“Israel has nuclear weapons. Why can’t Iran have them too.....?”

Published: 7 March 2012
Briefing Number 309

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Summary: It is often argued that “Israel has nuclear weapons. Why can’t Iran have them too....?”  This Beyond Images Briefing provides four responses to that claim:

- The Iranian threat is a blend of nuclear ambition and annihilationist ideology

- Iran supports authoritarian regimes and seeks to intimidate the region – a nuclear capability would embolden it further

- Iranian nuclear material could come into the possession of terrorist groups

- An Iranian nuclear weapons capability threatens the entire international system of non-proliferation  

Background: the arguments and counter-arguments

Israel has declared for over a decade that it is unwilling to accept a world in which Iran possesses nuclear weapons.  And it has argued that it is in the interests of the whole international community to prevent a nuclear Iran.

A counter-argument to the Israeli position is this: “Israel’s position is hypocritical.  The Israelis have had undeclared nuclear weapons for decades. What right do any of us have to prevent Iran from having them, too.....?”

This Briefing concisely responds to that argument.  The key points are the following:

Argument 1: Iran’s blend of nuclear capability and annihilationist ideology: 

  • Iranian leaders have for years been brazenly calling for the elimination the “Zionist regime” (they cannot even bring themselves to use the word ‘Israel’)
  • These ideas pervade the political and military elite of Iran (see Beyond Images Briefing 217), and they have been translated into detailed military plans for the physical annihilation of the Jewish people in Israel (see MEMRI Report No 793, 7 February 2012, describing a published Iranian plan to wipe out Israeli society with waves of ballistic missile attacks across the country)   
  • It is the blend of its nuclear weapons capability with an ideology which openly demands the annihilation of another state which makes Iranian nuclear ambitions so dangerous
  • By contrast, Israeli leaders do not call Iran a “cancerous regime”, or call at fiery mass rallies for the destruction of the Iranian state or of its people

Argument 2: Iran supports authoritarian regimes and seeks to intimidate the region – a nuclear capability would embolden it further

  • Iran is a huge destabilising force in the Middle East, propping up a tyrannical government in Syria, supporting Hizbollah as it undermines Lebanon, and supporting authoritarian Hamas rule in Gaza 
  • Iran stokes sectarian tension in Iraq, and interferes elsewhere across the the Gulf States and throughout the Middle East
  • Iran has been a state sponsor of terrorism against civilians from Argentina to Thailand, Georgia to India
  • Nuclear weapons in the hands of such a country will embolden it still further in its bid to dominate the region, posing a threat to all the peoples of the region
  • By contrast, Israeli nuclear capability has been irrelevant to Israeli regional diplomacy or its military tactics

Argument 3:  Iranian nuclear material could come into the possession of  terrorist groups

  • An Iranian nuclear capability creates the real danger of nuclear weapons material falling into the hands of terrorist groups.   Iran is sympathetic to many such groups, around the world.  Can it assure the physical security of nuclear material?  Surely not
  • The contrast with Israel is huge.  Israel’s nuclear capability is reported to have been developed during the late 1960s.  In the 40 years since then, has anyone in the region or elsewhere ever worried about Israeli nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorist groups?  No

Argument 4:  An Iranian nuclear capability threatens the whole international system of nuclear non-proliferation

  • Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability would fatally undermine the long-standing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
  • Iran is already in breach of various UN Security Council Resolutions for pursuing its nuclear plans
  • And Iran has for years failed to cooperate with the nuclear inspection and verification regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency (the IAEA), which has now published reports of clear evidence of Iranian nuclear weapons plans
  • If Iran goes nuclear, this is certain to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and quite possibly signal the end of international non-proliferation efforts entirely
  • Again, the contrast with Israel is huge.  Israel reportedly acquired its nuclear weapons capability in the 1960s, and declined to sign up to the NPT because it presumably felt that it needed nuclear arms as a last-resort deterrent to offset its strategic isolation and the vastly overwhelming numbers of arms in the hands of hostile Arab states
  • Israel is not in breach of the NPT – unlike Iran. Israel is not perpetually deceiving the IAEA – unlike Iran.  And Israel has repeatedly said that it is in favour of a nuclear-free Middle East in the context of a comprehensive peace in the region 
  • Israel’s behaviour in the last 40 years has not caused global nuclear proliferation.   But Iran’s nuclear ambitions could.  Hence, once again, the position of the two countries cannot be compared

Some related Beyond Images resources

Briefing 305 – 30 December 2011
Thwarting Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions: our failed diplomacy, by former British Minister

Briefing 237 – 17 March 2009
The speech of Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei, March 2009: his call for Israel’s destruction

Briefing 217 – 25 July 2008
Iranian leaders’ incitement to genocide against the Jewish people

And see generally The Iran Press Kit from The Israel Project (www.theisraelproject.org)