In Israel, a core disagreement has emerged between Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon and former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan.
We have seen this “movie” before. Despite new eleventh-hour warnings from the IAEA, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency, it still appears that nothing serious will be done to halt the final development of Iranian nuclear weapons. From the start, the international community, in spite of persistent Iranian violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), has refused to act meaningfully against President Ahmadinejad’s bomb. So, what do we do now?
It is a core question that I have been asking (and answering) here for more than ten years.
Today’s answer will require an appropriately competent and systematic analysis. By its shameless unwillingness to make good on operationalizing essential threats of permissible preemptive force, what is known more properly under international law as anticipatory self-defense, the IAEA and the entire international community must accept responsibility for the expected consequences of Iranian recalcitrance. In this connection, should Iran sincerely embrace the end-times expectations of a Shiite apocalypse, this responsibility could have authentically catastrophic implications.
It is, of course, probably much too late to launch any effective defensive operations against pertinent Iranian nuclear assets and infrastructures. For Israel, in particular, as indicated in early June 2011 by former Mossad Chief Dagan, the prospect of any successful preemption against Iran is now entirely out of the question.
What about deterrence of an already-nuclear Iran? Retaliation, unlike preemption, can come only after the fact. It could not, therefore, prevent nuclear aggressions against Israel; it could merely threaten, more or less persuasively, some apt and believable forms of extraordinary ex post facto punishment.
Nuclear deterrence, we must recall, can exist only between fully rational adversaries. In world politics, this means enemies who can “share” an overriding commitment to national self-preservation. Any standoff with a nuclear Iran, however, could prove very different from what had once obtained between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Such a standoff could prove unique, or sui generis.
There could likely be no stable or sustained “balance of terror” between a nuclear Iran and this country or between a nuclear Iran and Israel. In short, this would never be your father’s Cold War.
But what if a nuclear Iran should represent the very worst-case option for Israel and the United States? Here, by definition, any expected costs of preemption, however substantial, would still be more tolerable than the expected costs of not preempting. In Israel today, this particular judgment seems to be the unchanging calculation of Lt. General Ya’alon (IDF/Res.), former Chief of the IDF General Staff and now Strategic Affairs Minister.
Precisely who should conduct an indispensable preemptive attack against selected Iranian hard targets if all other options would expectedly be worse?Naturally, in comparison to the United States, the tactical and political difficulties for Israel would be much greater, and, quite possibly, unbearable. Yet for Israel to do nothing meaningful to defend itself from an openly existential assault, to allow an expressly genocidal regime to go fully nuclear with impunity, could be suicidal. This conclusion is strongly reinforced by the near certainty that the United States could do nothing consequential to protect Israel from direct Iranian attacks, or even from Iranian proxies empowered with nuclear assets that had been transferred from Tehran. (It may also be true, parenthetically, that the U.S. could do little or nothing to protect itself from certain Iranian nuclear terrorist proxies).
To be sure, for Israel there would be multiple and possibly codified assurances of “extended deterrence” from Washington, but, in the final analysis, the only tangible assistance from the United States would likely be personnel and equipment to help bury the overwhelming number of Israeli dead.
No country, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote, has the right of national suicide. Rather, every state’s first obligation is always the assurance of protection. Innocent life must always be preserved.
When Iranian leaders openly proclaim belief in the Shiite apocalypse, a series of final battles presumed a precondition or sine qua non for transforming the profane “world of war” into the sacred “world of Islam,” even the most difficult measures of national self-defense/survival must be considered.
Are there also issues of “justice” in this particular matter? Some would argue indignantly against any American and/or Israeli preemption on the grounds of a presumed need for nuclear “equity” in world politics. Israel, after all, already has nuclear weapons. Why, then, should Iran be treated differently?
International law speaks repeatedly of “sovereign equality.” Isn’t there an evident lack of “fairness” in denying to Iran what has tacitly been allowed to Israel?
Here is a serious answer. Israel’s nuclear forces remain deliberately ambiguous and undeclared for good reasons. These forces have never been brandished in a threatening fashion by Israel’s civilian or military leaders. Never.
Nor does Israel ever call for wiping any other state “off the map.” Israel’s nuclear weapons exist only to protect the Jewish state from extraordinary forms of aggression. Understandably, this includes the prevention of another Jewish genocide, related war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Israel’s nuclear deterrent force would never be used except in defensive reprisal for massive enemy first strikes. In current practice, this means primarily Iranian attacks involving nuclear and/or certain biological weapons. For the time being, none of Israel’s enemies is nuclear, but this could change on possibly several fronts.
If it should actually have to face nuclear enemies one day, Israel could choose to rely upon its own nuclear weapons to reduce the risks of unconventional war, but only insofar as the newly-nuclear enemy state(s) would (1) remain rational; and (2) remain convinced that Israel would retaliate on a nuclear scale if attacked with nuclear and/or certain devastating biological weapons.
For Israel, and for its also vulnerable U.S. ally, there would be very complex problems to solve if an enemy state such as Iran were allowed to conclusively “go nuclear.” These problems would undermine the conceptually neat but unrealistic notion of any balanced nuclear deterrence prospects in the region. Whether for reasons of miscalculation, accident, unauthorized capacity to fire, outright irrationality or the presumed imperatives of Jihad, an enemy state in this fevered neighborhood could conceivably opt to launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel in spite of that country’s own obvious and secure nuclear capability.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many major books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including recent contributions to International Security (Harvard); NATIV (Israel/Hebrew only); Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs (Israel/English); Parameters (The Journal of the US Army War College); and International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His earlier writings on these matters appeared in such journals as World Politics (Princeton); Strategic Review; Special Warfare (DoD); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Affairs; Counterterrorism & Security International; and Armed Forces and Society. Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel, which submitted its private report on ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE to former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon on January 16, 2003. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.