Israel has a history of taking preventative measures to stop Middle Eastern states from challenging its nuclear hegemony over the region. The attacks on Osirak and Al Kibar (Iraq in 1982 and Syria in 2007 respectively) exemplify what is known as the Begin Doctrine: “under no circumstances will [Israel] allow the enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people”.
Whilst this has been somewhat neutered by the lack of an Israeli offensive against the manufacture of various chemical and biological weaponry in the Middle East, the Jewish-majority state has been consistent in its implementation in regard to nuclear capability.
The reasoning behind such a policy lies in the depths of mankind’s turpitude. The horrors that befell the Jewish nation during the Second World War catalysed the Israeli assertion of “never again”: Israel will not allow any state to reach a stage where it may threaten her existence, no matter how remote such a possibility may be.
This is notable as Iran does not pose an existential threat to Israel (even if one does believe everything a populist politician says, the mistranslation of Ahmadinejad – ‘Israel should be wiped of the face of the earth’ – is exactly that, a mistranslation). Iranian foreign policy since the 1979 revolution has, with few exceptions, veered away from the ideological and towards the pragmatic: she has been a rational actor. As such, many of the torts regarding the Islamic Republic’s probable actions following its ascension to the nuclear club are incredulous in their ignorance.
As Shashank Joshi has capably argued, Iran will not initiate a nuclear showdown. She will not provide terrorist organisations with a nuclear weapon (more significantly, Hamas and its ilk would never dream of detonating a nuclear warhead in Israel). And, if past experiences are anything to go by, Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons will not spur a mass proliferation among Arab states in the region.
But it is easy to dispense with such sentiment from the comfort of our Western armchairs. After all, we are not in the firing range of Iran’s Shahab 3 missiles. Similarly, whilst Seamus Milne is correct in asserting that an Israeli assault would give the “strongest incentive possible” for Iran to assemble a nuclear weapon, such sentiment does not hold weight among swathes of Israeli society. The possibility of an Iranian nuclear breakout capability is threat enough.
“if we are right, as I believe with every fibre of instinct and conviction I have that we are, and we do not act, then we will have hesitated in face of this menace, when we should have given leadership. That is something history will not forgive”
Quoting Tony Blair is an inherently dangerous affair, but his sentiments beautifully illustrate the Israeli dilemma.
All parties accept that Israeli military action will bring untold mayhem and carnage to a region already reeling from decades of mismanagement, destruction and suffering. But what politician can reject the founding conviction of their state? What politician will run the risk of condemning their state’s history to a chapter in an ancient textbook? What politician will risk their nation suffering a second genocide? However implausible, such a scenario is not beyond the realms of reality.
The CIA doctrine towards Iran of “delay delay delay” until another solution presents itself was possible three years ago, but with sanctions already crippling the Iranian economy and no sign of the nuclear programme letting up, it appears that alternative options are scarce. Continued Iranian intransigence toward IAEA inspections is ratcheting up pressure on the Israeli leadership: how much longer until a strike would fail to make an impact on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme?
The Begin Doctrine has been reiterated by numerous Israeli politicians since the founder of Likud’s death, including current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: the leader has affirmed his commitment that a nuclear Iran will not happen under his stewardship. But as domestic sentiment and internal political rivalry in the Muslim country forbids the fundamentalist regime from backing down, the timer to the first of many Israeli missiles killing the first of many Iranian citizens comes increasingly and inevitably closer to zero.
Tom has a degree in Middle Eastern History from the University of Manchester and is an MA student in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.