Former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and current chief of staff Benny Gantz have worked hard to strengthen the military option versus Iran. Some analysts argue that even if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it will hesitate to launch an immediate attack on Tel Aviv. Tehran has a greater and older strategic interest in treating the oil-rich Sunni Gulf States as prime targets—to be influenced by a nuclear-backed force—rather than Israel, with a known capability to retaliate.
However, hardliner government leaders still aver that a nuclear Iran is intolerable for several reasons. First, it is unclear whether Iran will be a rational player. The Jewish State may well be dealing with a culture that sanctifies death and glorifies martyrs and suicide bombers. “If we have to chose between a nuclear Iran or [act] to prevent them from having the bomb, we will take the road of action,” Yadlin contends. “You may ask why we cannot live with a nuclear Iran like the U.S. lived with a nuclear Soviet Union. The Soviet Union did not have a suicidal culture. The Iranians invented the suicide bomber.”
Also, more than in the Cold War era, the danger of unplanned and uncontrolled escalation exists between the two adversaries. There is no hotline between Tel Aviv and Tehran, so the danger of a mistaken nuclear confrontation is highly significant.
Yadlin is also convinced that nuclear proliferation will be the inevitable consequence of an Iranian breakout. “One day after the Iranians get the bomb, the Saudis will go to Pakistan,” he says. “They've already paid for the bomb. They supported the program with a lot of money. A Shiite bomb is much more of a concern in the Sunni countries—Saudi, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey. Each is a regional superpower and they will not let Iran alone posses a bomb so it will be a nuclear nightmare.”
The internal controversy creates uncertainty among allies and adversaries—and the argument about a kinetic strike tends to distract attention from Israel's other means of attacking Iran's nuclear program, which continue to generate results. Also muddying the picture is the difficulty of assessing Israel's offensive and defensive strength—which is where Israel's own concealment of its nuclear capability plays a part.
Israel has a number of Jericho missiles, with the Jericho 2 in the process of being replaced by the Jericho 3, with sufficient range to cover the entire Middle East. The missiles are road-mobile, and housed in tunnels driven into limestone hills at a base near the town of Zechariah, 28 mi. south of Tel Aviv. (The base is variously referred to as Sdot Micha and Sdot HaElla.)
It is also generally believed that Israel's four German-built Dolphin submarines constitute a second-strike force, armed with nuclear cruise missiles. Unusually, the boats feature four oversize 650-mm weapon launch tubes in addition to six standard 533-mm tubes. Three were ordered in the late 1990s and the first of three additional craft, ordered in 2006, was delivered earlier this year. Finally, Israel is also believed to have nuclear bombs that can be carried by F-16I and F-15I strike aircraft. The result is that any attack on Israel using weapons of mass destruction could prompt a nuclear reprisal against which no regional adversary has any defense.
However, the ability of Iran to launch a nuclear attack is uncertain (see p. 52). It clearly does not exist today, and a real threat will not exist until Iranian forces can launch an attack with a high probability of success. That is a simple statement, but masks a huge degree of uncertainty that is very different from Cold War concepts of deterrence.
In the Cold War, both the U.S. and Soviet Union acquired a near-guaranteed ability to inflict enormous damage on each other before the concept of deterrence was even formulated in detail. In World War II, air defenses never destroyed more than 25% of the attacking bomber force and even some of the bombers shot down had reached their targets—a catastrophic failure in the face of nuclear weapons.
In the missile era, no true defense against missile attacks was fielded because of the anticipated speed and intensity of the offensive. Multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles, designed to overwhelm defenses, were developed and fielded before defensive systems were out of the test stage. In the West, civil defense was largely ignored after the 1960s.