Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Are The Israelis Gearing Up For A Nuclear-Armed Iran?

Posted in Israel by Dan on October 6, 2009

Israel may be replacing preemption with containment

Israel may be replacing preemption with containment

While Iranian representatives are continuing to talk with western powers over their advanced nuclear program, politicians within Israel are starting to cringe.

First and foremost, Israel never truly believed that diplomacy could convince the Iranians to fold over their nuclear aspirations.  Absent the threat of military force, diplomacy with an adversary is often seen as a wasteful process riddled with ineffective formalities.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said so himself, casting a dark shadow over the Islamic Republic as a “rogue” state more deserving of international isolation than collective engagement.

Perhaps the man is right.  Tehran continues to be the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, training Hezbollah militants in Lebanon while funding the operations of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.  Likewise, the Iranian leadership continues to bash Israel with each passing opportunity, whether this includes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust or overtly aggressive threats towards the Jewish state’s very existence.

Mr. Netanyahu’s declaration is even more relevant when one considers Iran’s most important foreign-policy priority: the destabilization of the Middle East.  Iran’s covert intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan is certainly the most graphic example.

Taking this “rogue” status in mind, the Israelis have not hesitated to pressure President Barack Obama into adopting a more war-like stance towards Iran when the nuclear question is put into focus.  The Israeli Defense Force has made claims in the past of a unilateral and pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails to result in meaningful concessions.

The hawkish rhetoric has reached to such an extent that Washington and Europe are attempting to play down the possibility of an Israeli bombardment, placing all of their bets on the prospects of roundtable negotiations.  Understandably, Israel refuses to bow down on this option, perceiving Tehran as the most immediate and dire threat to its prosperity and survival.

Despite the belligerence often portrayed by Israeli politicians, it appears that Jerusalem is beginning to modify this controversial policy.  Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal reveals that the Israeli leadership is gradually implementing a more nuanced and traditional stance towards the entire nuclear issue, bolstering their defensive military abilities in response to an Iranian ballistic missile attack.

For instance, the Israelis have recently admitted that they purchased two sophisticated submarines from Germany, loaded with all of the bells and whistles.  Of course, this would not be so newsworthy if it were not for the fact that the subs could carry, and eventually launch, a nuclear warhead.

The point of mentioning this arms purchase is not to alarm the world and exacerbate the already tense relationship (or lack thereof) between two long-time enemies.  Rather, it is to expose a fundamental shift in Israeli military policy towards Iran, one that emphasizes the traditional Cold War principles of deterrence and containment.  Preempting a potential Persian bomb, while still in the works, may be moving aside for the time-being.

Some may be skeptical of this change in mindset.  Certainly, the Israelis have made it quite clear that they will use each and every resource available to defend themselves in the face of a hostile environment.

Nevertheless, Israel’s acquisition of two German submarines- both of which can deliver cruise missiles to a specific target in a manner of minutes- gives this new belief a much-needed clearance.  If the Iranians were so inclined to develop nuclear weapons, thereby threatening Israel and the entire Middle East at the same time, Jerusalem would still possess a mutually-assured destructive capability (MAD) towards Khamenei and Ahmadinejad…complicated jargon that essentially convinces the enemy that a nuclear strike will be met with a more devastating nuclear response.

By facing a sophisticated naval fleet that could easily evade radar detection, the Iranians would be under a constant-cloud of suspicion, even if they joined the nuclear club.  With their newly-purchased tools, the Israelis would retain a second-strike capability if an attack was unfortunate enough to occur on their soil.  Given the small size of Israel, even a conventional ballistic missile strike could have far-reaching consequences for the Iranians (a.k.a. the complete destruction of theocratic establishment).

Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Cold War relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union?

Of course, the Iranian Government has yet to enrich uranium to a grade that can be used for nuclear weapons development.  In fact, intelligence estimates predict that it would take Iran at least another couple of years to build a single nuclear bomb.  Who knows what the extent of Israel’s defenses will be during the same time-frame.

However, given that Tehran is enriching pounds of uranium per day while continuing to defy the international community, it is understandable that Israel would begin to formulate an adequate defense response.

Interestingly enough, it appears that this response is moving in a direction that is willing to accept an Iranian nuclear power.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal contributed to this blog.  His full article can be reached at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/10/02/this_week_at_war_send_in_the_spies?page=0,1

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