For about a decade, it seems, pretty much every analyst of Iran's nuclear program has offered up an attempt at reassurance, concluding that Iran was two to four years away from completing its program. Of course, the continued use of this range was an absurdity as the years progressed, unless Iran had stopped the program in its tracks, which was the nonsense communicated in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, alleging that Iran had abandoned a plan to weaponize its program in 2003, while production of enriched uranium continued, supposedly for other purposes.
Today, no one makes a credible argument that a nuclear bomb is not Iran's goal, so the key question remains: how soon will they have one, and can and will they be stopped by Israel on its own, or Israel and the United States, before that happens? Iran continues to deny that it has a nuclear weapons program, while it continues to threaten to destroy the Jewish state in virtually every pronouncement from the leadership of the country. Of course, given the lack of Western intelligence sources within the Islamic Republic, a strike could come too late. Considering the Obama administration's seeming disinterest in even threatening the use of military action to stop the Iranian program, and its pressure on Israel not to act "prematurely" (meaning at a time that could complicate the president's re-election effort), what we are left with is the knowledge that every day that passes brings the date of a nuclear Iran closer.
We also know that the use of sanctions to bring the regime to its knees, and force it to give up its nuclear program, has failed. The waivers the Obama administration have knocked the heart out of the tougher sanctions regimes that Congress has passed. Diplomacy with the mullahs has been a joke, first as subcontracted to the Europeans during the Bush years, since they are supposedly better at this than the Americans. Once Obama was elected, there seemed to be an expectation, at least in the mind of Obama, that Iran would come to its senses and negotiate away its program, because the Iranians were dealing with Obama, whose greatness would be enough to win the day.
With new reports suggesting that an Israeli strike could come in the next few months, a new book by Noah Beck presents a different scenario for Iran to go nuclear from the one that has concerned the West -- namely, Iran developing a bomb on its own. In Beck's book, The Last Israelis, the Iranians have purchased a nuclear weapon or weapons from Pakistan as insurance against any interruption to their own program.
The book begins with the Israelis obtaining this information and realizing that they have at most a week to prevent the program from becoming fully operational. The story revolves around the 35 members of an Israeli nuclear submarine, who may need to take part in operations against Iran, or serve as a second strike deterrent after an Israeli strike at the Iranian facilities.
Since the nuclear era began with Hiroshima, the conventional wisdom has been that nations which possess nuclear weapons are rational, since they understand the consequences of a first strike against another nuclear-armed nation. This is the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD). The U.S., Britain, and France were Western powers with nuclear weapons; the Soviet Union and China were Communist regimes that had them. There were many skirmishes and even wars fought between the two sides and their proxies during the Cold War, but nuclear weapons never became more than the stuff of tacit threats. When Russia began arming Cuba with missiles during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the U.S. challenged the Soviets to step down and withdraw them, and the Soviets complied in exchange for the U.S. removing some older weapons from Turkey. The danger of nuclear weapons proliferation was regarded as a serious problem by the United States, and its Western allies.
It has been assumed that Israel has been a nuclear power for over four decades, but there is no historical evidence that these weapons ever became part of the calculations in Israel's wars. On the other hand, Israel has in the past struck against nuclear programs in two other countries -- Iraq and Syria.
In The Last Israelis, the presumption that Iran accepts the doctrine of mutually assured destruction is called into question. Another question is what the submariners should do if Israel has been attacked and the submarines are out of communication range to receive instructions on how to respond. In typical Israeli fashion, 35 submariners, with almost that many opinions on how to respond, argue over the ethics of striking at Iran, with less than full knowledge of what has occurred in their home country, and later, after they learn some of the details. The book provides a picture of Israelis at work in one of the most claustrophobic and intense environments in the world -- weeks at a time in a submerged submarine in hostile waters. The Israelis on board are a diverse collection of religious Jews and atheists, Druze and Christians, Ethiopians, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews. How each man got to be a member of the submarine force is part of the story, and crew's diversity serves as an explanation for the views held in the debates onboard on the proper Israeli strategy.
This article provides a little more of the background of the novel without giving away the plotline. The book is an argument, I think, for ensuring that Iran does not become a nuclear power. After that point is reached, one can only hope for Iranian rationality, since the MAD doctrine may not apply. If we take the Iranians at their word, rationality cannot be assumed. Would Iran be willing to suffer millions of casualties in order to destroy Israel, thereby becoming an heroic and even a martyr nation to many Muslims, elevating the Shia side in the thousand-plus-year battle with Sunnis for pre-eminence in the Muslim world? What could be expected from Iran if it did not immediately attack Israel, but instead used its nuclear capability to more aggressively threaten its enemies in the region? Why risk either of these scenarios? The Last Israelis is a great read on a subject as current as the headlines, and the book poses a situation where none of the choices are good or easy.
The leaders in the West have so far chosen to punt rather than deal with Iran, precisely because the choices are difficult and success of specific approaches is not guaranteed. But what lies behind the curtain is almost certainly worse.