The call comes in the middle of the night, rousing the prime minister from his sleep with horrifying news: a Mossad spy in Teheran has just reported that the embattled clerical regime, fearing that a popular revolt is close to toppling it from power, is about to launch a nuclear holocaust on the Jewish state. In moments, the prime minister is whisked into a helicopter on his way to an urgent meeting of the country's security chiefs in the "bunker" of the Defense Ministry, faced with the terrible prospect of absolute cataclysm.
What is Israel to do?
This scenario is not far off - neither in the spy thriller The Chosen Oneby Shabtai Shoval, in which it is depicted as taking place in 2009, nor in reality, where an increasingly radical Iran marches toward "the point of no return" on the road to nuclear weapons capability while simultaneously suppressing popular dissent inside the Islamic Republic.
Shoval, a hi-tech executive who used to devise such nightmare scenarios for IDF Intelligence to help prevent them from coming true, wrote the novel in the hopes that it would bring the looming danger to the forefront of public consciousness.
Now, as a series of weak international attempts to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions proves ineffective and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad grows increasingly belligerent in his threats against Israel, the plot of The Chosen Onereads less like fiction and more like a plausible reality.
In either world, Israel's situation is precarious. Without an express declaration of intent by Iran to attack the Jewish state, Israel is bound to keep its promise not to introduce nuclear weapons to the region. Israel's second-strike capability proves meaningless, as even a single nuclear-tipped missile landing on central Israel can cause hundreds of thousands of casualties and bring about the effective collapse of the state.
Hoping that the United Nations or the United States will somehow save the day carries unacceptable risks (annihilation) and low rewards (loss of Israeli deterrent vis- -vis other enemies). With nuclear war at stake, any move that Israel can take becomes the ultimate gamble.
A world gone MAD
If there is one person in Israel who is unmoved by the thought of a Herzliya-turned-Hiroshima it is Reuven Pedatzur. The Tel Aviv University political science professor believes a nuclear Iran is no more dangerous to Israel than Pakistan is to India, or Russia was to the United States in the 1950s and '60s. The Cold War-era paradigm of Mutual Assured Destruction - MAD - is as solid today as it was when Kennedy and Khrushchev were testing it in Cuba, Pedatzur feels.
"Look, this is not a new discussion," he says. "The whole back-and-forth has already taken place between the United States and Russia... The idea was not to defend against your enemy's missiles, but to threaten a response sufficiently great that the enemy would never choose to attack with his missiles."
For more than 50 years, MAD has kept nuclear powers sane. "No leader with nuclear weapons, who understands the implications for his nation, has acted irrationally," Pedatzur notes.
MAD breaks down, however, in the case of an irrational regime. So the real question is whether Iran is just such a regime - whether, that is, Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are so committed to their apocalyptic Islamic ideology (see box) that they would risk the ruin of their own people to destroy Israel.
"If they are," Pedatzur admits, "then all Israelis had better find some safer place to move to."
If we ignore Iran, will it go away?
By any account, the Iranian threat is extreme. It follows that Israel's response to that threat may very well be extreme also - even including the possibility of extreme avoidance. One option is to defuse a nuclear arms race by simply pulling out of it.
Critics of Israel's nuclear program - of any nuclear program, really - warn that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by one state is likely to encourage other states to acquire them as well. (See media comments last week from Cairo about the possibility of Egypt developing a nuclear program.) So, the logic goes, Iran might not feel the need to develop nuclear weapons if Israel were to give up its nuclear option (see box) and submit, together with the rest of the Middle East, to United Nations inspections.
Of course, the safety of such a strategy depends completely on the ability of Israel's sworn enemies to resist the temptation to cheat.
"For Israel to surrender its nuclear deterrent would be to gamble on the intrinsic goodness of its enemies," says the author Shoval. "That's romantic, that's poetry. It's not anything connected to reality."
It also places a huge amount of faith in a UN that has already failed to even detect nuclear weapons programs in North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, much less halt their progress or deter their development.
Israel could take a much less drastic step and still retain its undeclared nuclear weapons, by relying on the United States to carry out a preemptive strike on Iran. But that's a long shot, too, even though Iran potentially poses an enormous threat to America.
"After having gone to war in Iraq on the false premise that its mad dictator had weapons of mass destruction, America cannot now go to war with Iran - even though it is much clearer that its mad dictatorship really is pursuing weapons of mass destruction," bemoans Shoval.
In fact, Washington-based sources told The Jerusalem Postsome in the capital are privately eager to see the Iranian threat advance to the point that Israel has no choice but to carry out a preemptive strike, sparing the United States the responsibility for doing so.
It is hard to believe, also, that a Zionist state permeated by the "never again" ethos of Masada and Auschwitz would put its very existence in the hands of others.
As former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told the Australian Broadcasting Company this past March: "To imagine that the Jewish state, whose leaders have sworn that the Jewish Commonwealth will never be destroyed again, will sit back and hope that somebody else will take care of an existential threat is simply not facing the reality of their situation."
One if by land, two if by sea
For those unsettled by the risks of a defensive posture, an Israeli preemptive strike is not a bad idea.
In "The Imperative to Use Force Against Iranian Nuclearization," a paper he wrote last December, Efraim Inbar of Bar-Ilan University's BESA Center for Strategic Studies makes the case that Israel can only deter Teheran if the threat of severe Israeli military action is credible.
"A clear ultimatum that includes an unequivocal threat to use force might be enough to convince the Iranians to freeze their nuclear program and wait for better times to complete it," he writes.
It has been stated many times that an Israeli air strike on Iran would be much more complicated than the successful bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 - not least of all because Iran has scattered its facilities across dozens of sites to prevent a repeat of Operation Opera. As Inbar notes, however, such a mission would merely be difficult, not impossible.
"Many experts exaggerate the difficulties in dealing a severe military blow to the Iranian nuclear program," he writes. "While it is probably true that intelligence services cannot provide military planners with an exact and comprehensive picture of the locations of all Iranian nuclear installations, what we know seems to be enough to allow the destruction of a large part of the country's nuclear program. [And] partial destruction would be enough to cripple Iran's ability to build a nuclear bomb in the near future."
Much of the pessimism over preemption in the case of Iran is predicated on the incompatibility of the Osirak model: an aerial assault by F-16 fighter bombers. While the extended-range F-16Is that Israel recently acquired are capable of reaching Iran, they would need to refuel during flight in order to return home again. More problematic, they would need to violate the strict no-fly zones over Iraq - meaning at least tacit approval from the United States, which would not be able to plausibly deny its involvement in Israel's massive strike on the Islamic Republic.
Fortunately, Israel has capabilities other than its aerial ones. Even before the newest, long-range Dolphin-class submarines arrive from Germany in the next few years, the three Dolphins already in operation with the Israel Navy are able to launch nuclear-tipped Popeye Turbo cruise missiles, according to foreign reports.
Since the distance from Israel to Iran is far greater by sea than it is by air, Israel would need submarine bases at the end of the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean in order for the Dolphins to pull within range of their targets. As luck would have it, Israel has just such bases - according to foreign reports - in the Dahlak Archipelago, off the coast of Eritrea; and off the coast of either India, with which Israel has a flowering military alliance, or Sri Lanka, whose ties with Israel have grown quietly over the past several years. It was off the coast of Sri Lanka that Israel successfully tested - again, according to foreign reports - a submarinelaunched cruise missile in 2000.
The third Israeli nuclear option, and the one that is least talked about, is the easiest one to deliver: the Jericho missile. In development for more than 40 years, its latest variant is believed by foreign analysts to possess a range well beyond Iran. By some estimates, Israel has several hundred of the Jerichos in protected bunkers and ready for launch, with at least 50 of them carrying nuclear warheads.
"Putting aside the moral questions surrounding such a strike," says Shoval, "there is a significant possibility that doing this would destroy Israel economically, because of the international sanctions that would in all likelihood be placed on us. Israel could actually be cast out of the community of nations."
That's why some would prefer to see Israel's silent warriors in action. Special forces, operating covertly, could conceivably sabotage a few of Iran's key nuclear facilities. After the storied rescue raid on Entebbe in 1976, the assassination of Abu Jihad in Tunis in 1988, and considering reports of Israeli covert operations in Iraq during the first Gulf War, that's not the stuff of fantasy.
"There is a capability to act quietly," confirms Amiram Levine, who participated in the Entebbe raid and went on to command Sayeret Matkal, the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. "It is definitely possible. Contrary to what some say, Iran is not beyond our reach... I've seen things more complicated than this."
Levine also served as deputy director of the Mossad in the late 1990s, but before that he was tasked with designing and overseeing the planned assassination of Saddam Hussein in November 1992.
Dealing with Iran's nuclear facilities is a complicated issue, to be sure. Asked whether it is within Israel's power to score a victory on this front like in earlier cases, Levine says, "Everything is possible. But the question is whether it's worthwhile."
An operation that would only partially destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities, delaying its weapons capability, could be the best compromise for Israel, Levine adds.
"Let's say we could take certain steps that would delay the development by five or 10 years. I think we should do them," he says, "because in the meantime, there can be changes in Iran. In our time, brutal wars achieve very little. It's preferable today to work quietly and to help the regime leave."
So long Ahmadinejad
Actively pursuing regime change in Iran is not only preferable, "it is the only possible solution," advises Raymond Tanter, of the Washington-based Iran Policy Committee. Tanter, a former researcher at the vaunted Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency who has held various positions in the White House and the Pentagon, believes America and the West are missing a tremendous opportunity by failing to support the groups that provide the strongest opposition to the Iranian regime.
"Why is it that Iran has several proxies against Israel and the West, in the form of Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others, but the US has no proxies against Iran?" he asks rhetorically.
There are dozens of dissidents and would-be reformers who are trying to overthrow the "mullahcracy" in Teheran. Some are Marxists and Socialists, but many are sincerely devoted to democracy. Among them is Aryo B. Pirouznia, head of the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran, who advocates a secular, democratic, decentralized government and a free market economy for Iran - and a peaceful posture vis- -vis Israel.
"I can understand the Israeli point of view. This regime is dangerous with a nuclear bomb, it really is," says Pirouznia, who fled from Iran to France and then to the United States during the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, he notes that most Iranians do not share the anti-Semitic fervor of their president.
"This generation has not really bought into the regime's propaganda against the Jews," Pirouznia says, adding, "There are 14 million people in the capital. But whenever the regime wants to have a rally against Israel, they have to bus people in."
That's just one sign, he says, that "this is a regime that has reached its limit. It is dead ideologically. Now, everything the clerics try to keep out is a click away on the Internet. Satellite TV is killing these guys."
"The regime, no matter what it says, is very shaky," claims Assad Homayoun, who served in the Iranian Embassy in Washington for 12 years until the Revolution, and now works to support the Iranian pro-secular, pro-democracy dissident movement through the Azadegan Foundation.
"The people are very unhappy because the regime has brought only unemployment, inflation, drug addiction, torture and repression. They have destroyed Iran's economy. People also understand that the regime is taking Iran to the brink of destruction, that it wants nuclear weapons just so it can consolidate its power."
As tightly controlled as Iran's media are - the government dictates television and radio coverage and filters Internet content to its liking - it is difficult to gauge just how deep the anti-regime sentiment runs inside the Islamic Republic. But Homayoun's thousands of contacts in Iran give him hope that a popular uprising truly is achievable.
"I strongly believe that we can change Iran for the better," he says. "Iran changed within a few days after the shah. Maybe it will change in a few days again.
"Don't underestimate the people of Iran," Homayoun insists. "They are ready to rise."
Even if they are ready, though, it could take a long time for the people of Iran to rise. Kenneth Timmerman, director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, believes an organized campaign of non-violent conflict could topple the government - but the optimistic activist estimates that it could take several hundred million dollars and up to 18 months. By that time, Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and the mullahs could already be in control of nuclear warheads.
"The question Israel has to ask," says Louis Rene Beres, chairman of Project Daniel, which submitted a report to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon on the strategic threat from Iran, "is whether the fallout of any action it could take would be greater than any of the dangers of not acting. And what can compare with the cost of doing nothing?"
Prologue: Arnon's final mission
Are all these options crazy? Should Israel reject them, there would remain an alternative that is crazier still: ensuring that the ayatollahs stay in power.
In The Chosen One, Arnon, the commander of the special forces team invading Iran, has two missions.
The first is to enlist the anti-regime rebels in Israel's attempt to undermine Iran's nuclear program; the second, if that mission fails, is to stop the coup.
"Because if the coup succeeds," Shoval explains, "and the ayatollahs know that the rebels will reach their bunker within hours, we're done for. I mean, as long as the current regime does not feel that its back is to the wall, they probably won't use their nukes. But if it does feel that its back is to the wall... There's not a single psychologist in the world who can tell you with certainty that they wouldn't choose to die as 'martyrs' who destroyed the Zionists."
As topsy turvy as it seems, it's just another of the myriad possible outcomes of a nuclear showdown between Israel and Iran - although the true resolution of this conflict may yet turn out to be even stranger than fiction.