If the public statements of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a number of Israeli officials are taken at face value, they believe irrational behavior on the part of Iranian officials could lead them to use a nuclear weapon if they ever obtain it.
Iran says it has no intention of building a bomb, and senior clerics there have said the use of nuclear weapons are un-Islamic and forbidden, but many Israeli leaders don't buy that.
Mr. Netanyahu told Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg for a separate article last year: "You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs... When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the world should start worrying, and that’s what is happening in Iran."
While that seems an extreme characterization, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never seems to pass up a chance to fuel Israeli fears. Mr. Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust "a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim" and once referred to Israel as a "tumor" that should be "wiped off the map" – though some say that's a mistranslation, and a better one would be "vanish from the map of time."
Wayne White, a former senior State Department intelligence analyst focusing on the Middle East, says that the Iranian government isn't monolithic in its views and that "regime survival" is a top priority for most senior figures, including Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. But he says the antics of Ahmadinejad are a constant irritant that increase the likelihood of conflict. "He’s absolutely the worst nightmare for anyone trying to move this forward," he says. "His rhetoric has been outrageous since 2005."
To be sure, some Israeli officials don't precisely share Prime Minister Netanyahu's view. In a speech last year, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said his fear was that a nuclear armed Iran would some day arm a stateless terrorist group. As for the regime itself? "I don’t think that the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, they are going to drop it immediately on some neighbor. They fully understand what might follow. They are radicals but not total meshuganas," he said, using a Yiddish word that means "crazies."