One Button Away from Destruction: Israel’s Dilemma in the Face of a Nuclear Iran

by Danielle Bella Ellison:

Despite increasing efforts at nonproliferation, nine countries currently possess nuclear weapons. None of these countries, however, advocate the destruction of another nation.

On November 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is the UN authority agency, confirmed that the Islamic Republic of Iran is conducting tests and procedures involving the development of a nuclear bomb. It reported that Iran did not halt research and development of nuclear weapons in 2003 as some had previously believed, but has instead been continuing its work on a nuclear bomb. Iran asserts that its nuclear program is only for peaceful energy purposes. While some members of the international community were tempted to believe this claim before, the IAEA report now forces them to see the dangerous truth: Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons. Worse still: it is close to accomplishing its goal.

In July, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran met IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria. (IAEA Imagebank/Flickr Creative Commons)

There are those, including the Iranian leadership, who argue that it is perfectly fair for Iran to possess nuclear weapons. Currently, five countries – the United States, Russia, France, China, and the United Kingdom – possess nuclear weapons legally. Three countries – Pakistan, India, and North Korea – are confirmed to possess them illegally. Israel is widely believed to possess them, although it remains officially unconfirmed. So what if the Iranian regime is often deemed dangerous by many countries? North Korea is also considered unpredictable, but although continual attempts are made toward North Korean nuclear disarmament, the level of alarm being raised about Iran’s program remains much higher.

So what’s the reason for this difference in international attitude towards the two rogue countries’ nuclear program? Simple answer: Iran’s government has taken the official position that Israel must be “wiped off the map.”

Can Israelis allow a country sworn to destroy it to have the capacity to do so with the push of a button? Many say absolutely not. At the same time, others insist that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities with military force, an act that will lead to certain war, is far more dangerous than Iran’s sitting with one or even a few nuclear bombs in its hands.

Those of this second camp point out that, as can be seen in the case of North Korea, just because a country with a problematic dictator possesses nuclear weapons does not mean that this nation will necessarily use them; the expected “second strike reaction” is reason enough to show restraint. But a principle counterargument to this idea is that, unlike in the case of North Korea, many in Iran believe in religious martyrdom — so the fear of nuclear retaliation is null. If mass numbers of Iranians were to be killed in a nuclear or conventional war following an Iranian nuclear strike, some argue that to the Iranian authorities this would be tolerable as long as the war was achieving Islamic goals, which incidentally include the destruction of the Jews.

So what is Israel to do? Destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and risk war? Or sit tight and pray that Ahmadinejad is at least as rational as Kim Jong Il? Both options look grim. But, considering their history, Israelis will not take this threat to their existence lightly.

Danielle Bella Ellison ’15 is in Davenport College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger, focusing on Israel and its regional politics. Contact her at