The hysteria in Israel on this matter is not justified, but the danger it faces is much greater than that posed by Iranian nukes. It is hard to imagine that a nuclear Iran will attack Israel with non-conventional weapons. The real concern is that the nuclear capability will give it greater freedom of action in using conventional means.
In the short nuclear history of humanity, there has been no instance in which a nuclear-capable country used nuclear weapons against another state with similar capability. At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., Senator Hillary Clinton expressed the opinion there is no real concern that Iran would attack Israel with a nuclear weapon. Why is that? "Because it will be wiped out," Clinton said. Indeed there are many countries that pretend to be mad and not deterred by the idea of a preemptive strike. But human experience suggests there are very few countries that are really crazy.
The main advantage, perhaps the only one, that nuclear weapons gives to a state, is defense against attacks. This is the real meaning of a nuclear-capable Iran. Currently Iran is exposed to attacks on the part of other powers, both from the region and beyond. In its campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has made it clear that such a threat to Iran is very real. The minute Iran holds nuclear arms, attacking it will no longer be a simple matter.
Therefore, the real danger in a nuclear-capable Iran is the immunity that it will grant Tehran. A nuclear umbrella will enable it to act without hindrance in undermining regimes that are not to Iran's liking in the Muslim world. Iran's nukes will also sharpen the conflict between Shi'ites and Sunnis. Faced with a Shi'ite nuclear bomb, the Sunni-majority states are also in line to get nukes. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are in line, and they will be followed by others.
A nuclear Iran will encourage Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, and consequently will also increase the threat to Middle Eastern resources, especially oil. But there is also the possibility that an Iranian nuclear weapon will have a stabilizing and calming effect, similar to that of the Cold War and the India-Pakistan conflict.
A correct assessment of the implications of a nuclear-capable Iran will also result in the correct responses. The real threat is not an Iranian nuclear attack against Israel, but a long-term process aiming to alter the balance of power in the Middle East and allow Iran to alter the image of the region.
The writer taught law at New York and Tel Aviv universities.