The upheaval in the Arab world has damaged Israel’s strategic environment. Its peace treaty with Egypt, a pillar of national security for more than three decades, is in question. More important, the events in the Arab world have deflected attention from Israel’s most feared scenario, a nuclear Iran, playing into the Iranian strategy to buy time in order to present the world with a nuclear fait accompli. Israel’s leaders fear that the international response is now unlikely to impact Iranian policy, at a point when its nuclear program is so advanced.

Only in November 2011 did the International Atomic Energy Agency, an institution that for years refused to call a spade a spade, publish a report voicing its concern over Iranian activities that do not easily fit with those of a civilian program. And only in January, did the European Union and the U.S. declare new sanctions that could have a significant effect on Iran’s economy. For Israel, this may have come too late.

Officials in Tel Aviv have tried to alert the West to the dangers of a nuclear Iran for more than a decade. They argued that Iran would cause the technology to proliferate in the region as states such as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia sought such weapons, turning a multipolar nuclear Middle East into a strategic nightmare. A nuclear-armed Iran would strengthen its hegemony in the energy sector by its mere location along the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin.

It would also result in the West’s loss of the Central Asian states, which would either gravitate toward Iran or try to secure a nuclear umbrella with Russia or China, countries much closer to the region than the U.S. is. A regime in Tehran emboldened by the possession of nuclear weapons would become more active in supporting radical Shiite elements in Iraq and agitating those communities in the Persian Gulf states.

Bombs to Proxies

Worse, since Iran backs terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it may be reckless enough to transfer nuclear bombs to such proxy organizations. They would have no moral constraints on detonating such a device in a European or American harbor. Iran’s nuclear program -- coupled with further improvements in Iranian missiles -- would initially put most European capitals, and eventually North American ones, within range of a potential attack.

Such arguments are nowadays more acceptable, but a large part of the Western strategic community, particularly on the European side of the Atlantic, views Iran as a rational actor that still can be dissuaded by economic sanctions. Moreover, even if Iran gets the bomb, it is argued that “it can be contained and deterred,” rejecting the “alarmist” view from officials in Jerusalem.

Israel is increasingly exasperated with Western attitudes for several reasons. First, it doesn’t believe that when Iran is so close to the bomb, sanctions are useful. Indeed, the history of economic sanctions indicates that a determined regime is unlikely to be affected by such difficulties. Moreover, the stakes that Iran’s ruling elite have in the nuclear program are inextricably connected to the regime’s political, and even physical, survival. The bomb is a guarantee for the government’s own future. Destabilizing a nuclear state, which may lead to chronic domestic instability, civil war or disintegration, is a more risky enterprise than undermining a non-nuclear regime.

Weak U.S. President

Unfortunately, American statements that all options are on the table, hinting at military action if sanctions fail, don’t impress the Iranians. The perception of most Middle Easterners, be it foes or friends of the U.S., is that President Barack Obama is extremely weak, hardly understands the harsh realities of the Middle East, and that American use of force is highly unlikely. Perceived American weakness undermines the chances of economic sanctions being effective.

Second, Israel’s threat perception is much higher than in the West, particularly after the recent Middle East turmoil. Actually, all Middle East leaders wear realpolitik lenses for viewing international affairs and tend to think in terms of worst-case scenarios. Israel’s leadership, in addition, sees through a Jewish prism and is unlikely to take a nonchalant view of existential threats to the Jewish state. Israeli fears have been fed by explicit statements from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who advocated the destruction of Israel. Jewish history taught Israel that genocidal threats shouldn’t be dismissed.

Third, the strategic community in Israel questions the possibility of establishing a stable deterrence between Israel and Iran, modeled on the relationship between the two superpowers during the Cold War. Mutual deterrence between two nuclear protagonists is never automatic. Maintaining a second-strike capability is an ongoing process, which is inherently uncertain and ambiguous. Moreover, before an initial “effective” second-strike capability is achieved, a nuclear race may create the fear of a first-strike attack, which might itself trigger a nuclear exchange.

In a multipolar environment, achieving stable deterrence would be even more difficult. Middle Eastern powers would also have to establish early-warning systems that monitor in all directions. These are complicated and therefore inherently unstable, particularly when the distances between enemies are so small. The influence of haste and the need to respond quickly can have dangerous consequences. The rudimentary nuclear forces in the region also may be prone to accidents and mistakes.

While it can be argued that Middle East leaders behave rationally, many of them engage in brinkmanship leading to miscalculation. More important still, the value they place on human life is lower than in the West, making them insensitive to the costs of attack. Iranian leaders have said they are ready to pay a heavy price for the destruction of Israel, anticipating only minimal damage in the Muslim world.

As a result, the strategic calculus in Jerusalem indicates that preventing a nuclear Iran is important and urgent, justifying risks and considerable costs. Delaying Iran’s nuclear ambitions by even a few years would be a worthwhile achievement. Moreover, the feeling in Israel is that the fears many analysts express of regional repercussions from an Israeli military strike are exaggerated.

The debate in Jerusalem is whether to allow more time for covert operations, or to initiate a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear installations. This is not an easy decision to make. An unexpectedly muscular Western move may spare Israel’s government the deliberations, but there is little hope that such a scenario will materialize. Once again, the Israelis would be left to go it alone.

(Efraim Inbar is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. This is the fourth in a series of op-ed articles about Iran, from writers in countries that have a direct interest in the escalating debate over how to rein in its alleged nuclear weapons program. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Efraim Inbar at Efraim.Inbar@biu.ac.il

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net