The more Israeli leaders huff and puff about their determination to stop Iran's nuclear program, the more sophisticated analysts are inclined to believe that Israel is bluffing. After all, if George W. Bush refused to provide Israel with the bunker busters and refueling capacity to take out Iran's nukes in 2008, the chance that Barack Obama will give Israel the green light anytime soon seems quite remote—this being the same President Obama who greeted North Korea's recent missile launch with a speech outlining his plan to dismantle America's nuclear arsenal on the way to realizing his dream of a nuclear-free world. Israel's performance in the 2006 war in Lebanon was widely depicted as catastrophic, and with Israel's diplomatic standing hitting new lows after the stomach-turning images of destruction from Gaza, the diplomatic consequences of a successful attack on Iranian nuclear facilities might be worse than the prospect of military failure. There is also the fact that no one knows exactly where Iran's nuclear assets are.
Many perfectly reasonable people chalk up the rhetorical excesses of both parties to the hot desert sun and assume that nothing particularly awful will happen whether Iran becomes a nuclear power or not. From a U.S. point of view, at least, there is little reason to doubt the analysis that a nuclear Iran with a few dozen bombs can be contained at relatively limited cost using the same strategies that successfully constrained an aggressive Soviet Empire armed with nearly 45,000 nuclear warheads at the height of the Cold War.
What the nuclear optimists miss is that it is not the United States that is directly threatened by the Iranian nuclear program but Israel—and the calculations that drive our Middle Eastern client state are very different from those that guide the behavior of its superpower patron.
Less sanguine types—who think that Israel isn't bluffing—generally fall into two camps: those who think that the Israelis are crazy and require the firm hand of America to restrain them and those who think that the Iranian leadership lives on a different planet and will use nuclear weapons against Israel. Yet it is not necessary to stipulate that either party is crazy in order to see why an Israeli attack on Iran makes sense.
From the standpoint of international relations theory, the scariest thing about recent Israeli rhetoric is that an attack on Iran lines up quite well with Israel's rational interests as a superpower client.
While Israeli bluster is clearly calculated to push America to take a more aggressive stance toward Iran, that doesn't mean the Israelis won't actually attack if President Obama decides on a policy of engagement that leaves the Iranians with a viable nuclear option. In fact, the more you consider the rationality of an Israeli attack on Iran in the context of Israel's relationship with its superpower patron, the more likely an attack appears. Given Iran's recent technological triumphs, like the launch of the Omid communications satellite earlier this year and the lack of ambiguity about the aims of the Iranian nuclear program, it is hardly apocalyptic to expect an attack within the next year—assuming that the Russians continue to dither about delivering S-300 surface-to-air missiles to protect Iranian nuclear sites. A stepped-up delivery date for large numbers of S-300 missiles could lead to an earlier attack.
The fact that U.S. and Israeli interests with regard to Iran may diverge in radical ways comes as a surprise to many mainstream analysts because of the tendency among both supporters and opponents of America's "special relationship" with Israel to invoke various forms of mind-bending mumbo-jumbo—from dimwitted theories about an all-powerful Jewish conspiracy to childlike evocations of the community of democratic values that unites the two countries. While America's embrace of Israel is partially motivated both by shared values and by the lobbying power of an influential minority group, neither Israel's creaky democratic polity nor the hidden persuasive powers of AIPAC can claim much credit for the billions of dollars in American military credits that Israel enjoys—a vast corporate welfare program that benefits Pentagon defense contractors as much as it benefits Israel's military.
The key fact of the American-Israeli alliance that most commentators seem eager to elide is that Israel is America's leading ally in the Middle East because it is the most powerful country in the Middle East. Critics of the American-Israeli relationship love to conflate American support for Israel before 1967 with America's support since then by citing statistics for tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military credits and aid given to Israel "since 1948," when the Jewish State was founded. In fact, Israel's rise to becoming a regional superpower was accomplished without any significant help from United States. Israel's surreptitious program to build nuclear weapons was accomplished with the aid of the British and the French, who joined with Israel to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt's rabble-rousing President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and who were then forced to give it back by Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Israeli air force pilots who destroyed the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces on the ground flew French-made Mystère jets—not American-made F-4 Phantoms. The U.S. Congress did not appropriate a single penny to help Israel accommodate an overwhelming influx of Holocaust survivors and poor Jewish refugees from Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, and other Arab countries until 1973—25 years after the founding of the state.
By shattering the old balance of power in the Middle East with its spectacular military victory in the Six Day War, Israel announced itself to America as the reigning military power in the region and as a profoundly destabilizing influence that needed to be contained. The parallels between Israel's rise to superpower-client status in the 1950s and 1960s and the Iranian march toward regional hegemony over the past decade are quite striking. Both Israel circa 1967 and modern-day Iran are non-Arab states that utilized innovative military tactics to panic the Arabs. Yet where Iran is a non-Arab country with a population of more than 70 million, Israel was and is a tiny non-Arab, non-Muslim country whose small population and seat-of-the-pants style of leadership made even the country's modest colonial ambitions seem like a stretch. In the absence of any fixed plan of expansion, or any long-term plan for dealing with its neighbors, Israel decided to use its excess military power and captured lands as a chit that it could exchange for resources provided from outside the region by its wealthy American patron.