Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes the most important task of the Iranian Revolution was to prepare the way for the return of the Twelfth Imam, who disappeared in 874, bringing an end to Muhammad’s lineage. This imam, the Mahdi or “divinely guided one,” Shiites believe, will return in an apocalyptic battle in which the forces of righteousness will defeat the forces of evil and bring about a new era in which Islam ultimately becomes the dominant religion throughout the world. The Shiites have been waiting patiently for the Twelfth Imam for more than a thousand years, but Ahmadinejad believes he can now hasten the return through a nuclear war. Ayatollah Hussein Nuri Hamdani explicitly said in 2005 that “the Jews should be fought against and forced to surrender to prepare the way for the coming of the Hidden Imam.” It is this apocalyptic world view, Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis notes, that distinguishes Iran from other governments with nuclear weapons.
Lewis quotes a passage from Ayatollah Khomeini cited in an 11th grade Iranian schoolbook, “I am decisively announcing to the whole world that if the world-devourers [the infidel powers] wish to stand against our religion, we will stand against the whole world and will not cease until the annihilation of all of them. Either we all become free, or we will go to the greater freedom, which is martyrdom. Either we shake one another’s hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours.”
There are those who think that Muslims would never use such weapons against Israel because innocent Muslims would be killed as well, but Saddam Hussein did not hesitate to use poison gas on his own people. During the war in Lebanon in 2006, Hezbollah did not worry that rocketing cities with large Arab populations such as Haifa and Nazareth would kill non-Jews (and 24 of the 52 Israeli casualties were non-Jews). Muslims murder each other every day in Iraq. And Iran fought a ten-year war with Iraq in which as many as one million Muslims were killed.
Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani explicitly said he wasn’t concerned about fallout from an attack on Israel. “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession,” he said “the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” As even one Iranian commentator noted, Rafsanjani apparently wasn’t concerned that “the destruction of the Jewish State would also means the mass killing of the Palestinian population as well.”
Iran would never launch a nuclear attack against Israel, some argue because, as the old Sting song used to say about the Russians, the Iranians “love their children too.” In the days of the Cold War, this idea was known as MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction. In the Iranian case, no Muslim leader would risk an Israeli counterstrike that might destroy them. MAD doesn’t work, however, if the Iranians believe there will be destruction anyway at the end of time. What matters, Bernard Lewis observed, is if the infidels go to hell and believers go to heaven. And if you believe that killing the nonbelievers will earn you a place in Paradise with 72 virgins, what difference does it make if you go out in a blaze of glory as a suicide bomber or in the shadow of a mushroom cloud?
Optimists also suggest the Iranians are driven more by rationality than theology and would not risk using nuclear weapons. Others believe they are irrational and therefore cannot be trusted to hold their fire. One does not have to believe the Iranians are irrational, however, to foresee the possibility of an attack on Israel with nuclear weapons. Rafsanjani, the President of Iran before Ahmadinejad, was just as adamant about destroying Israel as his successor. Contrary to the old aphorism that you can’t win a nuclear war, he argued that Iran could achieve victory. He said that “Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack.” Since Iran has 70 million people and Israel only has seven million, Rafsanjani believed Iran could survive an exchange of nuclear bombs while Israel would be annihilated. The rhetoric was bombastic, but he and other Iranian leaders might first consider the possibility that Israel could conceivably launch far more missiles and the outcome might be very different than he imagined.
Rafsanjani is correct about Israel’s vulnerability. Besides the population difference, the disparity in size of the countries is such that it does not take a whole arsenal of ICBMS like the old Soviet Union had to destroy Israel; Iran need only have three crude bombs to attack Israel’s three major population centers – Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem – and it’s goodbye Israel.
Iran will not have to use nuclear weapons to influence events in the region. Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Nuclear Forces, said the potential danger of an Iranian bomb is not the possibility of a nuclear strike against some countries, but the ability to assume a more bold approach in dealing with the international community after becoming a nuclear power. “The real threat is that Iran, which is already ignoring all resolutions and sanctions issued by the UN Security Council, will be practically ‘untouchable’ after acquiring nuclear-power status, and will be able to expand its support of terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah” said Dvorkin (RIA Novosti, March 12, 2009).
Furthermore, by possessing a nuclear capability, the Iranians can deter Israel or any other nation from attacking Iran or its allies. When Hezbollah attacked Israel in 2006, for example, a nuclear Iran could have threatened retaliation against Tel Aviv if Israeli forces bombed Beirut. The mere threat of using nuclear weapons would be sufficient to drive Israelis into shelters and could cripple the economy. What foreign investors will want to risk their money going up in the smoke of a mushroom cloud? Will immigrants want to come to a country that lives in the shadow of annihilation? Will Israelis accept the risk? Israeli leaders will have to decide if they can risk calling the Iranians’ bluff.