The Root of All Fears

Why Is Israel So Afraid of Iranian Nukes?

The special relationship between Israel and the United States is about to enter perhaps its rockiest patch ever. Israel is growing exasperated with the Obama administration’s effort to use diplomacy to roll back Iran’s growing uranium-enrichment program. Israelis know better than anyone else that the trick to developing a nuclear weapon as a small power is to drag out the process of diplomacy and inspections long enough to produce sufficient quantities of fissionable material. Israel should know: in the 1960s, it deliberately misled U.S. inspectors and repeatedly delayed site visits, providing the time to construct its Dimona reactor and reprocess enough plutonium to build a bomb. North Korea has followed a similar path, with similar results. And now, Israel suspects, Iran is doing the same, only with highly enriched uranium instead of plutonium.

Most observers believe that Israel’s preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear program stems from the fear that Iran would either use a nuclear weapon against Israel or give the bomb to one of its direct proxies, most likely Hezbollah. Given Tehran’s open hostility toward Jerusalem, such foreboding makes sense. But such a scenario is highly improbable.

Tehran’s profound dislike of the Jewish state notwithstanding, it is unlikely to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon because Israel’s atomic arsenal is orders of magnitude larger than whatever infant capability Iran could muster in the foreseeable future. Moreover, Israel is believed to possess a secure submarine-based second-strike capability that could devastate Iran.

Nor would Iran readily supply Hezbollah with atomic weapons. No nuclear state has ever turned over its most prized military asset to a subsidiary actor or surrendered its exclusive control over a weapon that it worked so hard to obtain. More important, if Hezbollah were to acquire and use a nuclear weapon against Israel, there would be no doubt about the weapon’s provenance and Iran would immediately face devastating retaliation. An attack on Israel, in other words, would mean the end of Iran.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis