I share Daniel Drezner’s puzzlement concerning Jacques Chirac’s retraction of pretty reasonable claims about the implications of Iranian nuclear proliferation for the Middle East. Example:

Mr. Chirac said it would be an act of self-destruction for Iran to use a nuclear weapon against another country.

“Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel?” Mr. Chirac asked. “It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed.”


In the Monday interview, Mr. Chirac argued that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon was less important than the arms race that would ensue.

“It is really very tempting for other countries in the region that have large financial resources to say: ‘Well, we too are going to do that; we’re going to help others do it,’ ” he said. “Why wouldn’t Saudi Arabia do it? Why wouldn’t it help Egypt to do so as well? That is the real danger.”

In fact, Robert Farley makes similar points in his article in The American Prospect

Iranian nuclear weapons are indeed a threat to Israel, but not for the reasons that Oren and Halevi cite. Iran is extraordinarily unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, and likely won’t enjoy much diplomatic benefit from their possession. The threat the Iranian nuclear program presents is on the same order as the threats posed by the Russian and Pakistani programs. As a new nuclear state, Iran is unlikely to have strong protocols regarding the handling, transfer, and upkeep of both weapons and material. Loose Iranian nukes, rather than purposefully delivered ones, represent the real threat to Israel and to Iran’s other neighbors. Instead of considering this difficult problem, which offers no compelling military solution, Oren and Halevi prefer to write fantastic accounts of supercharged Hezbollah terrorists and a diplomatically dominant Iran. They’re not helping.

I think Rob–and pre-retraction Chirac–are mostly right. But Rob downplays some of the risks of Iranian nuclear weapons for the region.

First, if Iran does achieve an effective nuclear deterrent–and this is, admittedly, a long way off–that might, in fact, make it easier for Iran to pursue certain kinds of aggressive actions. This risk reflects B. H. Liddell Hart’s stability-instability paradox (PDF): mutual strategic deterrence might make it easier for states like Iran to contemplate small-scale actions–directly or via proxy–against their neighbors. There’s a robust debate about whether Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities have de-escalated conflicts between them or led to (1) greater Pakastani willingness to support insurgent and terrorist groups against India and (2) greater willingness by India to engage in limited conventional operations that would have once risked full-scale Indian-Pakistani warfare.

Second, expanding Iranian nuclear capabilities may, in fact, undermine the ability of the US to project power into the Middle East. Even though Iranian nuclear weapons are unlikely to create much of a threat to the United States (the US can retaliate overwhelmingly against Iranian use) they might be sufficiently threatening to undermine public support for American confrontations with Iran. How many Americans would support action in defense of, say, a rump Iraqi state if they feared that a single American city might be destroyed? And we do have reasons to believe that Iranian policymakers would be less constrained, such as the fact that extended nuclear deterrence is inherently less credible than homeland nuclear deterrence. To paraphrase Schelling, everyone believes that the Iranians would, if they had them, use nuclear weapons to defend Tehran. But would the United States use nuclear weapons to defend Baghdad or Tel Aviv? The answer is less clear.

Third, will mutual deterrence dynamics really emerge in the Middle East? The evidence for nuclear weapons deterring aggression is, I think, more ambiguous that one would hope. From Warner D. Farr’s historical sketch of the Israeli nuclear weapons program:

Egypt attempted unsuccessfully to obtain nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union both before and after the Six-Day War. President Nasser received from the Soviet Union a questionable nuclear guarantee instead and declared that Egypt would develop its own nuclear program.[43 ] His rhetoric of 1965 and 1966 about preventive war and Israeli nuclear weapons coupled with overflights of the Dimona rector contributed to the tensions that led to war. The Egyptian Air Force claims to have first overflown Dimona and recognized the existence of a nuclear reactor in 1965.[44 ] Of the 50 American HAWK antiaircraft missiles in Israeli hands, half ringed Dimona by 1965.[45] Israel considered the Egyptian overflights of May 16, 1967 as possible pre-strike reconnaissance. One source lists such Egyptian overflights, along with United Nations peacekeeper withdrawal and Egyptian troop movements into the Sinai, as one of the three “tripwires” which would drive Israel to war.[46] There was an Egyptian military plan to attack Dimona at the start of any war but Nasser vetoed it.[47] He believed Israel would have the bomb in 1968.[48] Israel assembled two nuclear bombs and ten days later went to war.[49] Nasser’s plan, if he had one, may have been to gain and consolidate territorial gains before Israel had a nuclear option.[50] He was two weeks too late.

The Israelis aggressively pursued an aircraft delivery system from the United States. President Johnson was less emphatic about nonproliferation than President Kennedy-or perhaps had more pressing concerns, such as Vietnam. He had a long history of both Jewish friends and pressing political contributors coupled with some first hand experience of the Holocaust, having toured concentration camps at the end of World War II.[51] Israel pressed him hard for aircraft (A-4E Skyhawks initially and F-4E Phantoms later) and obtained agreement in 1966 under the condition that the aircraft would not be used to deliver nuclear weapons. The State Department attempted to link the aircraft purchases to continued inspection visits. President Johnson overruled the State Department concerning Dimona inspections.[52] Although denied at the time, America delivered the F-4Es, on September 5, 1969, with nuclear capable hardware intact.[53]

The Samson Option states that Moshe Dayan gave the go-ahead for starting weapon production in early 1968, putting the plutonium separation plant into full operation. Israel began producing three to five bombs a year. The book Critical Mass asserts that Israel had two bombs in 1967, and that Prime Minister Eshkol ordered them armed in Israel’s first nuclear alert during the Six-Day War.[54] Avner Cohen in his recent book, Israel and the Bomb, agrees that Israel had a deliverable nuclear capability in the 1967 war. He quotes Munya Mardor, leader of Rafael, the Armament Development Authority, and other unnamed sources, that Israel “cobbled together” two deliverable devices.[55]

Having the bomb meant articulating, even if secretly, a use doctrine. In addition to the “Samson Option” of last resort, other triggers for nuclear use may have included successful Arab penetration of populated areas, destruction of the Israeli Air Force, massive air strikes or chemical/biological strikes on Israeli cities, and Arab use of nuclear weapons.[56]

In 1971, Israel began purchasing krytrons, ultra high-speed electronic switching tubes that are “dual-use,” having both industrial and nuclear weapons applications as detonators. In the 1980s, the United States charged an American, Richard Smith (or Smyth), with smuggling 810 krytrons to Israel.[57] He vanished before trial and reportedly lives outside Tel Aviv. The Israelis apologized for the action saying that the krytrons were for medical research.[58] Israel returned 469 of the krytrons but the rest, they declared, had been destroyed in testing conventional weapons. Some believe they went to South Africa.[59] Smyth has also been reported to have been involved in a 1972 smuggling operation to obtain solid rocket fuel binder compounds for the Jericho II missile and guidance component hardware.[60] Observers point to the Jericho missile itself as proof of a nuclear capability as it is not suited to the delivery of conventional munitions.[61]

On the afternoon of 6 October 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in a coordinated surprise attack, beginning the Yom Kippur War. Caught with only regular forces on duty, augmented by reservists with a low readiness level, Israeli front lines crumbled. By early afternoon on 7 October, no effective forces were in the southern Golan Heights and Syrian forces had reached the edge of the plateau, overlooking the Jordan River. This crisis brought Israel to its second nuclear alert.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, obviously not at his best at a press briefing, was, according to Time magazine, rattled enough to later tell the prime minister that “this is the end of the third temple,” referring to an impending collapse of the state of Israel. “Temple” was also the code word for nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Golda Meir and her “kitchen cabinet” made the decision on the night of 8 October. The Israelis assembled 13 twenty-kiloton atomic bombs. The number and in fact the entire story was later leaked by the Israelis as a great psychological warfare tool. Although most probably plutonium devices, one source reports they were enriched uranium bombs. The Jericho missiles at Hirbat Zachariah and the nuclear strike F-4s at Tel Nof were armed and prepared for action against Syrian and Egyptian targets. They also targeted Damascus with nuclear capable long-range artillery although it is not certain they had nuclear artillery shells.[62]