Living with a nuclear Iran

There are those, like my esteemed teacher Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who maintain that Iran must not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon because it is not only an existential threat to the state of Israel, but because, as R. Gordis puts it "Iran merely needs to possess the bomb to undermine the central purpose of Israel's existence—and in so doing, to reverse the dramatic change in the existential condition of the Jews that 62 years of Jewish sovereignty has wrought." See his piece "The Other Existential Threat."

In his article, R. Gordis all but directly calls for a military attack on Iran. After comparing a possible strike on Iran to a strike to the successful Israeli attacks on nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria, his only comment on the reaction to an attack on Iran's nuclear activities is to say we should imagine the "scope of worldwide outrage that would follow Israeli attacks…"

Fortunately, Israel's (and apparently America's) leaders have a better understanding of the true implications of a military attack on Iran. I have personal experience with Iran's military: from 1978 to 1979 I lived in Tehran and was a technical instructor to the Iranian Air Force. To show the fallacy of comparing an attack on Iran with the attacks on Iraq or Syria, consider the following:











Distance to capitol from Tel Aviv (km)




Military Budget

$12 billion

$20 billion

$1.8 billion

$3.8 billion

Fighter Aircraft





Military strength rank





Iran's military is FAR stronger than either Syria or Iran. Going from attacking Syria to attacking Iran is like going from attacking a 97-pound-weakling to attacking Arnold Schwarzenegger. An attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities would be extremely difficult to carry out – the distance is great, the facilities are reinforced, many buried under mountains, and Iran has fairly capable air defenses purchased from the Russians. The Iranians have sophisticated technology: they are building their own fighter aircraft.

The big worry is what Iran would do to counterattack. Their air force, admittedly, is probably not much of anything for Israel to worry about; a large number of their combat aircraft were purchased from America a very long time ago (they still fly F4s!) and the US has not been providing spare parts. They probably do have some Shahab 3 missiles that could hit Israel, each with five 620 pound warheads, and reasonable accuracy. But what would really hit Israel, of course, are the 40,000 rockets that Hizbollah has stockpiled since the Second Lebanon War. There should be no doubt that the puppet master Iran would order Hizbollah to fire away. Loss of life is Israel would certainly be much higher than it was in 2006.

There is no doubt that Israel could hurt Iran a lot more than Iran could hurt us. Israel is estimated to have 80 – 100 nuclear missiles, an
d reportedly has a nuclear-armed sub floating around the Persian Gulf. Of course, using nukes would only be a measure of the last resort, as it would make Israel a complete international pariah. Israel has missiles capable of launching satellites into orbit; we could certainly hit Tehran.

All of which is part of the reason we do NOT need to attack Iran. The Iranians are not idiots. Despite Ahmadinajad's rhetoric, the vast majority of Iranian people have no interest in becoming martyrs for the sake of the Palestinians. Most of them could care less about the Palestinians. Most of them are far more worried about the state of the domestic Iranian economy and the price of gasoline.

I'd say it's pretty likely that there will never be an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. We missed the "window of opportunity" for that if there ever was one.

When people get all worked up over a nuclear Iran, I wonder why they aren't more worked up over a nuclear Pakistan. Pakistan already has the bomb; Pakistani intelligence notoriously has ties to the Taliban. I'm much more scared that a Pakistani nuke might fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. I don't believe Iran would launch a first strike nuclear attack against Israel. They want the bomb not to destroy Israel (yes, I know what Ahmadinejad said about wiping Israel off the map). They want the bomb so they will have more clout in the region, and can settle land disputes in the Persian Gulf in their favor more easily. They probably think if they are more powerful, countries like Turkey and Syria will be more attracted to their "camp." I believe Iranian security is better than Pakistani security – I think it's much less likely that an Iranian nuke will fall into terrorist hands.

I'm certainly not happy about the idea of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. I think the world should continue the pressure; who knows, it might work, Libya gave up their nuclear program. But if I were to bet, I'd bet that sanctions will not work, Iran will maintain a state of nuclear ambivalence – let the world acknowledge that any time Iran wants they could do the one year "dash" to a bomb – and the world, including Israel and the US is going to let them get away with it.

And Israel will survive it, as we have survived the many other threats we have faced in our 60+ years of existence. People who want to make aliyah will still make aliyah. Tourists will still come. And we'll be a little bit more nervous when tensions in the region are high.


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

3 thoughts on “Living with a nuclear Iran

  • Peter Friedman


    The fallacy with your position on Iran in your blog “Living with a nuclear Iran”, as in other blogs you have written on the same subject, is that you always relate to your one or two years in Iran 30 years ago, and that the Iranian people are not supportive of a war with Israel. Well as the events of the past year have shown, what the Iranian people think is not particularly relevant to what their leadership does. You could have made the same argument that the German people didn’t really want to do what their leadership did, or what Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot did. Thus everything that flows from your premise of what the Iranian people are like is flawed and really irrelevant, as the Iranian leaders will do what they want to do – the public be damned. Iran is not a democracy and public opinion does not determine their policy.


  • Hi Peter, my experiences in Iran 30 years ago may color my perception, but I maintain my analysis is still valid. Iran is #18 in military strength; Germany was #1. Iran is not the same existential threat to others that Germany was. Heck, Iran can’t attack anyone these days: Americans are in Iraq and Afghanistan, America supports all the other countries surrounding Iran (Pakistan, Persian Gulf, etc.). As I point out, Israel could hurt Iran a lot more than Iran could hurt Israel. I think sanctions are unlikely to work, I think Israel and the US are not willing to pay the price of a “military solution” (I’m certainly not–I don’t think it’s worth 40,000 Hizbollah rockets raining down on my head), so I think we better get used to an Iran that has “nuclear ambivalency,” maybe they do, maybe they don’t have a bomb…

  • Peter Friedman


    The ranking of Iran’s military strength is sort of irrelevant, as it only takes a couple of nuclear bombs to destroy Israel. No one thinks that Iran today has a nuclear bomb, but almost everyone believes that Iran will have a nuclear bomb in the next few years – and this is when they will be an existential threat to Israel. Your calculus on who can hurt whom more is only valid for rational thinking people or countries (like Russia and China), not the religious zealots running Iran. So the question really is would you rather fight a non-nuclear Iran now, or fight a nuclear Iran later – or even if Israel didn’t fight them, have to submit to nuclear blackmail which could have almost the same end result. This is exactly the same question that Europe faced in the 1930’s and they made the wrong decision thus enabling Hitler. No one has yet stood up to Iran, so they think they can get away with anything – exactly the thinking of Hitler.


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