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Over the past couple of years, the debate over Iran’s nuclear programme has grown more and more shrill. Iran’s decision to enrich uranium up to 19.75%, augmentation of US troops in the region, Israeli and Iranian war games, Stuxnet, and rumours of Israeli military activity in Azerbaijan have all played their part in bringing the situation perilously close to boiling over, particularly given the election year demands on the US president and coalition equations in Israel.

Few voices – very few – have raised the issue of hypocrisy in Western reactions to Iran’s nuclear ambitions in light of Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal. The call for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (MENWFZ) in November 2011 went unheeded by Israel, underlining, from the Arab and Iranian perspectives, Israel’s duplicity. After all, Yitzhak Rabin, had stated to the Americans in 1968 that Israel would “not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.” Given the farce of Israel’s policy of nuclear opacity, some analysts have suggested that Jerusalem’s security concerns would be better met if Israel could conclude a formal treaty with its neighbours, securing mutual guarantees on missiles and nuclear weapons. Whether one agrees with their suggestion or not, it is worth considering why Israel, given the difficulty of a military option against Iran, has made no move on the analysts’ proposal.

It is easy to reduce Israel’s position to threats as uncompromising offensive realism. However, Israel has also shown impressive concern about its citizens, releasing over a thousand prisoners in exchange for just one soldier, Gilad Schalit. To claim that Israel is unimaginative regarding its security – physically as well as socially – is, therefore, a bit of an oversimplification. Then what holds Beit Aghion back?

Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, whether in the name of the twelfth imam or Cyrus the Great, bodes ill for Israel; it significantly mitigates the aura of Israel’s own weapon of last resort, thereby encouraging Arab/Islamic adventurism in the neighbourhood and exacerbating the instability. Given the lack of any pragmatic military options against Iranian nuclear facilities, one might have expected Israel to seriously consider a diplomatic solution. In fact, that is exactly what has been urged in some corners. However, it is possible that Israel views a mutual nuclear defanging as more prejudicial to its security than to its neighbours’. Furthermore, Israel may prefer – if that is the word – a nuclear Iran to a de-nuclearised Israel.

Perhaps counter-intuitive at first, this makes a lot of sense in a hard, realpolitik way. The loss of nuclear weapons puts the burden of the Jewish state’s defence entirely on its conventional forces. Given the insurmountable Arab superiority in numbers, hard-to-meet military expenditure, increasingly better trained and more sophisticated Arab armies, the asymmetric warfare capabilities of the enemy, and the ability of Arab states to hit civilian centres behind Israeli lines with their Soviet/Russian and Chinese-acquired ballistic missiles, a further loss of their guarantor of last resort would be catastrophic. What is terrifying (but completely rational) about this line of reasoning is that Israel’s military planners already have their doomsday sequence ready, envisaging nuclear weapons not merely as insurance that will never be claimed, but as tools of war-fighting.

Losing their nuclear arsenal is difficult to contemplate for Jerusalem for two reasons: 1. the attendant official confirmation of duplicity in Israel’s introducing nuclear weapons to the Middle East – retreating from an assurance given not to a rival but an ally (patron); and 2. deep down, there is a suspicion that a nuclear attack may not be much worse than the collapse of Israel’s military.

Thermal Pressure Fallout

 Suitcase, 1 kT

 Dear Leader, 6 kT

 Little Boy, 15 kT

 Fat Man, 21 kT

 Tsar Bomba, 50 MT

In itself, the diplomatic fallout is more a matter of deniability than strategy since the  bomb is, to use Avner Cohen’s words, Israel’s worst-kept secret. The revelation will give an excuse to the Arabs, Turks, and Iranians to question Israel’s every utterance, now with some credibility, and make things diplomatically choppy. Not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Israel does not face any legal complications regarding its programme. Furthermore, it has long been suspected that Israel’s secret benefactor in establishing Dimona was France – revelations of a nuclear arsenal might lead to other unplanned revelations that might strain relations with a trading partner if not an ally.

The second reason – the assumption that the defeat of Israel’s mighty IDF (Israel Defence Forces) would unleash an Arab reign of terror upon Israelis that may eventually be only slightly better than a nuclear attack – reveals Israel’s deep-seated insecurity (with much justification) about the intentions of its neighbours, the social dynamics in the region, and why Israel has so far refused to consider sacrificing its queen for its neighbours’. The table above shows the results of an attack on Tel Aviv with different yield weapons, from a 1 kT suitcase bomb to the largest nuclear detonation ever recorded, the Soviet Union’s 50 MT Tsar Bomba. It is highly unlikely that any of Israel’s neighbours would develop the sophistication to develop either a suitcase bomb or device as powerful and large as the Tsar Bomba. If Iran actually weaponises, chances are that its strategists would opt for smaller bombs in the 6 – 10 kT range than bigger ones, simply because it takes less fissile material to do so – it is highly unlikely that Iranian nuclear scientists develop sophisticated designs using lesser fissile material and good neutron reflection in their first try – and it would leave them with more bombs. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a fledgling nuclear power like Iran will hit Israel with a barrage of nuclear weapons for two simple reasons: 1. Israel is quite small and the fallout could affect the Jewish state’s Arab neighbours as well – something that could compound Iran’s problems further (if we are discussing nuclear war, things must be quite bad already); and 2. Tehran would probably want to keep a few weapons as backup, ready to respond to the evolving situation and to target military and/or economic assets accordingly.

So what sort of casualty figures are involved? If a 6 kT nuclear device were detonated in the heart of the Tel Aviv – Yafo municipality without any early warning or evacuation, given the radius of the inner two circles (conflagration and 3rd degree burns, necrosis), it would leave about 9,000 dead instantly, with another 9,000 severely injured (area of circle = πr2, population density of region: 7,800 people/km2). If a Little Boy were to be detonated, the carnage would be much worse, with the immediate death toll standing at 17,500 and some 25,000 severely injured. These figures are rough estimates, because wind direction, shielding, etc will affect casualties. Additionally, Israeli satellites and radars would track any launch and start evacuating or at least finding shelter the calculated point of impact.

These figures are absolutely horrendous, but not beyond the potential casualties in a war Israel loses. If the Middle East genuinely were a NWFZ, between conventionally tipped missiles, battlefield casualties, and probably street-by-street fighting (Israel does have conscription), the total casualties could, conceivably, be higher than a quick nuclear strike to which Israel could respond with overwhelming force. This is not to imply that the Iranian regime is suicidal enough to launch a nuclear strike against Israel, whatever their rhetoric may say. In fact, Colin Kahl argues in Risk and Rivalry – Israel, Iran and the Bomb, persuasively, that Tehran will neither give away its nuclear weapons to terrorist outfits such as the Hezbollah nor will it declare holy war on Israel. But these are the sort of calculations that Israel’s military and politicians must have made; these are the calculations that may have given them pause on the idea of a Middle East sans nuclear weapons, even if it means a nuclear Iran.

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