ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Israel's Concerns and Iran's Nuclear Programme

Iran's nuclear programme is under the international scanner. Even as the country asserts that the programme is meant only for peaceful civilian nuclear energy development, Israel and the United States have stepped up their opposition to Tehran owing to their own strategic calculus.


Israel’s Concerns and Iran’s Nuclear Programme

Ahmad Reza Babaei

Iran’s nuclear programme is under the international scanner. Even as the country asserts that the programme is meant only for peaceful civilian nuclear energy development, Israel and the United States have stepped up their opposition to Tehran owing to their own strategic calculus.

Ahmad Reza Babaei (ahmadreza12004@ is with the department of political science, Azad University, Tehran.

Economic & Political Weekly

february 9, 2008

n December 2003 Iran signed an additional protocol (AP) to its nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor nuclear activities and provide greater access to sites to verify Iran’s status as a non-nuclear-weapon state under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Over the preceding 18 months Iran had come under mounting international pressure to prove its benign motives in the face of revelations about past failures to declare work on uranium enrichment and plutonium separation – the two routes to producing nuclear weaponsgrade material. As a consequence, longheld American and European suspicions have intensified that Tehran is pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons capability. However, Iranian officials from across the political spectrum, including hard-line conservatives and moderate reformists, have emphasised the country’s purely civilian ambitions [Bowen and Kid 2004]. The Iranian government denies possessing a nuclear weapons programme and claims that its main priority in the civil nuclear sector is to generate electricity to meet future energy demands. Four reasons are given for not relying on the country’s significant fossil fuel reserves to achieve this end. These are (i) Iran will become a net importer of crude oil and some of its

by-products if energy continues to be used in the present form; (ii) domestic use of local fossil fuels will “drastically affect Iran’s foreign exchange earnings from export of crude oil and natural gas”;

(iii) fossil fuels are better used in petrochemical and other processing industries

to generate greater added value; and

(iv) increased reliance on fossil fuels will have serious environmental impact [Bowen and Kid 2004].

Since 2003, America’s position and credibility in the region has become significantly weakened by the chaos in Iraq. Iran, on the other hand, has serendipitously benefited from America’s policies. The defeat of Iran’s traditional Arab rival, Iraq, and the emergence of a pro-Iranian Shiite leadership there, the removal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, America’s unpopularity in the region, the Arab governments’ perceived inability to act independently of Washington or oppose its policies, America’s perceived inability to push Iran back militarily and Tehran’s unhindered march towards a nuclear capability all served to strengthen Iran’s position in the region and increase Israel’s strategic vulnerability.

Iran’s Position

Defining precisely the current matrix of relationships in west Asia remains problematic. State nationalism, in middle easternism, and Euro Mediterranianism have been some of the descriptions applied to characterise the regional state system [Hinnebusch 2002]. About the Israel’s war with Hezbollah we should note that, even the Iranians were surprised by the


outcome and about Hezbollah’s fighting power. The fear, and to some extent the expectation, had been that Israel would destroy Iran’s Lebanese ally, after which the entire regional calculus would change in Iran’s disfavour [Zarif 2006].

Instead, Iran’s – and even more so, Hezbollah’s – stock in the Arab street rose to unprecedented levels; Israel and the US were weakened; and pro-western Arab governments found themselves squeezed between their disgruntled populations and a White House that showed little consideration for the interests and wishes of its allies.

Officials in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have warned of an emerging “Shia crescent” stretching from Iran through Iraq into Lebanon and have issued veiled threats that they might support Sunnis against Shias in Iraq if Iran does not back down. Some observers have speculated about the possibility of an alliance between moderate Arab states and Israel, Turkey and the US against Iran. Indeed, many now believe that a military confrontation between the US and Iran is likely, perhaps even inevitable. Despite the assessment of the US espionage agencies, this choice is strongly on the table.

Israeli Concerns

Concern that Iran’s foreign policy was becoming more aggressive began to emerge after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which vastly increased US and western wariness toward the region. A key turning point came in January 2002, when Israeli commandos seized the freighter Karine A, which apparently was transporting a large shipment of arms and explosives from Iran to the Palestinian Authority [Gasiorowski 2007].

Despite the official position, Iran’s concealment of nuclear activities from the IAEA has given rise to concerns about the country’s nuclear programme ambitions. The programme is believed to focus on the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, partially under the cover of the country’s civil nuclear power activities [Bowen and Kid 2004].

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements about doubting the holocaust and wiping Israel off the map have increased foreign alarm about a possible nuclear-armed Iran, though Ahmadinejad does not control Iran’s foreign policy. More powerful than the president in foreign policy decision-making circles is supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei [Keddie 2006]. Iran has expanded its asymmetric deterrence capabilities by providing a large missile arsenal to Hezbollah and developing its own intermediaterange missiles, sharply increasing its ability to attack targets in Israel and other nearby countries. Ironically, Hezbollah’s missiles proved to be quite ineffective during the 2006 war.

Yet, Israel seems trapped in old thinking. As Iran’s power rises, Israel fears that Washington will be increasingly compelled to strike a deal with Teheran. Such a deal will most likely include some level of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil, which theoretically will enable Teheran to master the fuel cycle. Even if Iran does not weaponise, Israel views such an arrangement as unacceptable since an Iran with nuclear technology would significantly limit Israel’s manoeuverability in the region. Fearing that Washington will betray Israeli security interests in a US-Iran dialogue, many in Tel Aviv prefer war over negotiations [Parsi 2007]. A year later, Israel and Iran continue to gravitate towards open military conflict. In a chaotic west Asia guided by a balance of power paradigm where powerful states vie for regional pre-eminence; where Israel seeks a guaranteed strategic military edge over all regional states that have Israel within their reach; where Iran views religious fanaticism and asymmetric warfare as legitimate political tools; and where the US justifies its regional presence on the grounds that the local giant (Iran) must be counterbalanced, conflict will remain the norm rather than the exception.1

With Washington unwilling to recognise Iran as a regional power with legitimate security interests, with Israel insisting on maintaining military superiority over its neighbours while clinging to its arsenal of 200 nuclear warheads, and with Iran openly predicting the military exodus of the US from the region, open warfare may be avoided, but peace will remain elusive [Parsi 2007].

The Egyptian Calculus

Egypt is the leading military power of the Arab world, and one of its most populous nations. Egypt had a population of over 78 million in 2006 [Cordesman 2006]. Egypt is geographically farther from Iran and does not feel the direct Iranian military threat as acutely as those states located closer. Nevertheless, Cairo is likely to view Iran’s nuclear programme as another blow to the Egyptian world view of being the leader in the Arab and Islamic worlds. As journalist Nicholas Kralev observes, “Egyptian politicians, intellectuals and journalists are worried that their country is losing its status as a major regional player in the Middle East”. The blow to Egyptian prestige because of Iran’s nuclear programme status may not be sufficient in itself to alter Egypt’s restraint from a nuclear weapons programme, but it adds to an already large pile of incentives to pursue nuclear weapons. Egypt had the incentive to contemplate nuclear weapons well before Iran’s nuclear project come to the foreground in regional politics. The Egyptians appear to be continuing efforts to modernise their ballistic missile forces, which could be used as a foundation for a nuclear weapon deterrent posture [Russell 2005].

Syria’s Position

Syria, at least initially might take some solace from Iran’s nuclear weapons stocks. Damascus is increasingly isolated and in a weakened regional security position. It is encircled by states that enjoy strong security relationships with the US; Israel in the south-west, Jordan in the south, Iraq in the east, and Turkey in the north. Syria, while once the reigning influence in Lebanon, has only Iran to cooperate with in regional politics against the other regional powers influenced by the US. In the short term, Damascus might welcome Iran’s nuclear weapons as a means to

available at

New Light Publishing Company

Makayiram, Ambalathara, Thiruvananthapuram-695 026, Kerala Ph: 09847160348

february 9, 2008


bolster by association its marginal regional power [Russell 2005].

Over the longer run, Syria will come to see the negative strategic consequences of Iranian nuclear programme. If in response to Iranian nuclear programme, Turkey and Iraq pursue nuclear weapons options, Syria will see its power position in the region deteriorate even further.

Saudi Arabia’s Calculation

Saudi Arabia harbours a deep sense of vulnerability to foreign invasion. This insecurity was heightened by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Iraqi forces in Kuwait were poised as a dagger at the heart of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis rely on the US for security assistance, but from the Saudi perspective, that assistance has not always been reliable.

While the Iraqis and the Iranians have historically posed the greatest direct threats to Saudi Arabia, the royal family of Saud keeps a wary eye on Israel, whose weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile capabilities are the most formidable in west Asia [Russell 2005]. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan – three key US allies whose regimes would have much to lose from Iran’s rise – took the unusual step in the early days of the war of chastising Hezbollah for having started the war.

Never before had an Arab government so publicly denounced an Arab group fighting Israel. The Saudi calculation was that, by offering political cover for other countries to condemn Hezbollah, America would rein in the Israelis. But the Saudi move backfired [Parsi 2007]. The Bush administration worked to prolong the war rather than shorten it, embarrassing the Saudi leadership by revealing its lack of influence over the Bush White House.

Israel’s Reactions

Formal Reactions: Lacking the military capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme itself – in spite of much fanfare to the contrary – Israel is pressurising the Bush administration to strike Iran before the end of 2008. In June 2007, Israel’s deputy prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, visited Washington to hold strategic discussions regarding Iran’s nuclear programme with the Bush administration officials.

Economic & Political Weekly

february 9, 2008

According to press reports, Mofaz urged the US to give the diplomacy option with Iran an expiration date at the end of the year, after which the military option would be exercised. “Sanctions must be strong enough to bring about change in the Iranians by the end of 2007”, Mofaz told secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Moderate elements in Israel, however, recognise that recent events indicate that the security of the Jewish state is no longer served by this balance-of-power paradigm. Israel cannot indefinitely balance its more populous neighbours, particularly as they – like Iran – begin to master nuclear technology. Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s former foreign minister argued in the pages of Haaretz last year that “the question today is not when Iran will have nuclear power, but how to integrate it into a policy of regional stability before it obtains such power... The answer to the Iranian threat is a policy of détente, which would change the Iranian elite’s pattern of conduct [Shlomo 2006].

On January 4, 2004, the Israeli defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, an Iranan-born Israeli, spoke to the Iranian people via a radio broadcast. Speaking in his native Farsi, general Mofaz told his listeners bluntly that Israel would not accept an Iranian nuclear programme [Vallely 2006].

Informal Reactions: Israeli military officials were quoted in press reports in January 2006 as saying that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) got the order to get ready for a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites by March 2006. It is unclear as to what type of military strikes Israel may choose, if it decides to respond preemptively. Some have argued that Israel may declare its nuclear weapons and establish a “mutually assured destruction” deterrence [Cordesman 2006]. While the impact of an Israeli declaration remains uncertain, it is likely to have little impact on Israel’s strategic posture in the region, since most states factor Israel’s nuclear weapons into their strategic thinking.

Some Israeli experts have argued, however, that Israel does not have viable military options. They argue it does not have US targeting capability and simply cannot generate and sustain the necessary number of attach sorties.

Some argue that Israel might do little more than drive Iranian activity further underground, provoke even more Iranian activity, make it impossible for diplomatic and UN pressure to work, and make Israel into a real rather than a proxy or secondary target.

Possible Iranian Response

Iran has considerable capability to retaliate and has threatened retaliation if attacked by Israel. Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki has been quoted as saying that an attack by Israel or the US would have “severe consequences”, and threatened that Iran would retaliate “by all means” at its disposal [Cordesman 2006].

Iran has several options to respond to an Israeli attack; one such option being multiple launches of Shahab-3 including the possibility of chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) warheads against Tel Aviv, Israeli military and civilian centres, and Israeli suspected nuclear weapons sites. Escalate the conflict using proxy groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas to attack Israel proper with suicide bombings. Others include covert CBR attacks and missile attacks from southern Lebanon and Syria, covert attacks on Israeli interests by its intelligence and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps assets. This could include low-level bombings against Israeli embassies, Jewish centres, and other Israeli assets outside and inside Israel.

Despite the hue and cry over Ahmadinejad’s remarks on Israel and the holocaust, Iran has greatly improved relations with nearly every country except for the US and Israel. Despite the nuclear controversy, Iran has a much better track record of cooperating with the IAEA than many other countries, including Israel. But if Iran hopes to continue that trend toward being a respected nation, it will have to make some hard choices about whether to unambiguously work toward a rapprochement with the US. With its nuclear brinkmanship, Iran may have come perilously close to being targeted for a US attack, a scenario that would have done neither the world nor Iran any good. Iran still faces the prospect of tightened sanctions, a move led by the US because of con tinuing fears about Iran’s nuclear


ambitions as well as its support for violent groups.2

Washington’s Standpoint

Concern about Iran’s new foreign policy has sharply increased regional tensions. US officials have implicitly threatened to use force to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme, and in late 2006 and early 2007 they arrested several Iranian officials in Iraq and moved a second aircraft-carrier battle group into the Persian Gulf [Gasiorowski 2007].

The current crisis has exacerbated Washington’s concerns that Iran has made significant progress towards acquiring nuclear weapons despite American international efforts to control the trade in nuclear technology. The Bush administration is particularly worried that Iran is seeking to use the NPT to get close to nuclear threshold and then withdraw after six months notice to develop nuclear weapons [Bowen and Kid 2004].

These concerns are in spite of the fact that, American espionage agencies have declared that Iran has stopped its nuclear programme for making the weapon in 2003. The release earlier this month of “key judgments” from the National Intelligence Estimate – including the bald assertion “that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme” – has caused both astonishment here at home and consternation overseas, where it has resulted in confusion about America’s policy goals and steadiness [Schlesinger 2007].

The US officials know that formidable mountains and deserts protect its borders, and its major cities are well inland, so Iran cannot easily be conquered. However, its oil industry is very vulnerable. And while the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have eliminated two of Iran’s main enemies and left US ground forces deeply bogged down, they also have left Iran almost completely encircled by US air and naval forces, which remain extremely powerful. The obvious suggestions are a number of positive and negative incentives US officials could employ to influence Iran’s behaviour without increasing its need for deterrence or triggering retaliation.

Iran’s leaders clearly would welcome a reduction of US economic sanctions, an

24 end to US efforts to encourage popular discontent in Iran through media broadcasts and other means, and cooperation on border control, naval manoeuvres and other routine security matters. The harsh domestic reaction to Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy in recent months indicates that Iran responds to sticks as well as carrots, including efforts to increase unilateral and multilateral economic sanctions, criticism of its actions by European and regional leaders, and even low-level confrontation, such as the recent arrests of Iranian officials in Iraq.

Finally, direct negotiations between US and Iranian officials could be very helpful, allowing both sides to establish “red lines” delineating unacceptable behaviour, seek opportunities for cooperation, and reduce the intense mutual distrust that now colours their relationship [Gasiorowski 2007]. In other standpoint, Iran has ambitions in the region. It is the biggest country in the Persian Gulf area – and it wants its “natural role” to be recognised. If Iran is to be the regional hegemon, then the US military presence must be greatly diminished. The US army is in Iraq, the navy is in Bahrain, the air force is in Qatar. There are US bases in Saudi Arabia [Rachman 2007].

There is no way that the Americans are going to cede the dominant security role in the Persian Gulf – a region that sits on top of 60 per cent of the world’s known oil reserves and 40 per cent of its natural gas.


Given the new balance in the region and the likelihood of continued Iranian power accumulation, Israel’s security will be better achieved through a significant restructuring of the security environment that deprives Iran of any incentives to continue its aggressive stance towards the Jewish state. The only policy that can achieve such a strategic redesign is comprehensive negotiations between the US and Iran with the aim of détente and a new security order. Rather than objecting to such negotiations and rendering them more difficult by beating on the war drums, Israel’s security would be better served by supporting US-Iran talks and by pushing for Israel’s security needs to be addressed in those discussions. As problematic as détente or negotiations with Iran may be, if the goal is peace and not just the mere avoidance of war, there is much to suggest that no alternative path to a policy of regional integration exists.

This is true despite Ahmadinejad’s statements that Israel should be wiped off the map, cooler heads control Iran’s

Vacancy Announcement of Research Associate

The Crossing Boundaries programme of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs), Hyderabad is organising an international conference on Water Resources Policy in South Asia in December 2008 at Colombo, Sri Lanka. The conference aims at bringing together water professionals, academics, policymakers, activists, politicians and others involved in water resources issues as part of a water policy dialogue to enhance the understanding of water initiatives in South Asia. SaciWATERs is looking for a Research Associate with a Ph. D. in Social Science preferably in Political Science/Public Administration to start work from February 2008. The position is initially for one year extendable on mutual consent and based in Hyderabad. The remuneration is Rs.24,000/- with a higher start possible for the right candidate. Please send your CV to by February 20, 2008.

february 9, 2008


military, which is under Ayatollah References Ambassador’, New York, October 12.

Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, and all know that Iran, even if armed with nuclear weapons, cannot effectively attack Israel.


1 For more information see Babak Ganji, ‘Iran and Israel: Asymmetric Warfare and Regional Strategy’, Swindon, UK, Conflict Studies Research Centre, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, October 2006.

2 See ‘NIE: Teheran’s Choice Now’, The Middle East Time, December 9, 2007.

Bowen, Wyn Q and Kid Joanna (2004): ‘The Iranian Nuclear Challenge’, Journal of International Affairs, 80 (2), pp 257-67.

Cordesman, H Antony (2006): ‘Arab-Israeli Military Forces in an Era of Asymmetric Wars’, Greenwood Press, pp 149-57.

Ganji, Babak (2006): ‘Iran and Israel: Asymmetric Warfare and Regional Strategy’, paper presented at the Conflict Studies Research Centre, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

Gasiorowski, Mark (2007): ‘The New Aggressiveness in Iran’s Foreign Policy’, Journal of Middle East Policy, XIV (2), pp 126-32.

Hinnebusch, A Raymond (2002): ‘The Foreign Policies of Middle East States’, Lynne Rienner, p 118.

Interview with Javad Zarif (2006): ‘Iran’s UN

Keddie, Nikki (2006): ‘Modern Iran; Roots and Results of Revolution’, Yale University Press, pp 334-41.

Parsi, Trita (2007): ‘Iran and Israel: The Avoidable War’, Journal of Middle East Policy, XIV (3), pp 80-85.

Rachman, Gideon (2007) ‘The Myth of a Bargain with Iran’, Financial Times, December 10.

Russell, L Richard (2005): ‘Weapons Proliferation and War in the Greater Middle East’, Routledge, pp 99-115.

Schlesinger, James (2007): ‘Stupid Intelligence on Iran’, Wall Street Journal, December 19, p A21.

Shlomo, Ben-Ami (2006): ‘The Basis for Iran’s Belligerence’, Haaretz, September 7.

Vallely, Paul (2006): ‘Endgame: The Blueprint for Victory in the War On Terror’, Regnery Publi cation, p 73.

Economic & Political Weekly

february 9, 2008

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top