Why would the Iranian government spend billions of dollars on trying to develop a few first-generation nuclear bombs (as nearly everyone believes is the case) when the country is so poor it has to ration gasoline?
A lot of reasons have been offered by various experts. Upon developing a nuclear weapon, states win instant prestige and attention beyond what they otherwise might have earned. Take away its bomb, and North Korea would be in the news about as much as Chad.
Nuclear weapons also can change the nature of conventional warfare.
Israel’s Arab neighbors have not waged a full-scale traditional war against Israel since 1973 - in part because there is no longer a nuclear-patron Soviet Union to threaten the use of nukes should Israel strike back too strongly against its aggressors.
But give Iran a bomb or two, and it will be able to guarantee Hezbollah and Hamas - or a coalition of Muslim states - a secure fallback position if they attack Israel and lose.
Then there is inter-Islamic rivalry. If Iran gets a bomb, it will send a message that the Persian Shi’ites, not the Sunni Arabs, are the true effective defenders of the faith against the “Zionist entity.”
Tehran also will remind these monarchies and dictatorships that Iran is an ascending revolutionary power that appeals to the Muslim masses across geographical boundaries.
Some even insist that Iran is apocalyptic - and that it seeks the bomb largely to stage a glorious mass suicide in a nuclear exchange with Israel in which millions go to their deaths, convinced they have at least earned a place in paradise by killing half the world’s Jews for Islam.
All these are the conventional explanations of why an energy-rich Iran is operating thousands of centrifuges. Yet the real reason may be otherwise.
More likely, Iran wishes to break Israel’s will - not necessarily by a nuclear strike. Periodic threats from a nuclear theocracy, it may recognize, would do well enough.
Once armed with the bomb, Iran likely will increase the frequency of its now-familiar denial of the Holocaust. In between such well-publicized lunacy, some Iranians, such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will threaten periodically to wipe Israel off the map - or promise Armageddon if Israel retaliates against Hamas or Hezbollah.
The net effect would be for half the world’s Jews to hear constantly two messages - there was no Holocaust, but there might well be one soon. It would be analogous to the American public reliving the threats of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 - every day.
A recent poll revealed that a fourth of Israel’s population quite understandably might emigrate if Iran gets the bomb. It seems likely that within a decade or two, a nuclear Iran could so demoralize the Israelis by such psychological intimidation that it could unravel Israel demographically without dropping a bomb.
Countries around the world would continue to sit by idly as they profit from lucrative trade with oil-rich Iran - now and then warning the Israelis not to be the pre-emptive aggressor and “start” a war.
Already, the Obama administration seems to be telling Israel that it is increasingly on its own - through pro-Palestinian Middle East affairs nominations such as those of Charles W. “Chas” Freeman Jr. and Samantha Power, its pledge to help rebuild Gaza, its outreach to Syria and Iran, and its irritation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Given demographic realities in the Middle East, if a large minority of Israelis emigrate, the end of the Jewish state becomes possible without Iran ever dropping the bomb it so eagerly wishes to acquire.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.