Analysis: The price of not keeping Iran from going nuclear

The arithmetic of dealing with a nuclear Iran is more complex than computing the cost of defense weapons.

iran missile test, the b (photo credit: AP)
iran missile test, the b
(photo credit: AP)
The arithmetic of dealing with a nuclear Iran is much more complex than simply computing the costs of having an airborne and submarine strike force permanently on alert, astronomical as those costs are. The strategic weapons, long-range F-15I and F-16I bombers and Dolphin submarines originally were purchased to counter that very threat. The much heavier costs involved would be caused by the necessity to rewrite significant chapters of Israel's security doctrine and the higher state of alertness, not only in the IAF and Navy, but also the other branches of the IDF and security forces. There is a minority view in the defense establishment that the country has to be at least prepared for the possible reality of Iran with the bomb. This view is represented by the head of the National Security Council, Ilan Mizrahi. But most defense chiefs are opposed, saying Iran must not be allowed to achieve a nuclear capability. This is not only because a mortal enemy will have the tools to fulfill its dream of wiping Israel off the map. After all, both the Arrow antimissile system and Israel's strategic capabilities serve as a significant deterrence. But Iran wouldn't need to use a nuclear bomb to shatter the strategic balance in the region; just having one could be enough. For decades the Arab world has been forced to come to terms with Israel's existence - Egypt and Jordan even signed peace treaties - in large part due to their belief that the Zionist entity is also a nuclear power. It might be hard to imagine, after decades of bloodshed and terrorism, how things could have been worse. But the fact remains that many experts on Arab affairs believe attacks on Israel would have been much more frequent and much worse if not for this fear of the Israeli bomb. To change that, Iran doesn't even need to announce it has a bomb or carry out a nuclear test like North Korea did last year. It would be enough for the Middle East to think that it had the bomb. Iran might even take a page out of Israel's book and develop its own brand of nuclear ambiguity. An Iranian nuclear umbrella would be spread over its allies and proxies within the range of a Shihab-3 missile. This would embolden all sorts of groups, organizations and countries, radical streams among Israeli Arabs, Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Syria and the front movements it has already set up on the Golan border. Israel's deterrent factor, already damaged in the Lebanon war, would be further downgraded once there was another nuclear power in the region. Hassan Nasrallah would have a much freer hand in trying to overthrow the Lebanese government with the backing of a nuclear Iran. Egypt and Jordan would also be destabilized. To head off all these internal and external threats, the IDF's ground units and the police would have to operate at a much higher level of alert. Mobilizing an infantryman or keeping a Merkava tank crew on alert might be a fraction of the cost of keeping an F-16 in the air, but a state of emergency involves tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tanks. This would necessitate long-term mobilization of reserve soldiers, with a crippling effect on the economy. The IDF doctrine that ensured the survival of a viable, flourishing state - by keeping a relatively small regular army to fend off the immediate threats, with a large reserve corps that could be rushed to the front to hold the line during war - would become obsolete. The price of restructuring the military doctrine in advance is also prohibitive, and besides, there probably isn't enough time. Israel has the means to counter an Iranian nuclear capability, but an Israel facing a nuclear Iran would have to be a very different country.