From the start, our “international community” has stood by disingenuously as Iran prepared its atomic engines. Yes, of course, there have been intermittent “sanctions,” but nothing that could ever have overridden Tehran’s deep and illegal commitment to achieving nuclear weapons status. Now the game is nearly over, we are in the very last inning, and soon both Israel and the United States may have little choice but to plan for coexisting with a fully nuclear Iran.
It would be a problematic coexistence. Iran remains a manifestly Jihadist state with openly genocidal inclinations toward Israel. Moreover, as the logic of nuclear deterrence is always contingent upon enemy rationality – that is, on an altogether primary commitment to national self-preservation – any Iranian leadership that subscribes to confrontational expectations of the Shiite apocalypse could fall outside this logic. Listening to President Ahmadinejad, who claims unhesitatingly to believe precisely such expectations, there is every good reason for us to be concerned.
Now an additional cause for concern has arisen, one that I have never written about before here in The Jewish Press. Russia, long active on Iran’s behalf, and never a friend of Israel, will sell Iran its SA-20 strategic-range air defense system. Deployment of this system could seriously complicate any Israeli and/or American attempts to de-fang Iran with appropriate hard-target preemptions. More specifically, any Iranian acquisition of these surface-to-air missile systems would pose a new threat to nonstealthy aircraft, forcing difficult changes in our essential offensive tactics and operational planning. The SA-20 has an “engagement envelope” of approximately 100 miles; Iran, in fact, may actually be acquiring the S-300PMU-2 variant, which would have even longer range.
Various jurisprudential issues are closely tied to these urgent strategic considerations. Supported by international law, specifically by the customary right of anticipatory self-defense, Israel and the U.S. also recognize that preemptive destruction of Iran’s growing nuclear infrastructures would not be made less imperative by active defense systems. Israel has already deployed substantial elements of the “Arrow” system of ballistic missile defense, but even the Arrow could not reach a sufficiently high probability of intercept to protect Israeli civilians.
Even a single incoming nuclear missile that managed to penetrate Arrow defenses could kill large numbers. Nor should it be forgotten that Iran could decide to share its nuclear assets with assorted terror groups in the region – groups that could use automobiles and ships rather than missiles as launchers. These groups might then seek “soft” targets in American cities.
Our fates are interpenetrating. Iran’s illegal nuclearization has started a perilous domino effect, particularly among certain Sunni Arab states. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have announced possible plans to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Strategic stability in a proliferating Middle East could never resemble US-USSR deterrence dynamics during the Cold War. The critical assumption of rationality might not apply.
Israel’s security from future Iranian mass-destruction attacks will depend considerably upon its selected targets, and on the precise extent to which these targets have been expressly identified. It is not enough that Israel has “The Bomb.” Rather, the adequacy of Israel’s nuclear deterrence and preemption policies will depend, in part, upon the presumed destructiveness of these nuclear weapons, and on where these weapons are thought to be directed.
A nuclear war in the Middle East is not inconceivable. Israel will need to choose prudently between “assured destruction” strategies and “nuclear war-fighting” strategies. Assured destruction strategies are also termed “counter-value” strategies or “mutual assured destruction” (MAD). Drawn from the Cold War, these are modalities of deterrence in which a country primarily targets its strategic weapons on the other side’s civilian populations and/or on its supporting civilian infrastructures. Nuclear war-fighting strategies, on the other hand, are called “counterforce” strategies. These are systems of deterrence wherein a country primarily targets its strategic nuclear weapons on the other side’s major weapon systems, and on its supporting military assets.
There are determinably serious survival consequences for choosing one strategy over the other. Israel could also opt for some sort of “mixed” strategy. But any policy that might encourage nuclear war fighting should be rejected outright.
I believe that Israel should opt for nuclear deterrence based upon assured destruction. This recommendation will elicit opposition in certain circles, but it is, in fact, more humane. A counterforce targeting doctrine would be less persuasive as a nuclear deterrent – especially to states whose leaders might willingly sacrifice entire armies as “martyrs.” And if Israel were to opt for nuclear deterrence based upon counterforce capabilities, its enemies could also feel especially threatened. This could then enlarge the prospect of a nuclear aggression against Israel, and also of a follow-on nuclear exchange.
Israel’s decisions on counter-value versus counterforce doctrines will depend, in part, on prior investigations of enemy country inclinations to strike first; and enemy country inclinations to strike all-at-once or in stages. Should Israeli strategic planners assume that an enemy state in process of “going nuclear” (e.g., Iran) is apt to strike first and to strike with all of its nuclear weapons right away, Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads, used in retaliation, would hit only empty launchers. In such circumstances, Israel’s only application of counterforce doctrine would be to strike first, itself – an option that Israel clearly, correctly and completely rejects. From the standpoint of intra-war deterrence, an Israeli counter-value strategy would prove more appropriate to securing a prompt peace.
Should Israeli planners assume that an enemy country “going nuclear” is apt to strike first and to strike in a limited fashion, holding some measure of nuclear firepower in reserve, Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads could have some damage-limiting benefits. Here, counterforce operations could appear to serve both an Israeli non-nuclear preemption, or, should Israel decide not to preempt, an Israeli retaliatory strike. Nonetheless, the benefits to Israel of maintaining any counterforce targeting options are always outweighed by the expected costs.
If Iran does go nuclear, regional nuclear war would be a distinct possibility for Israel. Preparations now need to be made to prevent such a war. These preparations will require a clear awareness of how atomic war might start in the Middle East and an informed identification of the best strategic doctrine currently available to Israel
To protect itself against a nuclearizing Iran, Israel’s best course may still be to seize the conventional preemption option as soon as possible. Together with such a permissible option, Israel should reject any hint of a counterforce targeting doctrine. If Iran is allowed to continue with its illegal nuclear weapons development, Israel could be compelled to end its historic policy of nuclear ambiguity. This termination might permit Israel to enhance its nuclear deterrence posture, but only in regard to a fully rational adversary. If, after all, Iran’s leaders were in fact the suicide bomber in macrocosm, no expected level of Israeli retaliation could deter them.
The world has effectively turned a blind eye to a still-nuclearizing Iran. Current “sanctions” are little more than a fly on the elephant’s back. Without a genuinely major change in the international community’s willingness to use appropriate collective force against Iran, or to topple the current Iranian dictatorship (thereby approaching the problem from the “outside in,” to quote my colleagues USAF (Ret.) Lt. General Tom McInerney and USA (Ret.) Major General Paul Vallely in their book, Endgame), an eleventh-hour act of anticipatory self-defense by Israel and/or the U.S. would likely be the last remaining option to block Tehran’s entry into the nuclear club. But even now, especially in light of Russian plans to sell the SA-20 air defense system to Iran, time is just about to run out.
Copyright © The Jewish Press, January 30, 2009. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES, Professor of Political Science at Purdue, received his Ph.D. at Princeton (1971). Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, he is the author of many major books and articles dealing with international law, strategic theory, Israeli nuclear policy, and regional nuclear war.