Iran has again indulged in its favourite pasttime of thumbing its nose towards the West with the announcement (unverified) that it has used domestically-made nuclear fuel in a reactor for the first time and produced more efficient enrichment centrifuges. The elaborately staged ceremony to unveil the developments barely concealed Iran's two-finger salute in the direction of the EU and US in particular, who have both recently imposed sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Their concern? That Iran is covertly developing a nuclear weapons programme.
Neither of these technological developments, which are largely unremarkable, heralds the imminent production of a nuclear weapon. What the announcement does do, however, is ratchet up the tension between Iran on one side, and Israel, America, and the EU on the other. The most recent IAEA report (November 2011) on Iran's nuclear programme was unable to definitively prove that Tehran is developing a nuclear weapon. But neither could it conclude that all of Iran's nuclear material was intended for civil, peaceful purposes, as the Islamic Republic has repeatedly claimed.
The prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran for international security are deeply concerning. It would spark a nuclear-arms race in one of the most volatile regions on earth; it would embolden Iran's terrorist proxies, particularly Hezbollah and to a lesser extent Hamas; and it would cause huge volatility in the oil and energy markets. This is predicated on the interpretation that Iran seeks a nuclear weapon to support its aspirations of regional hegemony and to deter the continued presence of the 'Great Satan', the US, in the Gulf. There are many who don't see Tehran's intentions in such a 'benign' light. Others stress we shouldn't assume Iran even has fixed plans or a coherent strategy for the use of a nuclear weapon.
To the Israeli government a nuclear-armed Iran is perceived to be a genuine and viable existential threat. Earlier this year Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu equated the Nazi genocide with the current Iranian nuclear threat and stressed that Israel had an obligation to prevent another annihilation of the Jewish people. Speculation has been rising about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran following comments from Israeli officials and some have forecast a strike is likely sometime this year. Relations between the two countries have been hostile since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Senior figures within Iran, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, have repeatedly made reference to wiping Israel off the map, describing the state (which it doesn't formally recognise) as a "cancerous tumour."
The arguments are stacked in favour, however, of Iran not intending to strike Israel, despite the bellicose rhetoric. For starters, it would be the largest mass suicide note in history. Israel almost certainly possesses a submarine-based nuclear second-strike capability, which presumably has its cross hairs already set on Tehran. And it is almost guaranteed that the US, with its historically close relationship with Israel and massive military might, would support any retaliatory campaign. It would mean the certain end of the Islamic Republic: mass casualties, a crippled infrastructure, an economy in ruins, and swathes of contaminated land uninhabitable for decades.
It is easy to sit here, however, thousands of miles away, pontificating in peace and safety about the (un)likeliness of an Iranian nuclear attack on Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. But if you were the leader of a nation surrounded by hostile neighbours, with a short history characterised by war and conflict, faced with the possibility of a nuclear-armed rival who has repeatedly called for you to cease to exist, could you take the risk?
An Israeli pre-emptive strike is not without its dangers. Iran could retaliate against Israeli and American forces in the region or attack 'soft targets' such as embassies, commercial centres, and diplomats. Tehran could continue to stir sectarian tension in Iraq and intensify its support for the Afghan insurgency in addition to providing greater financial and arms support to Hezbollah and Hamas. Long-term, a strike may embolden the Islamic Republic to reconstitute their efforts to pursue an even greater clandestine nuclear program.
Both a pre-emptive air strike and a nuclear-armed Iran pose significant risks for regional security in the Gulf. To Israeli authorities the former option presents the lesser of two evils and despite the unlikely possibility of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel, perception, as history has repeatedly shown us, is equally as important as reality.