In an April 18 speech commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu painted a stark picture of the Iranian nuclear threat and made clear that Israel might soon have to take military action to address it:
Today, the regime in Iran openly calls and determinedly works for our destruction. And it is feverishly working to develop atomic weapons to achieve that goal.… Seventy years ago the Jewish people did not have the national capacity to summon the nations, nor the military might to defend itself. But today things are different.… Iran must be stopped from obtaining nuclear weapons. It is the duty of the whole world, but above and beyond, it is our duty.
As Iran's nuclear progress continues, the risk of an Israeli preventive strike grows. Given ongoing talks between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P5+1), an Israeli attack may not be imminent. But after inconclusive negotiations in Istanbul in April and Baghdad in May, we can expect the drums of war to beat even louder in Jerusalem if the third round of talks, scheduled to begin in Moscow on June 18, fails to produce results.
As we argue in a new report published by the Center for a New American Security, some of the potential dangers to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran have been exaggerated. For example, despite the abhorrent threats by some Iranian leaders to "wipe Israel off the map," the actual behavior of the Islamic Republic over the past three decades indicates that the regime is not suicidal and is sufficiently rational for the basic logic of nuclear deterrence to hold. Iran is therefore unlikely to deliberately use nuclear weapons against Israel or enable a terrorist group to do so.
At the same time, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a much more dangerous adversary. Believing that its nuclear deterrent immunized it against retaliation, the Iranian regime would probably increase lethal support to proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas and commit more brazen acts of terrorism abroad. The already-tense Israeli-Iranian rivalry would become more crisis-prone, and these crises would entail some inherent risk of inadvertent nuclear war.
Preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons should therefore remain an urgent priority. Rushing into preventive war, however, would risk making the threat worse. Until Iran appears poised to weaponize its nuclear capability, the emphasis should remain on using economic pressure and diplomacy to convince the Iranians to change course. All options, including preventive military action, should remain on the table. But force should be seen as a last resort; it should be contemplated only by the United States, and it should be employed only under stringent conditions.
In recent weeks, Israel's leadership has been less vocal about the possibility of a military strike on Iran. But this may be the calm before the storm.
On June 1, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "We will know by the next meeting in Moscow in a few weeks whether Iran is prepared" to take "concrete actions" to address international concerns over its nuclear program. The P5+1 would like Iran to stop enriching uranium up to 19.75 percent, ship its current 19.75 percent stockpile out of the country, halt activities at the deeply buried Fordow enrichment facility, and expand International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to Iranian facilities in exchange for technical assistance and very minor sanctions abatement. So far, the Iranians have been unwilling to accept the deal, and they seem to expect much larger U.S. and European concessions on impending oil sanctions in exchange for cooperation. This sets the stage for high drama in Moscow.
Nothing that happens in Moscow, however, is likely to satisfy Israeli leaders. Netanyahu has been dismissive of the talks so far, saying that nothing short of Iran halting all uranium enrichment, getting rid of its entire stockpile of enriched uranium, and eliminating the means to produce more would satisfy him. Netanyahu has set the bar so high that there is no way for diplomats to clear it in Moscow. Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has suggested that expanded Iranian cooperation with the IAEA would not be sufficient to head off a possible Israeli strike.
Netanyahu and Barak have come under withering criticism from former Israeli intelligence officials who argue that an attack would be counterproductive. Reportedly, the current chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and the current Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, also oppose a strike at this time. But Netanyahu and Barak are the ultimate decision-makers, and if they decide to attack, other policymakers will fall in line behind them (a point we heard repeatedly during recent interviews in Israel). What's more, Netanyahu's broad-based unity government gives him considerable room for maneuver.