North Korea is a long way from Israel. It is not among the countries that have fought against Israel, or figure in Israel's plans of defense. It may sell weapons to Israel's enemies, but I did not think about that when I saw the cartoon in Ha'aretz shortly after North Korea's most recent test of a nuclear weapon.
It shows Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu confused by weapons testing in North Korea and Iran. My reading is that the cartoon associates the two countries as able to develop apocalyptic weapons undeterred by the feeble efforts of the United States and other powers. Iran's missiles can reach Israel. The impotent efforts of the United States and others, and the empty condemnation by President Obama of North Korea's nuclear test, suggests that the western powers will not succeed in keeping Iran from something similar.
During the Bush and Obama administrations, American officials said that Iran will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. While President Bush was almost explicit in threatening Iran with military action, President Obama emphasizes diplomatic engagement and persuasion. American military leaders have indicated that on account of commitments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, there are not sufficient resources to open another front.
Israeli officials, during both the Olmert and Netanyahu governments, have indicated that they would not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
Public discussions by retired and active military figures and other commentators have made the following points with respect to direct Israeli action.
In contrast to Iraq's installation, destroyed by Israel in 1981, Iran is further away than Iraq. Its sites are well protected underground, and dispersed to several locations.
An Israeli action is not likely to destroy all of the components.
Israel might be able to destroy key elements of Iranian nuclear facilities, but the costs would be widespread international condemnation and, more importantly, an attack on Israel of conventionally armed missiles capable of doing more damage that attacks from Iraq in 1991 or Hizbollah in 2006. Israel's attack would inflame Iranian antagonism as well as broaden the hatred of Israel in Iranian society. It would spur the Iranians to renewed efforts in developing nuclear weapons as well as seeking to damage Israeli or Jewish targets via its own agents or allies, both in Israel and overseas.
Israel would prefer that the United States use its greater military resources to deal with Iran's nuclear program, even if an American attack would provoke Iranian retaliations against Israeli and Jewish targets.
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked during the Cold War when the nuclear armed Soviet Union faced the destructive power of the United States, Great Britain, and France. So far MAD has worked between India and Pakistan, despite several waves of combat since both countries have had nuclear weapons. It might also work in the context of Iran versus Israel. Israel is said to have at least 200 nuclear weapons, and means of delivery including aircraft, land based missiles, and missiles launched from submarines. Even if Iran were to strike Israel with nuclear weapons and do great damage to a small and densely populated country, Israel would be able to make a second strike and produce catastrophic damage.
Relying on deterrence would save Israel the retaliation that would come from a pre-emptive strike. It would also provide time for moderate elements in Iran to gather strength and perhaps gain control.
Against a deterrence doctrine that worked in the Cold War and so far in South Asia, is the extremism of the Iranian regime. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Israel is illegitimate and will disappear. These comments, as well as denying the existence of the Holocaust, suggests a regime of madness not restrained by rational calculation about the costs of all out war.
Iran's evasion of international efforts to curtail the development of nuclear weapons, despite its avowal of peaceful intentions, has produced discussions in Israel that make a pre-emptive military strike a serious possibility.
An example is Retired General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. He was chief of the IDF general staff who joined a left of center political party after his retirement, and put himself in the camp associated with accommodation. He is a leading member of the "Geneva initiative," a non-governmental activity joining Israelis and Palestinians who have produced the outline of a peace agreement. Lipkin-Shahak has said that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be intolerable.
Before North Korea's recent nuclear test, the probability I assigned to an Israeli military strike was substantially less than 50 percent.
I can make no firm assessment. Without being able to say by how much, I have moved the probability upward.
The reason is not so much North Korea as the inability or unwillingness of the United States and other powers to stop that rogue from acquiring nuclear weapons and means of delivery. Helplessness with respect to North Korea means helplessness with respect to Iran. It leaves Israel alone with the quandary of hoping that deterrence will work, or acting against the threat.
One does not have to be an enthusiast of citing the Holocaust, and the allies' abandonment of Jews during the 1940s, in order to appreciate the analogy in the case of Iran. The analogy is widely used, and one should not underestimate the power of the Holocaust in Israel's culture.
I would still wager against an Israeli attack, but I would not put much money on the table.
I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science