Armed and Dangerous: Why a Rational, Nuclear Iran Is an Unacceptable Risk to Israel

By November 1, 2013

Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 104

One of the most pressing issues facing policy-makers today, especially in Israel, is whether it is acceptable to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Some argue that Iranian leaders can be deterred because they are rational, cost-calculating actors who would refrain from using nuclear weapons, like the US and USSR during the Cold War. They believe that efforts to halt Iranian nuclear weapons development should be modest and not involve military force.

Others disagree, arguing that Iranian leaders are religious fanatics who welcome a nuclear apocalypse as a precursor to the advent of an Islamic paradise. An Iran under leaders such as these would be undeterrable, since no punishment exists that would dissuade the Iranian leadership from initiating war. Therefore, a military strike is still preferable to allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

Both sides in this debate are correct on some points, but ultimately miss the essence of the problem. In truth, the Iranian leadership is rational but under some conditions is likely to be willing to use nuclear weapons. History is full of examples of rational leaders who, when faced with the end of their regimes, did not hesitate to seek the mass destruction of all perceived enemies.

Israel cannot rely on deterrence and needs to emphasize policies that assume that Iran will not be deterred. Budgetary allocations, weapons developments, and plans for attack must reflect such a reality. Israel must be prepared to launch a military strike to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. If that approach is rejected, Israel must focus on ballistic missile defense, give serious thought to disarming a nascent Iranian nuclear capability, and be ready to preempt an Iranian attack.

In the not too distant future, Israel may confront a nuclear-armed Iran whose leaders find themselves with nothing to lose and everything to destroy. Whether Israel can meet this challenge may well determine whether it continues to thrive as a state, or perishes in a hail of nuclear warheads.

The arguments and conclusions of this essay have not been changed by recently elected President Rouhani’s softer tone. Unless and until Iran matches Rouhani’s rhetoric with actions that deprive Iran of the capability of producing nuclear weapons, the threat of a nuclear armed Iran behaving recklessly remains.

To order a hard copy, Contact Us and provide us with your mailing address.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Prof. Steven R. David

Prof. Steven R. David is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He is a member of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies’ International Academic Advisory Board.