For Israel, A Nuclear Iran Poses Existential Threat When Israel attacked Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Iraq did not retaliate. Analysts say that wouldn't be the case today if Israel were to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Yet many Israelis support a pre-emptive attack because they believe Iran's regime wants to eliminate their state.
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For Israel, A Nuclear Iran Poses Existential Threat

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For Israel, A Nuclear Iran Poses Existential Threat

For Israel, A Nuclear Iran Poses Existential Threat

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, our continuing series on Iran's nuclear ambitions. Today, we turn to the view from Israel. Iran insists it has no plans to acquire a nuclear weapon, but Israel's leaders believe otherwise. They charge that Iran not only has a secret nuclear weapons program but that it could have a bomb within a year - a bomb it could then use against Israel. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Jerusalem.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: On June 7, 1981, Israel launched the first confirmed military strike ever against a nuclear site. Israeli planes partially destroyed the Osirak reactor in Iraq. There were no Israeli casualties in the operation and Iraq, then under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, did not retaliate. If Israel were to attack Iran's nuclear facilities today, analysts say the scenario would be very different.

Mr. EPHRAIM KAM (Deputy Director of the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University): They'll fire ballistic missiles against Israeli targets. Second option will be to use Hezbollah to warm up the border between Israel and Lebanon. A third possibility is that the Iranians will carry out, by themselves, terror operations against Israeli targets or Jewish targets.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ephraim Kam is the deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Mr. KAM: If we are going to attack the nuclear sites in Iran, it's going to take quite many years until this account will be closed. They won't forget it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So will Israel attack Iran's nuclear sites?

Mr. DANNY AYALON (Deputy Foreign Minister, Israel): Well, I think that we should not rule out any option.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Danny Ayalon is Israel's deputy foreign minister. The United States and other Western powers have given Iran until the end of September to accept talks on its nuclear program. So Ayalon says for now, the Israelis are adopting a wait-and-see policy.

Mr. AYALON: It is quite obvious that Iran should not become nuclear, full stop. The best way, of course, is diplomatic. The second best is through sanctions and economic pressure. But I hope we will not come to a point where we'll have to contemplate other options.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as hawkish on Iran, and the population here supports his position. A recent poll showed that a whopping 66 percent of Israelis would back an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Israelis see the Iranian nuclear threat as more than a simple issue of nuclear proliferation. Most Israelis believe that Iran's regime wants to eliminate their state. Danny Ayalon.

Mr. AYALON: Israel is willing to pay any price to ensure our existence here in our homeland. The Jewish people have suffered too much throughout history. We are not going to let it happen again. And that means we will take all the measures to defend ourselves and to ensure that the Jewish state, the Jewish people and, for that matter, the entire civilized world will not face extinction by a nuclear Iran.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even though the Israeli government says it has the right to act unilaterally, analysts believe it is unlikely to do so. They say Israel would need at least the tacit approval of Washington before acting. Meir Javedanfar is an Iran expert and analyst with MEEPAS, a Tel Aviv-based think tank.

Mr. MEIR JAVEDANFAR (Iran Expert and Analyst, Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company): There are something like 140,000 American soldiers in Iraq. There's 35,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan. Any unilateral action against Iran could cause the Iranians to retaliate against American soldiers. And if this is done without any American consent, then that could put unbearable pressure on relations between Jerusalem and Washington. And this is something I don't think any Israeli administration is willing to risk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is something else at play now as well. Since June, Iran has been hit by unrest over alleged election fraud that has split the political establishment there. An Israeli attack could help a regime the Israelis would rather see toppled. Meir Javedanfar.

Mr. JAVEDANFAR: There's huge cracks within the regime. These are serious, man-made cracks. Even if Israel attacks, the public rallying around the flag will not be sufficient to fix those cracks. And I think yes, an Israeli attack would bolster the regime's popularity, but because of the loss of legitimacy, it's not going to be the regime's savior.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israel is thought to possess a large nuclear arsenal of its own that could deter any nuclear attack. So, Ephraim Kam says, despite Israel's legitimate fears, even if Iran does get a nuclear weapon, it's unlikely to use it against the Jewish state. But…

Mr. KAM: If you are going to have two nuclear powers in this region that do not talk to each other, this might lead to disaster because of miscalculation, misunderstanding, misperception.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many analysts here believe that Israel has not made up its mind yet what it will do if diplomacy and sanctions fail. But recent Israeli air and naval exercises suggest that Israel's military is prepared to attack, even if the politicians here are still undecided. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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