue that precisely because of the disgraceful betrayal of Kabul (where no American lives were lost in the previous 18 months), Biden will want to flex his muscles and prove that the United States is still a superpower by attacking Iran. But that’s not Biden. He will revive the treaty Obama (and the powers) signed with Iran in 2015, but with additional concessions to Tehran, or he won’t sign (if that’s what Tehran decides). And whether or not a new agreement is signed, Iran, which is already enriching uranium at 60 percent (contrary to its commitments in 2015), will continue steadily toward the bomb.

According to various experts, Tehran is about one month from accumulating enough enriched uranium to produce one atomic bomb. After that, it will accumulate more and more uranium enriched at 60 percent while focusing on the problem of engineering warheads for its missiles. Once that problem is solved, it will rapidly enrich its uranium stockpile to 90 percent, as is necessary for nuclear bombs.

But it’s not only America’s fault. The truth is that Israel’s leaders in the past two decades haven’t acted much differently. Despite all the verbiage (“We will not allow a nuclear Iran”) during the premierships of Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, none of them took the bull by the horns and dealt realistically with the challenge of the Iranian nuclear program – that is, by pulverizing Iran’s nuclear installations.

The reactor building of the nuclear power plant just outside the southern Iranian city of Bushehr, 2010.Credit: Majid Asgaripour / AP

Tehran would surely strike back

To be sure, Israel stung Iran here and there (killing a scientist, sabotaging an installation) and Netanyahu managed, using the threat of an Israeli strike (“Hold me back!”), to convince Obama to impose tough sanctions on Tehran. But deep in their hearts, all of Israel’s leaders, including Sharon and Netanyahu, knew that assassinations, small explosions and economic sanctions wouldn’t halt the Iranian nuclear project. All of them refrained from sending the air force to attack the nuclear installations. Maybe they weren’t sure of the air force’s capabilities, maybe they were deterred by the expected results even if the attack was successful. It doesn’t really matter.

The fact is, today Iran is closer than it has ever been to nuclear weapons. Will Iran call a momentary halt – for a week, a month, a year – when it becomes a nuclear threshold state, or will it forge full-speed ahead straight toward a bomb? There’s no way of knowing.

The bitter truth is that at the present juncture there are only two possibilities for Israel, both of them awful: Either bomb or shut up and live with a nuclear Iran.

Option one: In recent decades, Israel has spent countless billions (on advanced F-16s and F-15s, on F-35s, on high-tech bombs, on refueling jets and on countless other items) precisely to make possible an assault against the Iranian nuclear program. It’s likely that such an assault would cripple the program but it may also cause enduring environmental damage (a second Chernobyl?). It’s possible that Iran would grin and bear it and not respond, for fear that if it retaliated, Israel would inflict further damage on Iran’s strategic installations, just as happened after the destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor at Deir el-Zour in 2009. The Syrians did not respond. But the chances that Iran would take it lying down are near zero.

It’s more likely that Tehran would massively respond by launching ballistic missiles and drones at Israel. It would also unleash a worldwide campaign of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish terrorism, and unleash Hezbollah and its 150,000 rockets (and maybe even Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s rocket stockpiles from the Gaza Strip). This would mean an all-out war in the Middle East that would necessitate an Israeli ground offensive deep into Lebanon (and maybe into Gaza), and strikes against additional strategic installations and cities throughout Iran.

Iran might persevere in such a war for years (as it did against Iraq in the 1980s), while trying to revive its nuclear program (while Israel would do its best to suppress a revived Iranian nuclear program). Such a war might suck in the great powers, who may try to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions (as some Israelis certainly hope). But there is no way of knowing.

It’s possible that a war between Israel and Iran and its satellites would lead to a third intifada in the West Bank, with some Israeli Arabs joining the violence. Such a war might disrupt Israel’s relations with the Sunni Arab countries, over whose territory Israel’s air force would have to fly to reach Iran. And it’s possible that such a war would damage Israel’s relations with the United States and Europe. The moderate Sunni countries want to see Iran neutralized, but they aren’t going to come out publicly on Israel’s side in a war against a Muslim power (and maybe against the Palestinians).

A woman taking pictures of boys posing next to rockets in Tehran on Saturday.Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP

A victory for Islam over the West

Option two: This is certainly a frightening scenario, but possibly less frightening than the alternative: a nuclear Iran with which Israel must live for decades. A nuclear Iran, led by barbaric religious fanatics (see how the regime deals with internal opponents), might one day gamble on a nuclear attack on Israel – and trust in Allah to protect it from an Israeli nuclear response (the “second strike” capability that according to foreign reports is embodied in its submarine fleet armed with unconventional weapons). Iran’s “moderate” president from 1989 to 1997, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, once defined Israel as “a one-bomb state.” In other words, he was saying that one nuclear bomb, on Tel Aviv, would suffice to bring down the Third Temple.

But even if Tehran doesn’t at some point gamble and launch a nuclear strike against Israel – and Israel must live under the possibility that it might, with all that this entails psychologically – a nuclear Iran would severely disrupt life in Israel and its standing in the region. The Israeli and American failure to prevent a nuclear Iran would be considered a great victory for Iran and Islam over the West and Israel (much as the abandonment of Afghanistan is seen as a giant defeat of the West). It would encourage Islamists around the world, including Palestinian Islamists, to do their best to harm Israel.

A nuclear Iran would also severely damage Israel’s relations with the moderate Sunni world and stop “moderate” Palestinians from thinking about an eventual agreement with the Jewish state (not that there remain many such Palestinians). Our neighbors, near and far, would realize that it’s preferable to side with Tehran and not risk relations with Jerusalem/Tel Aviv.

Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would embolden Iran’s allies and protégés to attack Israel and Iran’s other enemies, such as Saudi Arabia, while sheltering under the Iranian nuclear umbrella and preventing Israel from strongly retaliating against Tehran.

A nuclear Iran would severely damage Israel economically. It would require enormous outlays for defense (nuclear shelters, masses of antimissile missile batteries), foreigners would be afraid to invest in Israel, and Israelis would leave in droves for safer climes overseas. Potential Jewish immigrants to Israel would likely prefer to remain where they are or move elsewhere.

A nuclear Iran might also prompt other countries in the region – including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt – to strive to obtain nuclear weapons while Iranian allies like Bashar Assad’s Syria would likely try once again to go for a nuclear capability, under Tehran’s protection. From Israel’s perspective, nuclear proliferation in the Middle East doesn’t bode well.

Time is pressing. The moment Israel must decide between launching a preventive strike and coming to terms with a nuclear Iran and living in its shadow is very near. And it’s a bit ironic that the government of Naftali Bennett, once Netanyahu’s young – and later spurned – aide will be the one to decide on the issue, not the government of that wily but ultimately ineffectual loudmouth, Netanyahu.

Benny Morris’ book co-authored with Dror Ze’evi, “The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924,” was published in 2019 by Harvard University Press and is due out in Hebrew in October.

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