Political science has analyzed the topic of nuclear proliferation since the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949. After decades of watching the apparent chess game of nuclear brinksmanship between the United States and the Soviet Union, world leaders were met with alarm in the 1970s when both India and Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons.
It is far less acquainted with what even smaller countries would do with those sorts of weapons in a much more tight-knit, yet complex web of regional rivalries. If Iran gets the bomb, the Saudis, Egyptians and Turks might all follow. But what of Israel?
Most experts assume Israel has nuclear weapons under Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity, leading rivals on to the idea Israel might have a nuclear arsenal as an insurance policy. It is telling that since most experts believe Israel has had a weapon for about 50 years, efforts to obtain such a weapon by enemy states have been extremely limited, due to an understanding perhaps that Israel's nuclear weapons are purely defensive. Iraq’s efforts went from fission to fizzle in 1981’s Israeli attack against the Osirak nuclear reactor, and there was the 2007 bombing of an alleged Syrian nuclear research site.
When it comes to Israel’s most immediate concern, Iran, groups like Hamas and Hezbollah would suddenly have a “nuclear umbrella.” That is to say, fighting those groups increases the chance Iran might employ its nuclear weapons against Israel in a war.
“There’s a question about non-state actors like Hezbollah or Hamas. As soon as Iran has a bomb, you have to treat these groups differently,” says Emily Landau of the Institute for National Security Studies.
“The very fact Iran would be a nuclear state would give those proxies a different status.”
It is one thing to consider the possibility that Israel courts nuclear annihilation by going to war with a proxy force like Hamas or Hezbollah. But it is entirely another to think those groups themselves might acquire nuclear technology from the Iranians. It would go against the tendency in history for nuclear states to maintain full responsibility over their weapons in order not to allow smaller state (or non-state) actors to make independent and possibly irresponsible decisions about employing such weapons. There is another reason that Landau highlights that would keep Iran from handing nuclear capabilities to allies in the Palestinian territories or Lebanon.
“I’m less concerned that Iran would purposely transfer nukes to one of those proxies," says Landau. "There is a very low chance of those things happening because nuclear powers tend not to share their weapons because they don't know if those things might come back to be threats against them themselves down the line.”
When asked by Arutz Sheva if talk of possibly using nuclear weapons might be futile because history has shown they have not been deployed since the original bombings in Japan in World War II, Landau is not confident that the lessons of nuclear rivalries the world has seen so far would necessarily apply to how Israel should weigh its strategic needs or options.
“There is a norm against using nuclear weapons because of the way states have interacted. They’ve become seen as weapons of nonuse. It might take years, but things can develop.”
“The accidental use or the prospect of mis-escalation are things that no one wants to happen.”
When asked if another concern was deployment of smaller weapons that could be more easily managed by paramilitary terrorist organizations, Landau pondered the possibility.
“There are tactical nuclear weapons of different sizes. The real question is if they would be used? Conventional weapons could also be more destructive.”
As former Deputy Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University Loren Thomspon wrote in Forbes last year, “Strategic nuclear weapons like intercontinental ballistic missiles are tightly controlled by senior military leaders in Russia and America, making their unauthorized or accidental use nearly impossible. That is less the case with nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which at some point in the course of an escalatory process need to be released to the control of local commanders if they are to have military utility.”
Command breakdown, or lack of discipline in the chain of command, is a real possibility that frightens Middle East observers. Consider the fickle organization of militias in Syria, where allegiance could shift suddenly and competent commanders killed to make way for those with far less experience. If a group that has less depth in man power and officers like Hezbollah were to lose several experienced officers during a conflict while controlling a tactical nuke, someone less familiar with the consequences may make the decision to use it.
Landau believes that Israel’s strategy will likely not be based on matching the alliances anchored by Iran or Saudi Arabia. There are no natural allies for Israel in the region in order to make that happen. Instead, Landau sees Israel falling back on what it has done in the past, “getting certain security guarantees from the United States or rethinking its nuclear policy” regarding disclosure.
In 2003, a group of academics presented then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government with the conclusions of the Daniel Project. That strategic assessment imagined a scenario where another state – specifically Iran – acquired nukes. Instead of continuing nuclear ambiguity, the report suggests that Israel would need to shift its policy:
“Israel should continue with present policy of ambiguity regarding its own nuclear status. This would help to prevent any legitimization of WMD in the Middle East. It is possible, however, that in the future Israel would be well-advised to proceed beyond nuclear ambiguity to certain limited forms of disclosure. This would be the case only if enemy (state and/or non-state) nuclearization had not been prevented.”