A nuclear-armed Iran could deter Israel from going to war against Tehran's guerrilla allies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, a senior Israeli general said on Tuesday.
The Jewish state sees the makings of a mortal threat in Iran's uranium enrichment and missile programmes, and has lobbied world powers to roll them back through sanctions while hinting it could resort to pre-emptive military strikes.
Major-General Amir Eshel, head of strategic planning for the armed forces, echoed Israeli government leaders who argue that Iran, which denies wrongdoing but rejects international censure over its secretive projects, could create a global nuclear jungle and fuel arms races in an already volatile Middle East.
Eshel made clear that Israel - widely reputed to have the region's only atomic arsenal - worries that Syria and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia as well as Palestinian Hamas Islamists who rule Gaza could one day find reassurance in an Iranian bomb.
They will be more aggressive. They will dare to do things that right now they would not dare to do, he said in a briefing to foreign journalists and diplomats.
So this is going to create a dramatic change in Israel's strategic posture, because if we are forced to do things in Gaza or Lebanon under an Iranian nuclear umbrella, it might be different.
Eshel, who spoke at the conservative Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs think-tank, quoted an unnamed Indian officer who, he said, had described the Asian power's friction with nuclear-armed rival and neighbour Pakistan in terms of self-restraint.
When the other side has a nuclear capability and are willing to use it, you think twice, Eshel said. You are more restrained because you don't want to get into that ball game.
Israel waged offensives in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in 2006 and 2008-2009, coming under short-range rocket attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are supported by Iran.
Eshel said there are now some 100,000 rockets and missiles that could be fired at Israel by the guerrillas, Iran and its ally Syria.
Despite seeing its resources strained by a 10-month-old popular uprising, Syria's government has invested $2 billion in air defences over the last two years, and more on counter-measures against any ground invasion, Eshel said, linking both efforts to Syrian wariness of Israel.
He declined to be drawn on whether Israel might try to attack Iran's distant, dispersed and well-defended nuclear facilities alone - or, conversely, whether it could decide to accept a nuclear-armed Iran as an inevitability to be contained through superior firepower and fortifications.
Those decisions, Eshel said, were up to the government and the armed forces would provide it with a tool box of options.
We have the ability to hit very, very hard, any adversary, said Eshel, a former senior air force officer and fighter pilot. But he cautioned against expecting any decisive knock-out blow against Israel's enemies.
(Writing by Dan Williams)