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End of nuclear monopoly, Israeli dreams for regional hegemony?
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After the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 1991 pushed Israel into greater competition with Iran in the region, the Jewish state found itself in a position to make a conscious bid for regional hegemony. Thanks to its commitment to the process of material power maximization since, today, in terms of the conventional realm, the quantitate power of its neighbors has significantly been outscored by Israel’s qualitative military, which put the state in a relatively successful position to cope with both conventional threats and guerilla warfare on the way to upgrade its status as regional hegemon. This article examines Israeli efforts to become a dominant state in the region, and argues that the potential rise of a nuclear Iran would restore the balance and thereby hinder Israel’s hegemonic moves.

More than two decades ago, Kenneth Waltz, the initial constructor of the International Relations theory neo-realism, attributed the absence of war in Europe during the Cold War to three major factors: the distribution of military power on the continent, the rough military equality between the two states comprising the two sides; and the fact that each superpower was armed with a large nuclear arsenal. Under this view, the only way out for the continent would, therefore, be nuclear proliferation, since nuclear power as a weapon of mass destruction could supply great deterrence without the need for aggression. In a parallel view, John Mearsheimer, the founder of offensive realism, argued in his piece, Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War, that if Germany were given nuclear weapons, Europe would manage to maintain stability despite the emergence of the multipolar system with the demise of the Soviets. However, those arguments have widely been criticized as European countries established relative peace without the need of these two renowned thinkers’ nuclear weapon predictions, coming together under the roof of the European Union, which, according to many, eventually turned into a success story.

Waltz, then, gave voice to a similar approach one more time in his 2012 piece, Why Iran should get the Bomb?, arguing that the unchecked aggressiveness of Israel in the region would be suppressed if Iran turns into a nuclear power. In other words, a nuclear Iran would restore the balance that would initially lead to regional stability and then regional security, which is the main concern of all the states in the system. In his mind, when a state obtains a second-strike capacity, it becomes secure because the outcome of a potential nuclear war is clear and absolutely devastating. In that sense, Waltz’s stance regarding the influence of nuclear weapons is clear: “A widely proliferated nuclear world will be markedly peaceful and stable and perhaps one to be welcomed.”[1] On the other hand, possessing nuclear weapons for Mearsheimer does not necessarily mean assurance of security, and one “should anticipate a future in which expansionist clashes aimed at thwarting the ability of rivals to undermine security are as frequent as they have been in the past but more dangerous because of the raised stakes inherent between actors that possess nuclear weapons.”[2] Even though Waltz and Mearsheimer seem to disagree over the outcomes of a proliferated nuclear world, their conclusions appear to agree that the biggest obstacle to Israel’s hegemonic ambitions in the region would be the rise of an Iran with nuclear power, confining the Jewish state’s decades-long nuclear monopoly to history books. In other words, Iran, as the main actor being able to affect whether Israel will be able to achieve its strategic goals, puts Israel in fear, which leads to the prevention of the rise of another competitor/balancer. The words of UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond regarding Israel’s strong objection toward the nuclear agreement reveals what kind of Iran the Jewish state desires in the future: “The question we have to ask is what kind of a deal would have been welcomed in Tel Aviv. The answer, of course, is that Israel does not want any deal with Iran. It wants a permanent state of stand-off […]”[3]

Offensive emphasis on security: Israeli grip on power maximization

In one of the most common hypotheses put forth by offensive realism, an International Relations theory belonging to the neo-realist school of thought, states haunted by fear have intense trust issues and always act upon the motto “eliminate any possible future deficit and possible rise of a rival as no one can predict what the future holds,” which could only be materialized through the establishment of regional hegemony by overcoming neighbors.[4] The defeat of Saddam Hussein in 1991 and his absolute ouster with the U.S. invasion in 2003 did not only move Israel and Iran into a hegemonic competition in the region, but also literally put this offensive motto into practice.[5] Since their common enemies vanished, the two states began to perceive each other as major geopolitical and military rivals on the way to the achievement of a regional hegemony, and formed their foreign policy preferences and military doctrines accordingly. Even though a growing body of literature argues that domestic factors are gaining great importance in explaining Israeli behavior due to the ever-increasing influence of the disturbed Arab population within the county, existing findings indicate that Israel’s strategic action is still mostly driven by the desire for power maximization to achieve regional hegemony and thereby security. For instance, Israel’s military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) between the years 2000 and 2014 has consistently been higher than the growth of its GDP itself. Even after the almost four-decade-long decline in the military burden is taken into consideration, Israel still spends more on armament compared to the size of its economy and population than any of the 11 major world economies. According to a Central Bureau of Statistics report released in 2013, the state allocated approximately one-fifth [6.9 percent of GDP] of its budget for military expenditure while this amount is around 5 percent in the U.S., 2.8 percent in the UK and 2.3 percent in Iran.[6] Not much changed in 2013 as the Israeli government spent a total of $16 billion on defense, which amounted to 5.8 percent of GDP, while the expenditure of the U.S. on its military came in at 3.8 percent. According to the dataset released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2014, Israel spent 12.490 billion shekels in 1988. This number initially rose to 20.168 billion shekels in 1992 and then to 30.440 billion shekels in 1996, 34.636 billion shekels in 1998, 40.074 billion shekels in 2001, 48.293 billion shekels in 2003, 50.700 billion shekels in 2008 and finally 61.263 billion shekels in 2013.[7]

When examining the major conventional threats in the region, one sees that Syria[8] and Iran are far from being able to match the Jewish state in terms of military spending. According to the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, the Syrian government spent $24,492,000,000 between 2001 and 2011, while Iran spent $106,162,000,000 between 2001 and 2009.[9] However, the Israeli military expenditure reached up to $193,517,000,000 between 2001 and 2011, not to mention the U.S. military support, which has been provided mostly as a grant since the mid-1980s.[10]

In the present day, Israel is admittedly the only conventional power in the region capable of embarking on a military operation against Iran, including a pre-emptive airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities, while Iran is willing to challenge Israeli influence in the region by shielding its own hegemonic moves with decades-long desired nuclear weapons.[11] The fact that Israel fusses over its decades-long nuclear monopoly in the region is actually nothing new and dates back to the declaration of the Begin doctrine, a doctrine to refer to the Israeli government's preventive strike to stop potential enemies from possessing weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear weapons in particular. Within the concept of this doctrine, which was announced by then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1981, the Jewish government destroyed an Iraqi nuclear facility, located only 17 kilometers southeast of the capital Baghdad, after Saddam Hussein announced to the world that Iraq was close to challenging Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region. The Israeli government also bombed Syria in 2007 for the same reason. In a similar vein, Israeli officials, now, repeatedly declare Iran as the greatest adversary in the region and therefore, try to prevent its return to international system as a legitimate actor, while trying to create idiosyncratic security mechanism in the Middle East.

For Israel, Iran’s perceived rising influence is particularly alarming in that it is reaching Israel’s borders in Lebanon and Gaza through its political and military support to Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel also worries that Iran’s influence will only grow and Israel’s maneuverability will decrease if Iran acquires a nuclear weapons capability. […] A nuclear Iran may also become more aggressive outside its traditional sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf region and increase its activity in the Levant area surrounding Israel, although one could argue that Iran has already increased its activism in this arena over the past decade even without nuclear capabilities.[12]

Even though Israel’s daring stance does not necessarily mean that it will embark on a war against Iran any time soon, one simply cannot turn a blind eye to Israeli officials’ absolute consensus over determination of the prevention of the rise of a nuclear Iran.  After all, the world witnessed a leaked audio recording in August of 2015 claiming that the Israeli government planned to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities and military targets in 2010 and 2011, but the plans were reportedly held off upon reluctance of several top military officials.

Return of Existential Fear

The Jewish state began to lack conventional threats by the mid-1970s, and found itself in an unprecedented secure environment where its existence at the very heart of the Middle East was de facto accepted by the surrounding states for the first time its establishment. Especially following the 1973 Yom Kippur war and the neutralization of Egypt, the decades long Arab-Israeli conflict narrowed to a guerilla war against several armed organizations and limited friction between Israel and Syria over Lebanon and Golan Heights. In the-mid 1980s in particular, the threat of terrorism replacing the possibility of a large scale all-out war was seen by many as a historic improvement because the threat posed by the Arab world to Israel’s national security turned into low-intensity terrorism activity carried out by individuals and not the state. However, decades after the demise of Israel’s existential fear, Ehud Eiran and Martin Malin brought the issue back on agenda, arguing that Israel’s fear of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is not just about hindering Israel’s hegemonic ambitions but also giving rise to the fear of annihilation in the future, making the issue a matter of national security, which is the primary goal of every state in the system.[13] In a similar vein, in a speech he delivered before the U.S. Congress on March 1, 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of being a sponsor of terrorism not only in the Middle East but also around the world, saying that Tehran was “as radical as ever” and the much-debated nuclear deal being carried out with the United States would not prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon, rather it would pave the way to a bomb to wipe Israel off the map.

Today, the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei spews the oldest hatred, the oldest hatred of anti-Semitism with the newest technology. He tweets that Israel must be annihilated -- he tweets. You know, in Iran, there isn't exactly free Internet. But he tweets in English that Israel must be destroyed.[14]

However, no other Israeli officials have so far managed to express the Israeli fear of nuclear proliferation better than former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon: "Israel cannot afford the introduction of the nuclear weapon [in the region]. For us, it is not a question of balance of terror but a question of survival. We shall, therefore, have to prevent such a threat at its inception."[15] As William Booth and Ruth Eglash noted in a New York Times article on July 14, 2015, the head of the right-wing religious party, The Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett is among the fiercest opponents of the deal. “Today a terrorist nuclear superpower is born, and it will go down as one of the darkest days in world history,” said Bennett, opposing the deal.

The question of whether a nuclear Iran would really pose a threat to Israel's very existence in the Middle East seems to be a controversial issue as there is no consensus on whether it would be a threat to Israel's hegemonic ambitions rather than an existential one or if it is a direct and immediate existential threat to the state. Strong concern is voiced by many that Iran, by hiding behind the shield of nuclear weapons, could give rise to its military aggressiveness in the region and assistance toward terrorist groups. Iran has systematically been accused by Israel, the U.S. and many other states of being one of the world's most active state sponsors of terrorism and that as a radical power with regional hegemonic aspirations it is not just any other country that can easily re-adapt to the international system in a short span of time.[16] According to the U.S. State Department’s 2011 Country Reports on Terrorism, Iran “has historically provided weapons, training, and funding to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, including the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), although Hamas’s ties to Tehran have been strained due to the Syrian civil war.” Similarly, the former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council counts Iran’s support for terrorism as one of the main components of the strategy on its way to regional hegemony. “The Iranian threat with its four components – the nuclear project, the support for terrorism, the attempts to undermine pragmatic Arab regimes, and the ideological-theological threat – remains at the core of Israel’s foreign policy agenda.”[17]

Over the past 20 years, Iran has also been perceived by Israeli officials as the main source of instability due to its alleged close ties with the Taliban, militants in Iraq, major Palestinian armed groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Jihad Movement, and its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime during the Syrian civil war. In fact, top Iranian officials have never hidden their ties and support for Hezbollah. The supreme leader’s military adviser, Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated during an interview with state television on May 22, 2015, that “Iran’s friend,” the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement, also acts as a direct proxy of the Iranian administration while Hamas is relatively more independent due to its own sources from Gulf sheikhdoms as well as the Palestinian community itself.[18]  

The removal of international sanctions imposed on Iran for decades might also pave the way for a quick recovery of the Iranian economy and the funds allocated to arms and may lead to a quick military built-up to challenge the Israel Defense Forces’ absolute superiority in the region. For Israel, a deal that would grant international recognition and legitimacy to Iran in the international arena would “extend the regime's longevity, putting it in a significantly better position to cross the critical threshold down the line, with no guarantee that it will be stopped.”[19]

Indeed, one of the main reasons that Israel strongly opposes the agreement is that it simply legitimizes and improves Iran’s political stand while granting access to financial resources, including the previously frozen $100-150 billion in accounts worldwide. It is estimated that Iran’s return to international politics as a legitimate power will provide it with hundreds of billions of dollars from sanctions relief which would significantly improve its influence in the region.[20] Even U.S. President Barack Obama, who is certain that “the agreement will keep Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium in a place where they cannot create a nuclear weapon,” said in an interview with the National Public Radio (NPR) in December 2014 that a deal would bring a halt to Iran's isolation and enable it to become a regional power. The deal seems to have caused a deep rift not only among U.S. Senate Republicans but also Democrats, who would be expected to side with the deal against a likely Republican veto. Chuck Schumer, the first high-profile Democrat to publicly oppose the nuclear deal with Iran, noted that what concerns him most is that Iran would receive at least $50 billion and that this money would allow Iranian decision makers to create further problems in the region. According to U.S. Democratic Senator Cory Booker Iran’s “heinous acts” in funding terrorism are likely to speed up with more money, which would help it enhance the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist group. According to another U.S. senator, Mark Kirk, the Iranian regime, set to get as much as $150 billion when sanctions are lifted, will use this money to directly target the United States, Israel, and other allies.

Concluding Remarks

According to a report released by Business Monitor International in October, 2014, the Israeli military is a “highly sophisticated, well-trained and well-armed military, even though it is doomed to suffer from numerical disadvantage over surrounding Arab counties.”[21] Israeli Defense Forces’ qualitative superiority may, therefore, lead to a quick conclusion that the Jewish state, sooner or later, would achieve a regional hegemony. However, in reality, things seem more complicated. First of all, Israel’s stance towards Palestinian issue has always been a matter of controversy and thereby difficult to explain as it constitutes the foreleg of a national security agenda which would determine Israel’s future success in achieving its strategic goals in the region while maintaining security at home. Even though the ongoing Palestinian issue is far from posing any threat to the existence of the Jewish state, it still is an open wound for Israel. Hamas and alike asymmetrical threats, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, represent strong dilemmas for the Israeli government, proving its inadequate remedy for internal cohesion before embarking on power maximization in the regional front.

Yet, expecting a drastic shift in the near future from Israel’s conscious bid to become a dominant state in the region due to its “marked material power” would be futile. Although the ongoing Palestinian issue and intense security problems, mostly at the individual level, along with the unpredictable characteristics of the region and unpredictability in the U.S.-Israel relations, seem to be millstones round its neck, Netanyahu’s government is expected to remain faithful to the state’s traditional security policy that is mostly driven by power maximization in the face of an increasing Iranian influence across the region. Throughout history, Israeli decision makers have never been willing to live with only a modest amount of security, in a move to confirm Mearsheimerian offensiveness that suggests states “recognize that best way to ensure security is to achieve hegemony now, thereby eliminating any possibility of a future deficit.”[22] Only a few claim that Iran armed with nuclear weapons would not easily turn into an increasingly assertive regional power and face Israeli state with a more aggressive and capable regional alliance. Therefore, Israel’s apprehension over the military dimension of the Iranian nuclear program is likely to pave way for offensive moves, as the Jewish state, as explained above in detail, is well capable of taking independent action to relieve its anxiety. Depending on his country’s “marked power,” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu already made it clear during his 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress that “even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand” against the potential rise of a nuclear Iran.

Arslan Ayan is a political correspondent and commentator based in Toronto, Canada. He earned his master’s in the International Relations Department of Istanbul's Fatih University with a thesis focusing on the stance of the State of Israel towards material power, which he is extending into a book in Turkish, titled “Gücü Yeniden Tanimlamak: Bundan Sonra Nereye?" His research interests lie in the area of state-centric security issues and power politics, with a special focus on International Relations theories. He is also a close observer of Israeli and Turkish foreign policy developments and an active participant in academic discussions involving these countries.


[1] Zanvyl Krieger, Ariel Ilan Roth, “Nuclear Weapons in Neo-Realist Theory,” International Studies Review, Vol.9, No.3, (2007), p.370.

[2] Krieger and Roth (2007), p.370.

[3] Ben White, “Trouble Ahead: Growing Rift Between Israel and Its Allies,” Middle East Eye, August 2, 2015, www.middleeasteye.net/columns/trouble-ahead-growing-rift-between-israel-and-its-allies-1781238853

[4] We use the word hegemony as dominance and strong influence on others, not conquest.

[5] Dalia Dassa Kaye, Alireza Nader, Parisa Rosha, Israel and Iran; A Dangerous Rivalry (Santa Monica: Rand National Defense Research Institute, 2011), pp.15-20.

[6] Moti Bassok, “Israel Shells Out Almost a Fifth of National Budget on Defense, Figures Show,” Haaretz, February 14, 2013, www.haaretz.com/israel-news/business/israel-shells-out-almost-a-fifth-of-national-budget-on-defense-figures-show.premium-1.503527

[7] SIPRI Military Expenditure Data 1988-2014, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/milex_database

[8] We will evaluate Israel-Syria rivalry until the fall 2011 when the Assad regime has lost control in most parts of the country due to the civil war that turned the state into a failed one. Egypt also excluded as a rival state due to the ongoing Camp David Accords with Israel.

[9] SIPRI 1988-2014.

[10] SIPRI 1988-2014.

[11] Emily B. Landau, “When Neorealism Meets the Middle East: Iran’s Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons in (Regional) Context,” Strategic Assessment, Vol.15, No.3 (2012), pp.32-34.

[12] Kaye, Nader and Rosha (2012), pp.15-20.

[13] Ehud Eiran and Martin B. Malin, “The Sum of All Fears: Israel’s Perception of a Nuclear Armed Iran,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol.36, No.3 (2013), pp.77-89.

[14] See Netanyahu’s March 2015 Address to American Congress.

[15] Richard Russel, “Arab Security Responses to a Nuclear-Ready Iran,” in Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran, eds. Henry Sokolski, Patrick Clawson, Strategic Studies Institute (2005), p.40.

[16] A New York Times article likened Iran’s longstanding regional ambition to Russia’s, Germany’s, and Britain’s hegemonic aspirations before World War I, saying that it will never play by the rules as it brazenly defies this international order. Soner Cagaptay, James F. Jeffrey, and Mehdi Khalaji, “Iran Won't Give Up on Its Revolution,” April 26, 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/04/27/opinion/iran-wont-give-up-on-its-revolution.html

[17] Eran Etzion, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Situation Assessment for 2008–2009,” Strategic Assessment, Vol.12, No.1 (2009), pp.52–53.

[18] Ray Takeyh, “Iran, Israel and the Politics of Terrorism, Survival,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, Vol.48, No.4 (2006-2007), pp.83–96.

[19] Micheal Herzog, “Israel Confronts the Iran Nuclear Deal,” The Washington Institute, July 24, 2015, www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/israel-confronts-the-iran-nuclear-deal

[20] Herzog (2015).

[21] The Israeli army currently has slightly more than 4,170 advanced combat tanks, 2,500 of which are advanced Merkava (Chariot) and recent model or improved M60 (Magach 6 and Magach 7) main battle tanks.[21] It also has an inventory of some 10,000 APCs, 670 armored infantry fighting vehicles (AIFV), 3,386 obsolete half-tracks, 620 self-propelled artillery weapons, 456 towed weapons, 224 multiple rocket launchers, some 4,100 mortars, over 1,200 modern antitank guided-weapons launchers, some 250 recoilless rifles, and under 1,300 light surface-to-air missiles. Anthony H. Cordesman, Israel and Syria: Military Balance and Prospect of War (London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008), p.96.

[22] John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), pp.34-35.

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Thu, December 01, 2016 10:34 AM (about 66925 hours ago)
What hegemony, its called defence from destruction
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