How I learned to stop worrying and love the Iranian bomb

Should Israelis begin debating and preparing for life under a constant Iranian nuclear threat?

Iran Bomb 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Iran Bomb 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
In the run-up to the 2009 general elections opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu criss-crossed the world saying the year was 1938. “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs,” Netanyahu told delegates at the annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly. “Believe him and stop him,” he said of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “This is what we must do. Everything else pales before this.” While the Iranian president “denies the Holocaust,” Netanyahu said, “he is preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state.”
A YEAR AND A HALF later and we are deep into 1939.
Israel’s, and the world’s, failure to stop Iran from achieving a nuclear breakout capacity is now a sad and undeniable fact.
While the Iranians were somewhat slowed down in their progress (some experts say that had it not been for various covert sabotage operations they would have reached breakout two years ago), they finally got there.
The Iranians now have all the components they need to independently build nuclear weapons. They have thousands of scientists working at multiple facilities across Iran; they have all the enrichment hardware they need (their software recently took a bit of a knock, but once the “bug” was discovered and sealed they continued apace); they have advanced missiles of varying ranges; and now all they need to do is enrich to weapons grade levels and put a warhead on a missile.
This is not a simple process, but the Iranians can do it, by themselves, whenever they choose to. They have all three necessary elements and now all that they need to do is to take the political decision to put a couple of bombs together and become a regional hegemonic power. They achieved this by spreading their nuclear program broadly, over multiple facilities, with slow and methodical progress.
The Iranians learned their lesson from Israel’s destruction of the Iraqi and Syrian reactors. They built their facilities deep underground, spread them out across their vast country, and bought deadly air defense systems to protect them. They have taken heart from North Korea’s stand against international pressure. They have also taken care to assist those fighting American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to keep the US Army bogged down; and they have armed their forward divisions on Israel’s northern border to the teeth.
Now it is 2010, 5771 and 1939. Israel has two choices, and both require that the government properly prepares the public for either a war to stop Iran from actualizing its nuclear potential, or learning to live with nuclear-armed mullahs. The Israeli assessment is that the Iranians are radical, but not irrational. That is to say that they will not place a nuclear warhead on their first missile and parade it in Teheran Square. Furthermore, and despite their rhetoric against the Zionist entity, the Iranians will not commit national suicide and fire nuclear missiles at Israel, knowing full well the catastrophic results of a counterstrike. Some assessments posit the Iranians will adopt a nuclear ambiguity policy, not unlike Israel’s.
Within this paradigm, it seems very unlikely that Israel will decide to launch a strike at Iran without American approval and assistance. And since the Iranian issue is not at the top of the Obama administration’s agenda (withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan and fixing the economy are the top agenda items), America is unlikely to provide approval and assistance. The last thing President Barack Obama wants now is another war in the Middle East, keeping his troops there or diverting them from finishing other missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He definitely doesn’t want to send more troops to the area. He’s also much more concerned at this point with North Korea.
Sanctions haven’t worked, and any more talk of them is now a smoke screen to hide the fact that the world has accepted a nuclear Iran. Of course, nobody official will go on the record as saying this, but in government and intelligence circles, there is a growing sense of acceptance of the new reality. Now the talk is of containment and deterrence.
But our leaders still publicly talk of the military option, saying it is not off the table. And perhaps it is so. Perhaps Israel does have a military option that it has been preparing.
Even so, the fact that Iran has achieved breakout capacity will mean only that a strike will set it back a while, not destroy its nuclear program. One former head of the Mossad still believes that Israel can keep on hitting Iran again and again until it finally gets the message and stop trying to develop nuclear weapons. Other Iran experts argue that the world will change so dramatically between the first and second Israeli strikes so as to make the second strike almost impossible.
So if America won’t help us stop Iran, and we can’t do it without its help, we’ll have to learn to live with the fact that Iran has nuclear weapons, and that we are no longer the hegemonic military power in the Middle East. What does that mean for us Israelis? What kind of cognitive shift will we have to make to swallow this new reality? Since 1967, with a brief respite in the first few days of October 1973, Israelis have lived with the belief that their country was the strongest power in a thousand mile radius, that they were the meanest kid on the block. So if this is no longer the case, how will that affect our national psyche? We’re already a very tense and stressed out nation; imagine what it would be like to know that our worst enemies have the means to destroy us.
If we have been constantly told that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to the Jewish state, how should we react now that Iran is very likely to get the bomb? Should we start talking about it, or should we talk about how strong we are and will always be? Can we live with a nuclear Iran, even though our leaders have consistently said that we cannot? How will this affect our already shaky self-confidence? Former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh once told this paper’s Gil Hoffman that the Iranians would be able to “kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button” as Israelis would emigrate to countries where their lives would not be threatened, and new immigrants would stop arriving. He said he was afraid that, under such a threat, “most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with their families; and Israelis who can live abroad will. People are not enthusiastic about being scorched.”
ISRAELIS HAVE ALWAYS voiced fear about the future, and have always looked for foreign passports and “plan B.” Since Poland, Lithuania, Romania and others joined the EU, Israelis have visited their embassies in Tel Aviv to take out foreign passports. Officials at foreign embassies here confirm that there is an increasing number of Israelis who are applying for passports. Will this phenomenon spread once we are confronted with a nuclear-powered Iran? How will Holocaust survivors feel? Some Israelis are so pessimistic about the country’s future that they seriously imagine that one day they will be refugees again in the world. Is this a realistic mind-set? As a journalist, I grapple with the dilemma of reporting the dire assessments I hear from officials, while at the same time trying to avoid demoralizing my audience.
Looking ahead, should Israelis begin debating and preparing for life under a constant Iranian nuclear threat? Will our future mini-wars against Hamas and Hizbullah remain mini-wars or will they always threaten to escalate into nuclear war? That may depend on Iran’s behavior once it becomes a nuclear power, i.e. whether it sees itself free to aggressively pursue regional domination, or whether stepping into the nuclear club moderates its behavior due to deterrence. Of course, according to foreign reports, Israel has a substantial nuclear arsenal, so technically there is no need for panic. We still have our strategic safeguard against catastrophe. And we still have America, whose secretary of state threatened Iran with destruction should it attempt to destroy Israel.
National Security Council chief Uzi Arad recently said, “We cannot live with a nuclear Iran because a nuclear Middle East would not be the same as the cold war nuclear stalemate. A nuclear Middle East would become a multi-nuclear Middle East, with all that entails.” Until our leadership starts talking about the increasingly likely possibility that Iran becomes a nuclear power, or stops talking about Iran at all and takes military action, Israelis have only one option: to stop worrying and learn to love the Iranian bomb.