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September 1, 2015 / 17 Elul, 5775
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After the U.S.-Iran ‘Rapprochement

An undifferentiated or across-the-board commitment to nuclear ambiguity could prove harmful to Israel's's overall security.

Louis Rene Beres

Louis Rene Beres

Israel has much to fear from the agreement worked out by Western nations and Iran. Whatever happens over the next few months, it is clear that under no circumstances, as everyone must already understand, would the United States seriously consider going beyond sanctions to any residual uses of preemptive military force –to what international lawyers would more formally call “anticipatory self-defense.”

How, then, should Israel proceed? In principle, of course, Jerusalem has refused to remove from the table any unilateral preemption option. In fact, however, it is unlikely that any such option could still be construed as gainful or plausibly cost-effective.

This implies an essential Israeli imperative to strengthen the country’s nuclear deterrence posture, including a conspicuous effort to replace a stance of deliberate nuclear ambiguity with certain unprecedented policies of selective nuclear disclosure.

Initially, Israel’s “bomb in the basement” policy may appear to have been entirely sensible, even ideal. After all, though unacknowledged, it has long been well known that Israel has substantial nuclear weapons and associated infrastructures. So why irritate the Americans and needlessly flaunt national military power? Why rock the boat?

The answer: Times have changed. For adequate deterrence, in the future it may not be enough that Iran simply knows that Israel is a nuclear power. Rather, to be deterred a nuclear Tehran would also need to believe that Israel’s nuclear weapons are usable, survivable, and penetration-capable – that is, able to pierce Iran’s own system of active missile defenses.

For Israel, an undifferentiated or across-the-board commitment to nuclear ambiguity could prove harmful to the country’s overall security. This is because effective deterrence and defense can sometimes require a military doctrine that is at least partially recognizable, by friends, by foes, and even by certain adversarial insurgent groups.

For Israel, soon to confront a verifiably high-probability prospect of Iranian nuclear capacity, continued and complete secrecy on strategic targeting doctrine and/or on nuclear weapon yields could prove to be a serious mistake. Eventually, prolonged deliberate ambiguity could even cause a newly nuclear Iran to underestimate Israel’s retaliatory resolve. In part, at least, such an underestimation could be triggered by an unanticipated nuance of strategic thinking.

Israel’s willingness to make good on any threatened nuclear retaliation might be seen by Tehran, correctly or incorrectly, as inversely related to nuclear weapon system destructiveness. Although counter-intuitive, if Israel were believed to hold only high-yield nuclear weapons in its arsenals, the Jewish state could suffer a consequent loss or diminution of its nuclear deterrence credibility. Also important is that Iran be able to recognize that Israel maintains aptly secure and penetration-capable nuclear retaliatory forces.

An unchanging Israeli national policy of total ambiguity could cause a nuclear Iran to overestimate the vulnerability of Israel’s nuclear retaliatory forces to a first-strike attack. Among other factors, this sort of misjudgment could be the outcome of a too-complete Israeli silence concerning measures of protection provided for its nuclear weapons. It could also be the result of a too-great Israeli silence on its active defense potential, a silence that could be wrongly understood, by enemy states, as an indication of inadequate Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD).

Although Israel’s Pillar of Defense experience with Iron Dome was highly successful, its Arrow BMD system would have to achieve much higher levels of reliable interception. More exactly, facing longer-range missiles with WMD warheads, Arrow would require a 100 percent reliability of intercept. To be sure, in the urgent matter of a nuclear Iran, absolutely no “leakage” could be considered tolerable.

The indispensable foundations of Israeli nuclear deterrence concern prospective attackers’ perceptions of Israel’s nuclear capability, and of Israel’s corollary willingness to use this capability. A selective telegraphing of Israel’s strategic nuclear doctrine, therefore, could meaningfully enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture. It would accomplish this by heightening Iranian perceptions of Israel’s capable nuclear forces, and also of Israel’s willingness to use these forces, in reprisal for certain first-strike or even retaliatory attacks.

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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