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Why Israel Fears Containment of a Nuclear Iran

Authors: Uri Sadot, and Avner Golov
May 21, 2014
National Interest

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The past seventy years have taught Americans that nuclear weapons can promote stability, but Israel learned a different lesson. While scholars and policy makers in Western capitals contemplate containment scenarios in Iran, Israeli leaders defiantly state: before containment, we will choose preemption.

For containment advocates, Israel's insistence seems combative and hegemonic. Astute scholars such as Robert Jervis argue that a nuclear Iran might not be disastrous at all, and if handled correctly, may even stabilize the region. After all, North Korea became nuclear, and no nuclear arms race or war has resulted. A nuclear standoff between Israel and Iran, the line goes, would instill more caution into these regional rivals, as has happened between India and Pakistan or the two Cold War superpowers.

But in Israel, a different history was written. In their region, the Cold War wasn't cold at all, but rather an era of bloody proxy wars against Soviet-backed Arab countries. Regardless, Israelis are predisposed to believe that their enemies are irrationally bent on destroying the Jewish state, even at the face of nuclear retaliation. For Israelis, their country is too small to comply with existing mutual-deterrence models, because only two or three bombs are what it would take to wipe out their entire country.

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