Iran could use a nuclear weapon against Israel and get away with it

Wednesday’s IAEA report offered more proof than ever that Iran is racing toward a nuclear weapon. Even President Obama acknowledges this fact. Yet Obama has refused to endorse the tough approach advocated by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. The reason is simple: Israel faces an existential threat of an Iranian nuclear attack, while the United States does not.

With diplomacy and sanctions failing, world leaders still give lip service to the dangers of a nuclear Iran. But they often dismiss the idea that Iran would actually use a nuclear weapon against Israel. They believe that Iran is a rational actor, and that Israel’s strong nuclear deterrent is sufficient to safeguard the Jewish state. It is not.

Israel’s deterrent capacity is only effective against conventional nuclear attacks. If Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, or one of its terror proxies, detonated a suitcase bomb inside of Israel, it would be nearly impossible to prove that Iran’s leaders ordered the attack. And without conclusive evidence of Tehran’s direct involvement, an Israeli counterattack would be illegal, unjust, and unwise. Therefore, it is plausible that Iran could use a tactical nuclear weapon against Israel without a serious fear of an Israeli reprisal.

Many in the West dismiss this threat out of hand. They argue that the principle of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) protects Israel: If Iran were to fire a nuclear weapon at Israel, Israel would retaliate and destroy Iran.

On the face of it, MAD appears logical. Iran’s leaders are not suicidal (in fact, their main purpose in pursuing a bomb is self-preservation), so Israel’s nuclear arsenal seems like a strong deterrent. But MAD only works if Tehran launches a conventional, traceable, and undisputed nuclear attack on Israel (for example, via a ballistic missile launched from inside Iran).

If, however, Iran were to provide a small nuclear weapon to Hamas or Hezbollah, or use the Revolutionary Guard to detonate a nuclear device in Israel, MAD would no longer apply.

Israel could only launch a counterattack if it had conclusive proof that the nuclear attack was ordered by Iran’s leaders. If Tehran fired a nuclear warhead via a missile silo in Iran, culpability would be fairly easy to prove. It would strain credibility for the mullahs to argue that such a strike occurred without its direction. Further, it is a principle of the laws of war that a country’s leaders are responsible for the actions of their military officers.

But if Iran smuggled a nuclear weapon to a terror proxy, or used the Revolutionary Guard to covertly detonate a device in Israel, proving culpability might be impossible.

Israel would first need to establish that the nuclear device came from Iran, not the former Soviet Union or North Korea. But if the device is successfully detonated, obtaining this proof would be extremely difficult according to scientists at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology.

But even if Israel could trace the device back to Iran, it would still need to prove that Tehran itself ordered the detonation. This could be impossible to prove with certainty.

How, for example, could Israel prove that the Ayatollah gave the bomb to Hezbollah — not that Hezbollah stole the bomb, or that a radical segment of the Revolutionary Guard smuggled it into Israel without permission? Yes, Israel could use human intelligence to cast doubt on such a claim, but would this be enough to justify starting a nuclear war?

Similarly, even if Israel could definitively prove that the bomb was set off by a Revolutionary Guard operative, Iran’s leaders could claim that the operative was working on his own. True, Israel could invoke the principles of international law to hold Tehran accountable, but in a nebulous situation like this, would that principle be enough to justify a possible nuclear war?