The danger of war is growing again over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran is rattling its sabers, the Republican presidential candidates and others are rattling theirs. But even if Tehran gets the bomb, Israel will have overwhelming military superiority over Iran, a fact that should not be lost in all the heated rhetoric.
The former head of Israel’s Mossad, Meir Dagan, says Iran won’t get the bomb until at least 2015. In contrast, Israel has had nuclear weapons since the late 1960s and has jealously guarded its monopoly on them in the region. The Israelis have used force in the past against developing nuclear threats. Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 were the targets of highly effective Israeli airstrikes against developing nuclear weapons programs. Israel has seriously considered conducting such a strike against Iran and may do so, especially now that it has special bunker-busting bombs from the United States.
Estimates of the size of the Israeli arsenal by international think tanks generally concur that Israel has about 100 nuclear weapons, possibly 200. Even under a crash program, Iran won’t achieve an arsenal that size for many years – perhaps decades.
Israel also has multiple delivery systems. It has intermediate range ballistic missiles, the Jericho, that are 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.
Israel will also continue to have conventional military superiority over Iran and the rest of the region. The Israeli military has a demonstrated qualitative edge over all of its potential regional adversaries, including Iran. The Israeli air force has the capability to penetrate air defense systems with virtual impunity, as it demonstrated in 2007 when it destroyed Syria’s nascent nuclear capability. The Israeli armed forces’ intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities are vastly superior to those of its potential rivals. The 2006 Lebanon war and the 2009 Gaza war demonstrated that there are limits to Israel’s conventional capabilities, but those limits should not obscure the underlying reality of Israel’s conventional military superiority over its enemies.
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 and sea power on equipment purchased by the shah 40 years ago, much of which is antique today. Moreover, the June 2010 United Nations sanctions and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 impose a very stringent arms ban on Iran. Virtually all significant weapons systems – tanks, aircraft, naval vessels, missiles and so on – 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 and has the money to do so, the U.N. 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 of self-sufficiency. It certainly cannot build a modern air force to compete with that of Israel on its own.
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 aid every year. That is the longest running financial assistance program in American history, dating back to the 1973 Arab-Israeli 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. When Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested cutting aid to Israel to zero in one Republican debate, his poll numbers plummeted. He backtracked very quickly.
U.S. assistance is also far more than just financial aid. The Pentagon and Israel engage in constant exchanges of technical cooperation in virtually all elements of the modern battlefield. Missile defense has been at the center of this exchange for over 20 years now. The United States and Israel also have a robust and dynamic intelligence relationship, which helps ensure Israel’s qualitative edge. Every American president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama has been a supporter of maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge over its potential foes, including U.S. allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Iran, in contrast, has no major power providing it with financial help. Its arms relationships with Russia and China have been severed by Security Council Resolution 1929. Its only military ally is Syria, not exactly a powerhouse. And Syria is now in the midst of a civil war, its army dissolving. If President Bashar Assad falls, Iran is the biggest loser in the “Arab Spring.” Hezbollah will be the second largest loser. The deputy secretary general of Hezbollah and one of its founders, Sheikh Naim Qassem, wrote in 2007 that Syria is “the cornerstone” of Hezbollah’s survival in the region. While Syria and Hezbollah have their differences, the relationship is a “necessity” for Hezbollah.
So don’t let the hot air from Tehran or the Republican debates confuse the reality on the ground. Iran is a dangerous country but it is not an existential threat to either Israel or America.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and has advised four U.S. presidents on the Middle East and South Asia. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.