The recent comments made by former Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy raise some very serious questions regarding the Iranian nuclear threat. While casting doubt over PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak's reasoning and expressing great concern over the fact that our fate is in the hands of these two swashbucklers, Saguy said "I don't take the Iranian threat lightly. An Iranian nuclear bomb will be a danger. Not the use of it, incidentally, but rather the possession of it. But I am outraged by the cheapness of the use of the term 'existential threat.' Isn't it enough to say 'serious' and 'grave?' All the historical comparisons to the Holocaust derive from an ideological school of thought."
These words are at the heart of the dispute between those who favor an Israeli strike in Iran and those who oppose it. The proponents, of the apocalyptic camp, contend that Iran would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons against Israel at the first chance it gets, even if such an attack would mean the total annihilation of Iran. According to them, Iran's leaders are driven by an unbridled instinct to self-destruct, which is manifested in the ayatollahs' uncontrollable religious fervor to hurt Iran's enemies, even if the damage caused to the Islamic Republic would be much greater.
The adherents of this camp are not willing to draw lessons from the history of the Middle East. They are not impressed by the cautious and measured conduct of Saddam Hussein, who was also perceived as an irrational leader. The late Iraqi president was trying to get Israel involved in the first Gulf War in hopes of turning the entire Islamic world against the US-led coalition that invaded his country.
Towards the end, the secular Iraqi leader suddenly embraced the tenets of the Quran and launched his Scud missies in our direction. He could have mounted chemical warheads on the missiles, but he chose not to. Saddam used chemical weapons against a defenseless enemy – the Kurds in Halabja – towards the end of the 1980s. In contrast to the prediction of the apocalyptic camp, Saddam's murderous behavior was completely rational.
Those who oppose a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities argue that, like Hussein, Iran's leaders are rational and would not use nuclear weapons against a country which, according to foreign reports, has submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.
Those who are against an Israeli attack do not underestimate the danger a nuclear Iran would pose. It would be, in fact, a real threat, but not an existential one. A nuclear Iran would pose a strategic threat. Nuclear weapons would boost Iran's deterrence and dissuade its enemies from attempting to destroy it – regardless of whether it gets involved in local disputes, directly or through proxies.
In essence, Iran is looking to create a balance of terror with Israel and the West, just as Israel's stockpile of nuclear weapons has deterred Egypt and Syria and limited their goals during the Yom Kippur War. They knew that any attempt to annihilate Israel would force the Jewish state to employ its "doomsday" weapons. Iran and the rest of the region's countries have learned from history. These countries know that having nuclear weapons would limit Israel's military options against them.
Perhaps Netanyahu and Barak know deep down that the apocalyptic camp's assumptions are invalid, and perhaps, at the end of the day, they actually belong to the strategic camp. Maybe they believe that launching a scare campaign is the only way to get the public behind a preemptive attack on Iran. Their use of apocalyptic rhetoric is aimed at throwing sand in the public's eye. They assume it would be easier to secure the public's support for a preventive strike that would allegedly lift a concrete existential threat than garner public support for an adventure that is aimed at maintaining Israel's military edge in the conventional battlefield.
Professor Yossi Yona is a lecturer at Ben Gurion University and a Senior Fellow at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute