As Maj. T.J. (King) Kong put it so well in Dr. Strangelove: “Heck, I reckon you wouldn't even be human bein's if you didn't have some pretty strong personal feelin's about nuclear combat.” We have been used to keeping those feelings at a distance for a couple of decades, but the luxury of not thinking about deterrence, and leaving that job to a small group of specialists, is gone.

The nightmare that the world has kept locked in the closet is rattling around again. Nuclear weapons have always been associated with gut-level antipathy between nations, but even in the most difficult days of the Cold War it was realized on all sides that the goal was to manage conflict and tension so that the weapons were never used. India and Pakistan have fought wars, but stayed far from the nuclear threshold.

Iran and Israel are different. Neither is overt about its nuclear capabilities. Israeli leaders talk openly about using airstrikes to preempt Iran's development of nuclear warheads and regional-range missiles, and it is widely assumed that Israel has already used covert force and violence to that end.

Iran may like to play the innocent, but it runs a clearly ambiguous nuclear program and brags about its missiles—which, by the way, constitute a weak military investment if they only carry high explosives. Its political and religious leaders speak of the elimination of Israel, and have themselves to blame when people listen to them.

In the following pages, Aviation Week analyzes the strategy, doctrine and technology behind both Iran's nuclear program and the talk of a pre-emptive strike. A few key points:

•Iran cannot be bombed out of developing a nuclear-armed missile with the range to reach Israel, at least not with conventional weapons. The best that can be hoped for is a delay of a few years.

•Iran would be committing national suicide by waging a nuclear attack on Israel, given that many believe Israel has an untouchable second-strike capability.

•A premature attack by Iran could fail in the face of Israeli defenses—the defense being a much larger factor here than in the Cold War era.

•Israel and Iran are not the only parties involved. An Iranian bomb would crank up tension throughout the region, quite possibly leading to a new round of proliferation.

Nonetheless, it is dangerous to work on the assumption that Iran's leaders are not rational. In fact, the situation today—a shadowy tale about a weapons program, combined with incendiary rhetoric—may suit them, given Iran's foreign and domestic issues.

Economic warfare and embargoes are weakening Iran's economy, resulting in internal discontent. Using external enemies as a distraction is the oldest trick in the dictator's book.

For both ancient and contemporary reasons, Iran is disliked by many of its neighbors. Its government of mullahs and civilians is neither progressive nor liberal, but it is revolutionary to the hereditary rulers in much of the region. This does not mesh well, from the Iranians' viewpoint, with the fact that its military is weak while its unfriendly neighbors have been on a decade-long buying spree.

Oderint dum metuant: Let them despise us, so long as they fear us. That catchphrase, attributed to another of history's less-attractive leaders, could sum up Iran's policy. Absent conventional military strength, a combination of nuclear weapons and apparent disregard for consequences (also manifested in threats to mine the Strait of Hormuz) is a way to put Caligula's philosophy into practice.

But if feigning insanity is to work, some people need to buy the act, at least some of the time. This is not a good idea if some of those people have a history of failing to recognize real insanity, to their great cost—as the Israelis do. It is an even worse idea with nuclear weapons.

The longer-range version of Iran's Shahab-3 missile could reach targets throughout the Middle East and in southeastern Europe. For more details on the Iran-Israel military balance, check out the digital edition of AW&ST on leading tablets and smartphones, or go to AviationWeek.com/iranthreat