Iran has openly stated its goal of eliminating Israel. Recently, Maj. Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi, commander of the Iranian Army, stated that Iranian forces were working to “annihilate Israel” and “raze Tel Aviv…to the ground.” Israel regards Iran’s drive to develop nuclear weapons as an unapologetic effort to achieve its aims by resorting to their use. Iran’s pursuit of that goal poses a number of problems.
There is abundant research and evidence that the after effects of a nuclear detonation, depending on how many kilotons, will produce total devastation within a radius of about 10 miles. Added to that are lesser but also extreme destructive effects that will widen the radius of impact to 25-50 miles.
Because Palestinian population centers are so close to Israeli population centers, even with perfectly accurate targeting, a nuclear bomb that explodes in the heart of Tel Aviv is highly likely to annihilate nearby Palestinian civilian populations, too.
From the point of view of a nuclear bomb, Israelis and Palestinians would not be viewed as separate peoples. Because of their close proximity, they would be commingled into one people. Virtually all Palestinians, whether living in the West Bank or in Gaza, or even in Jordan, would become “collateral damage” of Iran’s master plan to put an end to Israel’s existence.
Raising another consideration, much will depend on the expertise of Iranian nuclear and rocket engineers. Tehran is about 900 miles from Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is only about 30 miles from Tel Aviv as is much of the West Bank. Aiming at Tel Aviv but actually hitting Jerusalem or the West Bank would represent only a 3% targeting error.
How much confidence should Palestinians place in Iranian science to feel safe and that in the event of a nuclear attack they would be spared?
Not to mention the risk that Islam’s third holiest site, the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, would also likely cease to exist. And since Gaza is only 45 miles away from Tel Aviv, similar concerns would apply. In routine daily life, many things go wrong at much higher percentages of failure and small errors of only 3-5% are quite acceptable. Not so much with a nuclear bomb.
All this presupposes just one nuclear bomb. If complete destruction is desired for an important target, typical doctrine calls for using more than one. While that guarantees Tel Aviv would be “razed to the ground,” it would also provide more opportunities for any additional bombs to also miss their targets, virtually assuring that most of the Palestinian population would be destroyed.
However, this might not be entirely to the liking of Palestinians. While they may wish for the same result – killing all Israelis – they might not be fully on board as to how the details work out. Keeping it in perspective, their mixed feelings will only trouble them for a fraction of a second.
To summarize, were Iran to act on its wish to level Tel Aviv with a nuclear bomb, it would certainly kill most Israelis – but also most Palestinians. Without any Israelis and any Palestinians left alive, Iran will finally have solved the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict!
Now, shifting to the issue of attribution. There are situations in life where attribution is a truly confounding problem, such as when a serious hacking attack takes down a nation’s critical computer systems. To accurately attribute responsibility against a guilty actor and to retaliate effectively, two factors must be known: capability and motivation.
Given the sophistication of many state and non-state actors within the world of computers, capability is ubiquitous. And motivations vary widely, from stealing intellectual property, to embezzling money, to undermining elections, etc. With so many capable and motivated actors attribution becomes a very hard problem.
Moving to the world of nuclear weaponry, the number of capable actors is small and at least for now, exclusively limited to nation states. Motivations of nation states for resorting to the use of nuclear weapons may be well known but frequently attribution can still get complicated.
By contrast, in the case of a nuclear attack on Israel, attribution would be simple. Aside from Iran, given the current regime’s bellicose statements and actions, there are no other actors who have both the capability and motivation to attack Israel with a nuclear bomb.
Iran’s barely hidden efforts to advance their nuclear bomb science and their countless public declarations of wanting to eradicate Israel, and only Israel, leave no room for ambiguity as to who would be the guilty party. For that reason, Israel would have to make it crystal clear that in the event of any nuclear attack, action would have to be taken.
Israel would have to retaliate against Iran, and only against Iran, resulting in the complete cessation of Iran surviving as a nation state.
While Israel has clung to strategic ambiguity as to whether it possesses nuclear bombs, it is generally accepted that it has approximately a couple of hundred of them. There would be no need for Israel to change its public position in this regard. Israel would only need to declare that any nuclear attack against it would immediately be attributed to Iran, whether it were deployed by direct means or even indirect means, such as by one of the various Iranian surrogate forces.
Israel has emulated declared nuclear powers by creating a triad of military capabilities that include land, air and submarine-launched platforms. Retaliatory capacity is assured by possession of this triad. Because Iran’s fingerprints would be assumed to be on it, any nuclear attack no matter how deployed, would be grounds for catastrophic retaliation.
Iranian intelligence assets would now have to take on a disconcerting new mission: making sure that no other state or non-state actor gets hold of a nuclear weapon and uses it against Israel.
That’s because Israel, as a matter of policy, would have to attribute any nuclear attack on it as originating from Iran. And Israel would have to act accordingly.
More worries for Iran. When Iran makes threats against Israel showing willingness to use nuclear weapons as a first strike option, it forces nearby nations, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to build their own nuclear arsenals to protect their own security, just in case. Merely making nuclear threats against Israel expands the roster of Iran’s potential nuclear-armed enemies. There’s the old saying: “Be careful what you wish for.”
The preceding thoughts bring to mind the “unthinkable” calculations of Herman Kahn during the Cold War, adapted to present day conditions. Back then, the USSR and the US learned to manage their tensions through constant awareness of the concept of “MAD” or Mutual Assured Destruction. While MAD was not at all a comforting concept, it succeeded in preserving the world.
Adopting stern policies removing Iran’s option of deploying a nuclear bomb against Israel simultaneously saves the entire Palestinian population from “accidental” annihilation. Palestinians do not become collateral damage of Iranian extremism.
Paradoxically, Israel becomes the best protector of the Palestinian people! Dr. David Charney is a practicing psychiatrist in the Washington, DC area, and tries to come up with novel ideas for solving seemingly intractable problems.
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