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Defending Israel From Iranian Nuclear Attack


Louis Rene Beres

Louis Rene Beres

(Editor’s Note: This column was written with IDF (res.) Major-General Isaac Ben-Israel, a professor and former Knesset member.)

On January 16, 2003, the private Project Daniel Group first advised then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons.

Our final report, inter alia, urged Sharon to enhance Israel’s deterrence and defense postures, to consider an end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity if Iran should become nuclear, and to refine all pertinent preemption options. It also concluded that Israel should not expect peaceful coexistence with a nuclear Iran, and that active national defenses should be continually strengthened.

Israel’s core plan for active defense remains the Arrow. To protect against attack from Iran, however, this system of ballistic missile defense must always be complemented by improved Israeli deterrence, and by viable options for certain defensive first strikes against appropriate hard targets. Under no circumstances should it be assumed in Jerusalem that a stable “balance of terror” could be created with Tehran.

The core reason is clear. An essential assumption of enemy rationality might not always be warranted. This would not be your father’s Cold War.

Of course, if the Arrow were entirely efficient, even an irrational Iranian adversary armed with nuclear and/or biological weapons could conceivably be kept at bay without launching defensive first strikes, and/or threats of retaliation. But no BMD system can ever be truly “leak proof.”

Moreover, in the future, terrorist proxies in ships or trucks – not missiles – could deliver certain Iranian nuclear attacks upon Israel. In such low-tech but high consequence assaults, there would be no benefit for Israel to any sort of anti-missile defenses.

Israel cannot depend on its anti-ballistic missiles to fully defend against any future WMD attack from Iran any more than it can rely only on nuclear deterrence. This does not mean that Arrow fails to play an important protective role as part of a larger security apparatus. It does play such a role.

Every state has an incontestable right under international law to act preemptively when facing an openly genocidal assault. Israel is no exception. The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice even extends such authority to the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in certain existential circumstances. But, at least for now, Israel could still undertake “anticipatory self-defense” without such weapons.

If, for whatever reason, Iran should be permitted to become nuclear, Israel would have to enhance the credibility of its presumed nuclear deterrent, and to deploy a recognizable second-strike force. This optimally robust strategic force – hardened, multiplied and dispersed – would be fashioned to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against selected enemy cities. Iran should promptly understand, therefore, that the actual costs of any planned aggression against Israel would always exceed any conceivable gains.

One last point warrants mention. The substantial dangers of a nuclear Iran would also threaten the United States. While it would still be at least several years before any Iranian missiles could strike American territory, the U.S. could still become as vulnerable as Israel to certain nuclear-armed terrorist surrogates. In this connection, any remaining American hopes for a “rogue state” anti-ballistic missile shield would reveal the same inherent limitations as Israel’s Arrow.

 

Isaac Ben-Israel (Ph.D., Tel-Aviv University) is a retired major general from the Israel Defense Forces and a professor at Tel Aviv University. While a member of Israel’s Knesset, he sat on the Foreign Relations and Security Committee. Dr. Ben-Israel also served on the IDF General Staff, headed the Israel Space Agency and was a member of Project Daniel.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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