If Iran becomes a nuclear weapons capable state in the next few years, as seems likely, Israel’s forty year old monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East will end. But its military superiority over Iran will not. It will remain the dominant military power in the region for the foreseeable future, and it does not need to attack Iran to ensure its security.
Israel is the state that feels most threatened by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and with good reason. The founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was the first to call for Israel to be wiped off the map of the Middle East, and it was he who sent the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon in 1982 to establish Hezbollah. He was also pragmatic enough, however, to buy arms from Israel during the war with Iraq. Iran’s current president has called for Israel’s destruction often, most alarmingly last month when he toured Lebanon. Today Israel is believed to be considering the wisdom of a strike against Iran.
Estimates by international think tanks generally concur that Israel has about 100 nuclear weapons, maybe twice that number. Even under a crash program Iran will not achieve that size arsenal for many years, perhaps decades.
Israel also has multiple delivery systems. It has intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the Jericho, capable of reaching any target in Iran. Its fleet of F-15 long-range strike aircraft can also deliver nuclear payloads. Some analysts have suggested that it can also deliver nuclear weapons from its German-made Dolphin submarines using cruise missiles. This is the reality of the balance of power in the Middle East, but it is rarely said in public.
Israel will also continue to have conventional military superiority over Iran and the rest of the region, The Israel Air Force is capable of penetrating air defense systems with virtual impunity, as it demonstrated in 2007 when it destroyed Syria’s nascent nuclear capability. Israel’s intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities are vastly superior to its potential rivals. Israeli satellites provide it with coverage of Iranian facilities and capabilities every day, a major advantage in modern warfare.
Iran, on the other hand, has never fully rebuilt its conventional military from the damage suffered in the Iran-Iraq war. It still relies heavily for air power on equipment purchased by the Shah. Moreover, the new United Nations sanctions, UN Security Council resolution 1929, impose a very stringent arms ban on Iran. Virtually all significant weapons systems — including tanks, aircraft, naval vessels and missiles — are banned from sale or transfer to Iran. Training and technical assistance for such systems is also banned. In other words, even if Iran wants to try to improve its conventional military capability in the next few years, with the help of foreign suppliers, and has the money to do so, the UN arms ban will make that close to impossible. Iran does not have the capability to produce state-of-the-art weapons on its own, despite its occasional claims to be self-sufficient. To compensate for its weakness Iran has built an impressive asymmetric capability in missiles and terrorists to threaten massive retaliation for any attack.
Finally, Israel will continue to enjoy the support of the world’s only superpower for the foreseeable future. Assistance from the United States includes roughly $3 billion in grant aid every year. That is the longest-running financial assistance program in American history, and dates back to the 1973 war. It is never challenged or cut by Congress and permits Israeli planners to do multi-year planning for defense acquisitions with great certitude about what they can afford to acquire.
U.S. assistance also goes far beyond mere financial aid. The Pentagon and the IDF engage in constant exchanges of technical expertise on virtually all elements of the modern battlefield. Missile defense has been at the center of this exchange for over 20 years now. Officials in Washington and Tel Aviv say the Obama administration has strengthened and expanded the relationship as the new US offer of 20 F35 aircraft illustrates. The United States and Israel also have a robust and dynamic intelligence relationship that helps ensure Israel’s qualitative edge.
American support for Israel comes despite Israel’s refusal to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Since 1969, the United States has implicitly supported Israel’s nuclear deterrent by providing Israel with high-performance aircraft and not pressing for NPT signature. Every American president since Richard Nixon has been a supporter of maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge over its potential foes. President Obama reaffirmed these commitments to Israel early in his term, even as he has pushed for a world without nuclear weapons.
Iran, in contrast, has no major power providing it with financial help. Its arms relationships with Russia and China have been severed by UN Resolution 1929. Its only military ally is Syria, not exactly a powerhouse.
The Iranian challenge is a serious danger to regional, and even global, stability, which should be addressed in the full context of the real balance of power in the area. Those engaged in such a discussion cannot pretend Israel is a weak and helpless state. But they must also address Israel’s legitimate concerns about Iranian recklessness.
In the 2008 presidential primaries, then-senator Hillary Clinton suggested extending a nuclear umbrella over Israel and others who feel threatened to deter Iran. That is a good idea whose time is coming soon.