As for the risks to Iran, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaking in 2001, was quite blunt about the balance. "The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely, while [a nuclear attack] against the Islamic countries would only cause damage." No wonder the Israelis fear that a theocratic regime that embraces the Shiite culture of martyrdom and responds to the imperatives of jihad would not be deterred by a nuclear balance of terror, in spite of Israel's secure nuclear response capabilities. In other words, rational deterrent theory or the threat of mutual assured destruction would not apply to Iran.
If Iranian leaders wanted simply to scare Israel and pose as the good guys to the other anti-Semitic regimes in the region, they have pressed all the wrong buttons on Israel's sensitive national psyche. Since the Holocaust, the Israelis' primary conviction has been "never again." Perhaps the most famous picture in Israel is the one of Israeli jet fighter-bombers flying over Auschwitz with the intention of making clear Israel's determination to defend itself against threats of horrors to come. Never again will they consign their fate to their enemies. Never again will they live or die at the whim of others. As the former head of the Mossad put it, Israel can't afford to wonder every night if Tehran "will go crazy and throw a bomb on us."
Israeli prime ministers took action against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 to eliminate those countries' nuclear capacities. It worked. The Israelis have even stronger reasons now not to take the risk that someone else will come to the rescue. If President Obama is spending energy to make it known to the Israelis—and the Iranians!—that the United States is opposed to an Israeli last-chance effort, what confidence can Israel have that the United States will wake up in time or even then act with resolution? The Israelis cannot be expected to put full faith and confidence in an American president who fails to recognize the critical threats to Israel.
The Israelis cannot live on that hope. They know the consequences of nuclear bombs hitting Tel Aviv and Haifa: There would be no more Israel. Who would bet his life on the chance that reason might dawn in Tehran and it would hold back from a promised attack? Yes, if Iran were so treacherous as to bomb, the day will live in infamy—but not the victims.
Of course, a nuclear-armed Iran is a threat not only to Israel but to all of Western civilization. When a messianic cult grabs the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, there is no knowing what mad things it will do. It is not restrained by world opinion and still less by opinion at home, not restrained by treaty nor inhibited by constraints of decency. After all, the ayatollahs view most of their critics as infidels; the United States is the "Great Satan."
Iran is not Israel's problem. It is the world's problem. The world, led by the United States, should grapple with it. But if Israel concludes that Obama will not under any circumstances launch a strike on Iran soon enough to prevent it from achieving a breakout nuclear capacity, then it will have no choice but to begin the countdown for a unilateral Israeli attack.
It is not just an outright nuclear attack from Iran that concerns Israel. Iran could raise the stakes by firing conventional rockets. What is more, Iran's sheer possession of nuclear arms would undermine the confidence of the Israeli people in their security at home and so undermine Israel's attraction for creative and productive citizens.
Israel enjoys the support of others. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has criticized Obama as the purveyor of a false hope. At the U.N. Security Council in 2009, he said: "I support the extended hand of the Americans, but what good have proposals for dialogue brought the international community? More uranium enrichment and declarations by the leaders of Iran to wipe a U.N. member state off the map."