Matthew from Caffeine Bunker asks whether the Israeli officials and academics with whom I met "regard Iran as seeking a nuclear weapons capability for power balancing and security self-assurance purposes or if they regarded them as more of an impending existential threat and regional expansionist/revolutionary power. What are they anticipating the regional behavior of a nuclear-capable Iran to be like?"
An excellent question, with a not-so-easy answer.
Almost all of the military types, most of whom are now retired and working for think tanks such as the Institute for Counter Terrorism, seemed to be exceedingly worried about Iran and the potential nuclear proliferation. They pointed to last year's war with Hezbollah as a sign that Iran is growing bolder, and argued that the inability of Israel to crush Hezbollah weakened Israeli deterrence vis-a-vis Hezbollah as well as Iran. The recent Qassam attacks by Hamas from Gaza, in this view, are seen as the fruits of that eroding deterrence. Many of them see an Iranian nuclear weapon as a direct and existential threat to Israel, not in the sense of an immediate attack, but in Iran being so emboldened behind its own nuclear deterrent that it would increase the pressure on Israel from Lebanon and Gaza (and soon in the West Bank, where Fatah's dominance is being steadily eroded by Islamists). And with the US bogged down in Iraq likely incapable of mustering political will for a strike as well as the current high price of oil, Iran's foreign policy will, according to these military types, become more aggressive. The Iranian reform movement lacks any real power, and the hard-liners are moving to expand their reach and spread Iranian influence to contain and respond to the growing Sunni/al Qaeda threat. Those who argued Iran represents a fundamental and potentially existential threat see Iran as the engine of global terror, even more than bin Laden or al Qaeda, and fear that the current political climate in the region strongly favors the regime in Tehran.
However, the more academic, non-military (well, all Israelis are military, but not all of them were career officers) types were much more reserved in their assessments of the threat from Iran. Many of them made the case that while Israel certainly didn't win in the second Lebanese War, Hezbollah, and by proxy Iran, came out with the shortest end of the stick as the looming threat of "unleashing Hezbollah" was exposed to be not too great. Remember, Hezbollah launched over 4,000 rockets into Israel and only killed 43 civilians (although much of northern Israel was evacuated). As one of our speakers said [I'm paraphrasing here], "Iran has green-lighted Hezbollah and has green-lighted Hamas, and the threat just isn't that serious."
According to this position, Iran's nuclear program is cause for concern, but not for panic. Israel does have its own nuclear deterrent, and combined with the failure of Hezbollah in the second Lebanese war and the presence of US troops on Iran's doorstep, Iran will find its options more constrained than it would like. Of course it would be better if Iran was weaker than it is, and if it is not able to develop a nuclear weapon, but in this line of thinking, the threat is a manageable one.
Personally, I agree with the second, more pragmatic line of reasoning. I have been arguing for some time that Hezbollah was the biggest loser in the last Lebanese war, as Iran has long held out the threat of "unleashing" Hezbollah as a potential deterrent, and now we know how impotent that threat is. The same with Hamas in Gaza: It's unthinkable, for the time being, that Hamas could launch a serious invasion of Israel, and short of that seems to be limited to Qassam attacks and minor infiltrations. These of course are problematic, but they are tolerable and pose only a limited threat to Israel. Iran is unlikely, even with a nuclear weapon, to launch a convention invasion.
One real different was whether one believes the apocalyptic rhetoric of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and some of the other more radical mullahs. Many of the military types seems to believe that Iran is irrational and undeterrable, and that a nuclear weapon in those hands would create a very serious possibility of use. I find this a difficult argument to sustain, as public rhetoric is one thing, but risking regime survival is another.
The only person who spoke at length about Iran was David Menashri of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. In his view, much of Iran's current strength stems from the weakness of its potential balancers, such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. He sees the nuclear program as a potential threat, but not an immediate one, and recommended a containment-style strategy, designed to slow down the acquisition of NW as well as encourage internal dissent and the possibility of a domestic revolution against the religious regime. He was one of the more moderate voices, as most of the former career military officers suggested, often overtly, that US military action against Iran was absolutely necessary to maintain regional security.
It often felt like the military types were feeding us a line for us to come back and influence public policy here (if only we academics had that much power!!!!). It is telling that the split seemed to lie between the academics and ex-military. Iran most certainly poses a more serious threat to Israel than it does to the US. However, I for one do not see that threat as being an existential one, and I do not see US military force as desirable, necessary, or imminent.