It is by now a Washington ritual, with delegations of visiting Israeli officials armed with intelligence analyses and satellite imagery insisting to their American counterparts that Iran's nuclear program represents an existential threat to their beleaguered state.
The persistence of such claims has essentially transformed Israeli assertions into a self-evident verity, a proposition that requires no further reproach. The only problem with this assessment is that it's not true. However objectionable Israel maybe to Iran's clerical oligarchs, it does not motivate their nuclear weapons program.
As part of a project that surveyed Iran's discourse on nuclear weapons, including official pronouncements, sermons, speeches and media commentaries, I was stuck by how seldom Israel actually features into these deliberations.
To be sure, for a generation of Iranian clerics, Israel remains an illegitimate state, usurping sacred Islamic lands and serving as an instrument of American imperial encroachment of the Middle East. Such an ideological animus has led Iran to sustain a range of deadly terrorist organizations and Palestinian rejectionist forces plotting against the Jewish state. But Iran's clerical regime does not seem inordinately concerned about Israel's nuclear monopoly, nor does it feel itself necessarily threaten by Israel's formidable armed forces.
Despite Iran's inflammatory conduct, the reality remains that during the past quarter of century it has sought to regulate its low-intensity conflict with Israel and has assiduously avoided direct military confrontation with Jerusalem. This is a conflict largely waged by proxies, as Iran exhibits its ideological disdain for Israel by assisting militant groups. Such a strategy allows Iran to brandish its Islamic credentials without necessarily exposing itself to inordinate danger and does not call for the provision of nuclear arms.
Israel , for its part, has so far been satisfied with containing this conflict within its well-delineated red lines, as continued Iranian provocations have not entailed Israeli military reprisals. Successive Israeli governments have sought to influence Iran's calculus by pushing for an international consensus behind a policy of economic pressure and political isolation of the theocratic regime.
Israel 's coercive diplomacy may not have dissuaded European and Asian states from purchasing Iranian oil, but it has succeeded in depriving Iran of the need for a deterrent "strategic weapon." Because the two states have no territory in dispute, and because Israel has not brandished its nuclear arms to threaten the Islamic Republic, Tehran has the luxury of viewing Israel as an ideological affront rather than a military challenge.
If Israel's nuclear arsenal features in the Iranian debate, it is mainly in the context of international and American hypocrisy in perennially criticizing Iran's nuclear efforts yet maintaining a curious silence on Israel's atomic bombs. Iranian leaders can seek to deflect attention from their own well-documented nuclear infractions by pointing to Israel and India, states that have developed nuclear weapons outside the parameters of the nonproliferation treaty.
If Israel is not the reason, however, why does Iran seek the atomic option? The reality remains that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration's incendiary rhetoric denouncing Iran as an "outpost of tyranny" that is part of an "axis of evil" and the encirclement of Iran with U.S. military power has presented Iran's rulers with a pronounced and imminent threat.
While the United States today may seem like a befuddled superpower entangled in a bloody Iraqi quagmire without an evident exit strategy, for Tehran it is still a state whose antagonistic attitude cannot be neglected and whose power cannot be ignored. Many within the clerical regime are looking toward the bomb as the ultimate guarantee of American reticence.
All this would change should Israel undertake a military strike against Iran's suspected nuclear installations. In essence, such an action would finally move the Iranian-Israeli confrontation beyond its existing limits, transforming Israel into a palpable threat whose deterrence requires the acquisition of the bomb. The Sharon government would be wise to dispense with its much-advertised military option, as such an attack would only imperil the security of Israel and the international community.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, is completing a book on turning points in Iran's foreign policy.