Gauging the Iranian Threat

Should Israel – and the world – worry about nuclear-armed mullahs?


In a recent interview with the Canadian news magazine Maclean's, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy offered fascinating, expert insight into Israel's current security situation.

Unsurprisingly, his interview focused largely on the questions of Israel's relationship with the Palestinians and the threat posed by Iran. On the Palestinian question, Halevy said that the prospect for peace between Israelis and Palestinians hinges upon the ability of the Palestinians to forge their own state, without relying on foreign benefactors to do it for them. (Left unsaid is that such a Palestinian state would have to renounce the fanatical hatred of Israel that has consumed it for three generations.) But the real crux of the interview is Halevy's thoughts on the threat posed by Iran.

When asked about Iran developing a nuclear strike capability, Halevy responded with words worth quoting at length:

“It is a serious threat. It is not an existential threat. It is not within the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel — at best it can cause Israel grievous damage. Israel is indestructible. I believe that Israel has a sufficient capability, both offensive and defensive, to take care of any threat, including the Iranian threat.”

Few can match Halevy’s expertise. Yet, when he says that Iran at best can “cause Israel grievous damage,” one has to wonder exactly how much damage he means. When discussing the prospect of being attacked with nuclear weapons, what level of destruction would Israel be willing to absorb before it deemed itself destroyed, rather than merely virtually destroyed? And if Iranian-issue nuclear bombs are exploding in Israeli cities, meeting the technical definition of “not destroyed” would hardly be a consolation for the Israeli populace.

It is true that nuclear weapons are not quite as powerful as shown in popular culture. A bomb exploding ten miles away will not instantly and painlessly kill every living thing. The nuclear weapons that Iran is developing would likely be fairly crude designs, not much more powerful than the weapons that America dropped on Japan in 1945. Even so, the difference is academic. A country with a majority of its citizens still alive, but its centers of culture, governance and commerce destroyed, may cling to existence, but the state of Israel, a modern, advanced liberal democracy, would be lost in the scramble to merely survive. It is odd in the extreme to hear Halevy sound so unconcerned with the prospect of a nuclear attack upon his home.

Halevy's comments on Israel's ability to fend off an attack, or retaliate against one, are also of interest. Israel is a leader in the development of missile defense technology. Indeed, its Iron Dome system was tested successfully just last week. And while never having publicly admitted to possessing nuclear weapons, Israel's nuclear stockpile is a known secret. If Iran drops a bomb on Israel, it can expect to receive dozens if not hundreds back. Perhaps, then, Halevy's words are not meant for journalists or magazine readers, but for the Iranian regime. If so, Halevy's meaning becomes clearer: “You cannot destroy us, we can and will protect ourselves and we don't take you as seriously as you do us. Consider that before you mess with us.”

But Halevy’s most noteworthy comments are his observations on the corner into which the Tehran regime has painted itself. “By its own doing,” he said, “Iran has created a situation whereby it cannot reach an ultimate accommodation with the U.S. without relinquishing its active pursuit of the destruction of Israel — because the U.S. would never permit this to happen.” Halevy’s hope is that Iran, when it realizes that it is in an untenable position, will seek a truce with Washington by backing off its threats to Israel.

Halevy could be right that a solution to the Iranian threat is just a matter of time. Recent events, however, give little cause for optimism. Iran is once again in the midst of a brutal crackdown on dissidents. The recent death of a prominent reformist cleric has led to renewed protests and a subsequent assault by the Iranian state upon its own people. Hundreds have been arrested for protesting, cast into a prison system known for its systemic abuses of human rights. The arrested include reformists, journalists and members of the Bahai faith. Other journalists have already been sentenced to jail or exile. Iran’s reformist leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has paid a personal price for his opposition to the Ahmadinejad regime. His young nephew, Ali, is among the latest protesters to be killed by Iranian security forces.

As if this isn’t troubling enough, Iran continues to provoke the West through outright belligerence. Next month it will hold large-scale military exercises, designed to prepare the country’s armed forces to resist an armed attack by foreign enemies, a rather transparent euphemism for America and Israel. The absurdity of this hardly needs to be pointed out: if Iran would simply behave responsibly as a cooperative, transparent member of the international community, such provocative exercises would be unnecessary, as there would be no reason for Iran to fear attack. If Iran accepts any of the numerous international agreements already proposed as an alternative to its continuing to developing its nuclear program, the threat of war would vanish overnight.

Despite former Mossad chief Halevy’s confidence that Iran does not pose an existential threat to Israel, Iran seems to be doing its best to convince the world otherwise. At this date, it is hard to know who is right. But when a country as provocative as Iran presses ahead with its nuclear program, and shows no signs of backing down, it’s hard to share Halevy’s optimism.