The Iranian need for nuclear capability stems more from fear than it does from hatred. Hostile Israel has nuclear arms; so do Sunni Pakistan and the US - a superpower situated on the Iranian border from the east and west - as does Russia, which borders Iran on the north. Nuclear weapons would enable Tehran to face these threats as an equal and to conduct itself as a regional superpower.
In any discussion aimed at looking into Iran's intentions, it should be noted that throughout the Islamic Republic's years of existence, since 1979, it has not initiated a single war.
The war against Iraq was forced upon it in 1980 by Saddam Hussein. The Iranians didn't invade Afghanistan, in spite of their fear of the radical Taliban regime. They didn't invade the south of Iraq, and they didn't try to expand their border to the north during the downfall of the former USSR. They were smart enough to resolve their conflicts with the Persian Gulf states by diplomatic means.
The Iranians have always displayed political wisdom and a realistic understanding of the limits of power. Moreover, besides Israel and Turkey, Iran is the closest to being a democratic country in the Middle East. Iran is not an absolute dictatorship, and its rulers are also subjected to the rule of law.
Iranian politics have a sophisticated mechanism of balances and restraints to curb the power of its leaders. Iranian President Ahmadinejad is not the state's sovereign. He is obliged to adhere to the rule of the supreme leader (currently Ali Khamenei), and he too is elected by the Assembly of Experts, a group of religious clerics elected through national elections.
The Iranians appreciate Israel's nuclear capability. They are well aware that Israel could deal them a severe blow if attacked. They also know all too well that the US would not hesitate to strike heavily at Iran if an Israeli response does not suffice.
Despite these arguments (recently raised by Bernard Lewis) regarding messianic extremism – namely that they would be wiling to sacrifice themselves in the process - the Iranians have no intention of bringing about the total destruction of Iran by their own volition, particularly at the dawn of a new age and at the reappearance of the Imam Mahdi.
The dark side
Fear, said Master Yoda in Star Wars, leads to the dark side. This is true when it concerns Iran's need to develop nuclear weapons, and perhaps heaven forbid, use them. This is no less true where Israel is concerned in its need to boost its security with a preventative strike due to fear of an Iranian bomb.
Such a preventative strike can only lead to a harsh, all-out war in the region that would ruin the world economy, and Israel would likely suffer heavy losses. Instead of striking a blow, we would do well to seek ways of calming Israeli and Iranian fears.
Statesmen are evaluated by their boldness. Israel's nuclear ambiguity policy has provided it with a protective umbrella for close to 50 years. Today, in wake of the complex challenge presented by Iran, it is time to rethink the country's nuclear arsenal, and try to use its existence in a way that would be most beneficial.
The Israeli government should make a proposal to the international community whereby it would be willing to place its nuclear program under international inspection for 20 years, at the end of which it would reexamine the issue. This would be subject to all states in the region, including Iran and Pakistan, accepting the same rules of supervision without limitation, and halting development of any nuclear weapons.
The objective of such a move would not only be aimed at reaching a compromise and preventing Iran from developing nuclear arms, but also at accelerating processes for initiating regime change. It is common knowledge that the rift between the regime and the Iranian people is growing.
There is evidence that the regime is using the excuse of nuclear injustice in order to enlist remaining popular support. An Israeli statement regarding its readiness for a compromise on this matter would prove to the Iranian public that there's not much in the regime's arguments which in turn would accelerate its demise.
Professor Zeevi is a lecturer at the department of Middle Eastern Studies at Ben Gurion University