Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a four-part series on Israel, Iran’s nuclear program, and the U.S. Part Three addressed Iran’s nuclear quest and failed efforts to stop its program. Part Four turns to how vulnerable Israel is to the Iranian nuclear threat, how it might resolve its timing dilemma, and what enduring lessons should be learned.
Israel’s Extreme Nuclear-Attack Vulnerability
Let’s begin with the full measure of Israel’s vulnerability if its conflict with Iran goes nuclear. In the event that a nuclear Iran strikes Israel, a nuclear retaliatory strike would likely be launched by Israel. A 2007 estimate by Anthony Cordesman, a strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, estimated that in the first 21 days, Israel would suffer 200,000–800,000 killed, while Iran would lose 16–28 million. Israel would survive, but Iran would cease to exist as a functioning society.
Two key factors should influence these estimates: (a) Israel’s multi-layer ballistic missile defense may destroy many warheads before they land; and (b) Israel’s arsenal includes weapons that yield one megaton, vastly greater in destructive power than the estimated 100 kilotons for prospective Iranian warheads.
However, a grave concern that Iran does not understand is that the threat arises out of a Dec. 14, 2001, sermon delivered on Al-Quds Day (the last day of the month of Ramadan) by the late Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then a former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the version published by the regime, Rafsanjani said this of an Israel–Iran nuclear exchange:
Muslims must surround colonialism and force them [the colonialists] to see whether Israel is beneficial to them or not. If one day … the world of Islam comes to possess the [nuclear] weapons currently in Israel’s possession — on that day this method of global arrogance would come to a dead end. This … is because the use of a nuclear bomb in Israel will leave nothing on the ground, whereas it will only damage the world of Islam.
In a quotation that emerged later, not in the official transcript, Rafsanjani states that in a nuclear exchange, Iran might lose 15 million and Israel 5 million, but Israel would be destroyed whilst Iran would survive as a country. This unconfirmed quotation is fully consistent with the thrust of Rafsanjani’s officially published remarks.
This view that Iran would survive and Israel extinguished is directly opposed to the calculations made by Cordesman, who knows a lot more about nuclear arsenals than Rafsanjani did. But if today’s Iranian leaders believe, as did Rafsanjani, that an exchange would “leave nothing on the ground” in Israel but would “only damage the world of Islam,” they might launch an attack, with catastrophic consequences for both countries, the region, and the wider world.
In addition, geography portends a vast difference for geostrategic vulnerability to a nuclear strike. Consider these projected world area, population, and population-density figures, as of July, from the U.S. Census Bureau’s U.S. and World Population Clock (for U.S. figures) and U.N. population division data (for international figures) reported by Worldometer: Israel’s 9.1 million people (it ranks 100th among all nations) are crammed into a space that is almost exactly the same size as New Jersey, which has 9.3 million. The U.S. population, ranked third behind China and India, is now 335 million, 37 times that of Israel. Iran’s population size ranks 18th worldwide, with 84 million, roughly 9 times Israel’s.
Comparative areas (in square kilometers) are 9.1 million for the U.S., 1.6 million for Iran, 22,600 for New Jersey, and 21,640 for Israel. Iran’s area is 99.4 percent of the combined areas of France, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Population densities per square kilometer are 36 per square km for the U.S., 52 per square km. for Iran, and 400 per square km for Israel; Israel’s population density is thus roughly 8 times Iran’s and 11 times America’s. Israel — far smaller and far more densely populated — is vastly more vulnerable to nuclear attack. Put into national security terms, it lacks spatial — i.e., geostrategic — depth.
Israel’s Dilemma: Attack Before Nov. 3, 2024, or Await U.S. Election Result
Israel faces two possible ways Iran can trip a redline: (a) Miniaturization becomes small enough to mate a warhead to a deliverable device; or (b) Russia deploys the S-400 system to protect Iran’s nuclear facilities and key regime sites. If Israel decides to attack, it will have to go it alone, as Team Biden is pantingly eager to make some sort of JCPOA 2.0 deal. Thus, as with Suez in 1956, Israel will have to keep the Americans in the dark as to the actual launch date, details, and duration of the mission, or else Team Biden will likely tip off the Iranians. (In 2012, when Biden was vice president, the U.S. leaked Israel’s efforts to gain access for a refueling stopover in Azerbaijan, thus killing the idea.)
The Biden administration assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), released July 10, finds that Iran hasn’t carried out “the key nuclear weapons-development activities that would be necessary to produce a testable nuclear device.” Yet the ODNI notes that “Iran has emphasized improving the accuracy, lethality, and reliability of its missiles.”
It is a matter of how Europeans define a nuclear weapon program vs. USA intelligence community’s definition, combined with a serious post-Iraqi WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] analytical paralysis. It is amazing that U.S. intelligence community is still digging its heels in and using the defective, overly defensive 2007 NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] framework.
The timing of Iran’s efforts is especially significant. Iran essentially halted its nuclear program after then-President Donald Trump exited the JCPOA in 2018; Iran then resumed its efforts immediately after the 2020 election of Joe Biden.
Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has denied that his country is making nuclear weapons but added to his disclaimer a boast:
We’re not pursuing nuclear weapons due to our Islamic principles. Otherwise, if we had wished to pursue them, no one would have been able to stop us, just as they haven’t been able to stop our nuclear development up until now and won’t be able do so in the future.
Research and Development (RAND) analyst Gregory Jones published a mini-paper on March 16, concluding that 82.5 percent highly enriched uranium (HEU) suffices as weapons-grade material; he notes that South Africa’s nuclear bombs were enriched to 80 percent. Jones flatly stated that Iran’s 83.7 percent HEU is weapons-grade. According to European intelligence sources, Iran is working assiduously to shorten the breakout time to be able to test a nuclear device.
In 2019, the deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps stated that Iran’s “strategy is to erase Israel from the global political map.” On June 5, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that, contrary to a March 4 agreement, Iran’s compliance per the agreement is limited to a “fraction” of its commitments. Iran is constructing a new facility near the Zagros Mountains in central Iran, likely to be buried 80 to 100 meters underground (260 to 328 feet).
Iran’s arsenal of ballistic missiles is by far the largest in the region. It is the only country on the planet to have developed a 2,000 km (1,250 mi.) range ballistic missile without a nuclear warhead yet ready for it to carry. Named the Shahab-3, it is a liquid-fueled, road-mobile, medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM denotes ballistic missiles with a range between 1,000 and 3,000 km., equal to between 625 and 1,875 mi.).
Against these growing threats, Israel has a vast array of weaponry it did not have a decade ago: vastly superior air, land, and sea assets, plus entirely new drones, etc. Iran’s military capability is far inferior. Islamic Jihad’s May 2023 fusillade of rockets was thwarted by the three-layer missile defense Israel has deployed: Iron-Dome for short-range intercept, which has a 96 percent intercept success rate; David’s-Sling for medium-range; and Arrow 2 and 3 for long-range. Israel’s defense minister says these defenses can intercept Iran’s alleged hypersonic missile. And coming soon is Iron-Beam, a laser system that not only will intercept missiles but also artillery shells, drones, etc., made by Rafael Advanced Systems, whose chairman states that the system will be deployed partially in 2024 and full-scale as soon as 2025. Moreover, Israel has become a leading worldwide supplier of advanced air, land, and sea-based weapons for Western countries.
A senior Israeli official has stated that “Iran knows that breaking out to 90% purity in uranium enrichment will result in an Israeli strike.” Iran has yet to advance miniaturization for a warhead and has not yet mastered all aspects of the complex nuclear detonation initiation sequence.
Can Israel Destroy all of Iran’s Nuclear Facilities?
There is every reason to conclude that Israel can destroy all of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel has matchless ground intelligence, most recently evidenced when the Mossad spy agency captured and interrogated — inside Iran — the mastermind who was planning a terror attack aimed at Cyprus. Add in the remote machine-gun assassination of Iran’s master terror planner, Qassem Soleimani, in 2020.
A few years ago, Israel extricated 10 scientists and their families, and it allegedly assassinated the top Iranian scientist, Mohsen Fahkrizadeh. In 2018, Israel took a huge cache of incriminating documents that proved to the IAEA that Iran had been cheating on the JCPOA. The 2010 Stuxnet worm showed that Israel can deeply penetrate Iran’s cyber networks.
Responses to an Israeli Strike
Any Israeli attack will, to a certitude, be treated as an act of war by Iran. The upshot very likely will be a multi-front war, with Hezbollah from the north, via Syria and Lebanon; Iran-backed terror squads from the West Bank; and, to the south, Hamas terror attacks from Gaza. For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that Israel can fight on multiple fronts and prevail.
This would take place against the backdrop of an America that placates its enemies and oft undermines its foremost Middle Eastern ally, Israel. Europe, in an economic thrall to energy from the Middle East, will condemn any raid. Greater diplomatic leverage will accrue from Turkey, Iran, China, and Russia. In sum, the vacuum created by U.S. lassitude will be occupied by other powers.
The Gatestone Institute’s Col. Richard Kemp, a counter-terrorism expert, exposed the full extent of Team Biden’s appeasement of Iran and Russia: (a) jettisoning most sanctions imposed by Trump; (b) doing nothing while Iran’s uranium enrichment, confined to 3.67 percent by the JCPOA, skyrocketed to 60 percent overall, with some enrichment to 83.7 percent; (c) having war-criminal Vladimir Putin’s Russia serve as proxy in negotiations with Iran; (d) initial release of $20 billion in frozen Iranian regime assets — this list was complied before Team Biden unfroze $6 billion to secure the release of five hostages; (e) a U.S. commitment not to impose sanctions and not to bring Iran’s conduct to the U.N. Security Council — where, unlike in the General Assembly, the U.S. possesses a veto; (f) preparing to attempt a bypass of Congressional legislation if a new deal, or understanding, is reached with Iran.
Kemp notes that the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) specifically requires that any agreement or understanding, formal or informal, be submitted to Congress for review. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) sent a June 15, 2023, letter to Biden, reminding him of this. Kemp attributes Biden’s efforts to a desire for (a) a perceived foreign-policy triumph in the run-up to the 2024 election; (b) a desire to complicate Israeli plans for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities; and (c) an abiding belief that containment of a nuclear-armed Iran can be made to work by appeasing the Islamist regime.
But the greatest danger to Israel — and, correspondingly, the greatest boon to the Iranian regime — is fully explained by Hudson scholar Michael Doran in a recent article, “Biden’s Ties That Bind,” showing how Team Biden’s embrace of Israel is intended to suffocate those in Israel who would strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Doran sees Biden pursuing four “tracks”: (1) express strong rhetorical support for Israel; (2) sponsor joint military exercises; (3) sponsor close coordination between the U.S. and Israeli militaries via Israel’s incorporation into CENTCOM (the U.S. command covering the Middle East); and (4) promoting normalization with Saudi Arabia. Collectively, these actions, each individually superficially plausible, entrap not Iran but Israel.
(A recent webinar [34:17] by the bipartisan Middle East Forum credits Team Biden with providing the protesters with cyber-circumvention tools to afford online access to 30 million Iranians, more than one-third of the population. This is one of the few things the U.S. has done to help those protesting the regime’s suppression of dissent.)
The sheer vacuity of these four tracks was exposed when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) questioned Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at a recent Senate hearing. Cotton noted that Iran had used force against Americans 83 times since Biden took office and that Biden had retaliated only four times. Doran calls this not a loving embrace but rather a “bear hug” designed to prevent independent Israeli military action. Biden’s strategy also targets fissures in Israeli society, among the military, the Knesset, and the voting public. Central to this is demonizing Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving and most successful prime minister since founding father David Ben-Gurion.
Biden’s overarching goal is to kick the Iran issue past the November 2024 elections, advertising a breakthrough that is, in fact, a win for Iran. Doran writes that any failure will be placed on the lack of concessions to Palestinian statehood. He sees the controversy in Israel over judicial reform as literally a godsend, a trifecta for the administration. First, Biden can disguise his fight to destroy Netanyahu under cover of a fight for “democratic values.” Second, American Jews are distracted from the grave, growing threat Iran’s nuclear quest poses. Third, and most importantly, the judicial reform controversy drives a wedge between senior Israeli military and political leadership.
According to Doran, Netanyahu shows signs of caving, allowing a 60 percent enrichment threshold for Iran and playing for time until after the 2024 elections. As American appeasement and Iranian enrichment grow with each passing day, Doran concludes: “The Biden administration says it is protecting Israel and preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It is doing the exact opposite.”
There is one final cautionary tale that Israel no doubt keeps in mind when weighing advice offered by U.S. administrations. Officials from several prior administrations have admitted to giving Israel bad advice. In 2009, Dennis Ross, a longtime promoter of Israel making concessions to Arabs, advised the Israelis to send cement — 600,000 tons — to Gaza to be used, so he thought, for commercial construction; he disregarded warnings from the Israelis that the concrete would be diverted to military use; Hamas used the concrete — surprise! — to construct terror tunnels.
Ross and other officials also advised then-President Barack Obama to be low-key in response to the Green Movement protests against the regime’s fixed 2009 election, fearing that the U.S. would be blamed for outside interference. The protests were crushed, and, with them, the best chance to topple the clerical fascist regime and end its nuclear program.
Earlier, during the Clinton administration’s second term, Middle East adviser Aaron David Miller suggested — NOT making this up — inviting Palestine authority terrorist leader Yasser Arafat to visit the Holocaust Museum in the hopes that he would offer sympathy and thus propitiate Israelis. Arafat, to his credit, spurned the offer. Fast forward to 2023: Team Biden wants Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians to get the Saudis to join the Abraham Accords. Yet the Saudis are fed up with Palestinian maximal aims — no Jewish state — and stubborn refusal to make concessions for peace. These efforts by Americans to “save Israel from itself” are patronizing exercises: Do we really understand Israel’s national interests better than Israelis do?
All this comes as pressure mounts on Iran over its brutal suppression of protests. This May, 108 former world leaders signed a letter endorsing regime change in Iran. One prominent former American official, John Bolton, U.N. ambassador under Bush and national security adviser to Donald Trump, said that the death of Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei could cause the collapse of the clerical fascist regime.
Finally, Iran experts Ruel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh opine that if “Little Satan” Israel were to destroy Iran’s nuclear arsenal, it would prove a far graver blow to the regime than were the “Great Satan” U.S. to do so. They add that Iranians have a long history and culture different from the Arabs; they would not rally to the hated regime because Israel destroyed Iran’s nuclear facilities. In any event, the regime’s appeal, they write, is not to Persian nationalism, which could “rally ’round the flag” after an attack, but rather to an extreme religious ideology the broader public no longer shares.
The Bottom Line
Since Iran’s program was revealed in 2002, the Israelis and Americans have been unwilling to, either individually or together, carry out operations that would end Iran’s nuclear program. That Iran is pursuing a military capability has been clear since 2002. The proverbial can has been kicked again and again down the road. Diplomatic efforts continue despite a near-zero record of success; only Trump managed to induce caution in Iran’s rulers. Per the famed quip of 18th-century monarch Frederick the Great, “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.” Western countries will be ululating lamentations if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold and predictably escalates its multi-front war against the West. With the military option on hold, it falls to the courageous protest movement inside Iran to do our work for us. Absent regime change, the odds are that Iran will join the nuclear-weapon state club.
Iran is determined to join the N-club. The U.S., under both Obama and Biden, has been determined to prevent an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel, for its part, has concluded that its geographic limits make it exceptionally vulnerable to a nuclear strike, far more so than larger Western nations, especially the United States. Thus, Israel cannot depend upon deterrence but must instead follow the path chosen by Israel in 1981 and 2007. It is a path fraught with peril but less perilous than absorbing a nuclear strike.
We persist in declining to permanently learn from experience, as indicated above. Our national security, economic well-being, and civilizational survival are a tripartite warning. We must learn these elemental, enduring history lessons before catastrophe strikes.