The recently leaked U.S. decision to give Israel 55 GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators (commonly referred to as “bunker busters”) in November 2009 is not as big of a deal with regard to U.S.-Israel-Iran relations as some reports have made it out to be. In the nearly two years since then, despite the heated rhetoric of the Israeli government and the failure to engage Iran, no overt Israeli attack has been launched (Stuxnet is another story). Bunker busters are not a technology that Israel would be incapable of developing on their own, and history tells us that if the Israeli government feels threatened enough, they will simply attack Iran. The U.S. decision to give Israel these bunker busters was the correct choice and its potential impact has been vastly overstated in the media.
Israel has never asked for permission for assaults on supposed nuclear weapon sites in Iraq (1981) or Syria (2007), and neither a lack of U.S. approval nor a lack of bunker busters would stop them if they felt it required for their survival. To be clear, I am fully opposed to Israel's attacking Iran's nuclear sites, but American bunker busters will hardly be a deciding factor. Had the U.S. refused to sell them, it would just make Israel that much more worried about Iran's nuclear facilities going underground, and it would have reduced the ability of the Obama administration to influence Israeli decisions on the matter in the future.
In fact, the timing of the deal appears more likely aimed at restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: Israel agreed to a 10-month West Bank settlement freeze barely a week after agreement. In addition, the point of keeping the deal secret was to avoid giving the appearance of a U.S. “green light” to Israel to attack Iran. The immediate impact of the deal in 2009 regarding Israel-Iran relations appears negligible, and since it was leaked Iranian state media has been mostly generic in dealing with it.
One fear of those who oppose this deal is that it will needlessly antagonize Iran towards the U.S. Undoubtedly Iran's leadership opposes this deal, but considering that they are well into the process of moving their centrifuges underground, the U.S. move was hardly pre-emptive. Significant U.S. military aid to Israel is not new or unexpected, and this is simply one more piece of it. However, if we can reduce the level of fear that the Israeli government has of the perceived existential threat from Iran, we can reduce the likelihood of a pre-emptive Israeli strike. As anyone familiar with Israeli domestic politics can tell you, they have a particular fixation (some have referred to it even as paranoia) with security. The historical reasons for this are long and complicated (far more than just the Holocaust), but they should be taken into account.
The second fear is that these bunker busters will incite an Israel-Iran regional war. I find it extremely unlikely that Israel would strike Iran in the near-term given the regional turmoil, including the Arab Spring and Israel's deteriorating relations with Turkey and Egypt. Numerous top Israeli military officials since November 2009 have come out strongly against attacking Iran's nuclear facilities. Even if Israel did decide to attack Iran, a lack of U.S. bunker busters would not stop them. Despite Israeli fears that Iran's leadership is entirely irrational, however, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will not willingly sacrifice Iranian civilization just to destroy Israel with a pre-emptive nuclear strike. I have no doubt that he would like to destroy Israel, but the cost of mutually assured destruction is too high.
There are also potential benefits to these bunker busters not directly associated with Iran. Alleviating Israel's security concerns can help to make their government more willing to make concessions for peace with the Palestinians. Historically, elections in Israel that have revolved around imminent or ongoing security threats have resulted in right-wing government victories, whereas elections that have been about domestic issues and/or in an environment of relative domestic security have resulted in more left-wing governments. For those who are especially frustrated with ongoing Israeli settlement activity (myself included), making the Israelis feel more secure could help achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
In the end, though, these bunker busters are just not as big of a deal as they're cracked up to be.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons