Following the Iraq Study Group report, it seems clear that legally-binding non-proliferation expectations for Iran may soon be abandoned, and that Israel – once again – may be offered as a convenient sacrifice to civilization’s irremediable enemies. Whether Israel is pressured to accept further territorial concessions and/or “simply” to prepare for coexistence with a fully nuclear Iran, no security benefits will accrue to the United States. On the contrary, and with notable irony, the progressive weakening of Israel now encouraged by Baker-Hamilton would produce a diminution of both American power and international law.
Israel understands that the Iranian president’s threat to wipe it off the map is more than mere posturing. At a minimum, it is an unambiguous declaration of criminal intent to commit genocide. Individually or collaboratively, Israel also recognizes that the preemptive destruction of Iran’s growing nuclear infrastructures would be a tactical nightmare. Although fully defensible under international law as “anticipatory self-defense,” such life-saving action would require courageous American leadership and operational cooperation, not the proposed appeasement of Baker-Hamilton.
Genocide is a codified crime under international law. To survive into the Iraq Study Group future, Israel’s leaders must recognize completely, that Iran’s explicitly exterminatory intent is now being augmented by a developing capacity. Left to violate authoritative non-proliferation rules with impunity, Iran’s president might be undeterred by any threats of Israeli and/or American retaliation.
Such a possible failure of nuclear deterrence could be the result of a presumed lack of threat credibility or even of a willful Iranian indifference to existential harms. Iran could conceivably become the individual suicide bomber in macrocosm, a nuclear-armed state willing to “die” as a collective “martyr.” To be sure, such a prospect is not very likely, but it is also by no means unimaginable.
How should Israel respond to such prospectively dire circumstances? A part of the answer has to do with core questions of Tel Aviv’s targeting doctrine. More precisely, Israel’s security from future Iranian mass-destruction attacks will depend considerably upon the Israel Ministry of Defense’s (IMOD) determined targets and on the precise extent to which these targets have been openly identified.
It is not enough that Israel simply have “The Bomb.” Instead, the adequacy of Israel’s nuclear deterrence and preemption policies will inevitably depend largely upon the presumed destructiveness of these nuclear weapons and on where these weapons are credibly thought to be targeted.
A nuclear war in the Middle East is not out of the question. There are a number of different scenarios that could result in an Israeli use of nuclear weapons. Israel will need to choose prudently between “assured destruction” strategies and “nuclear-war-fighting” strategies.
Assured destruction strategies are also sometimes termed “counter-value” strategies or “mutual assured destruction” (MAD). These are strategies of deterrence/preemption 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/preemption wherein a country primarily targets its strategic nuclear weapons on the other side’s major weapon systems and on its supporting military infrastructures.
For nuclear weapons countries in general, and for Israel in particular, there are very serious survival implications for choosing one strategy over the other. It is also possible that a country would opt for some sort of mixed (counter-value/counterforce) strategy. In the case of Israel, however, any policy that might actually encourage nuclear war fighting should be rejected out-of-hand.
Human psychology has much to do with current world politics. Whichever deterrence/preemption strategy Israel might choose, what ultimately really matters is what an enemy country perceives. In strategic matters, the only pertinent reality is perceived reality.
In choosing between the two basic strategic alternatives, Israel should opt for nuclear deterrence/preemption based upon assured destruction. This seemingly insensitive recommendation will surely elicit opposition in certain publics, but is in fact more humane.
A counter-value targeting doctrine would appear to create an enlarged risk of losing any nuclear war that might still arise. This is because counter-value-targeted nuclear weapons would not destroy military targets.
Yet, a counterforce targeting doctrine would be far less persuasive as a nuclear deterrent, especially to societies where leaders would willingly sacrifice entire armies and military infrastructures as “martyrs.”
And if Israel were to opt for nuclear deterrence/preemption based upon identified and projected counterforce capabilities, its Islamic enemies could feel especially threatened. For many reasons, this condition could then actually heighten the prospect of WMD aggression against Israel and of a subsequent nuclear exchange.
Israel’s decisions on counter-value versus counterforce doctrines should depend, in part, on prior investigations of: 1) enemy country inclinations to strike first, and 2) enemy country inclinations to strike all-at-once or in stages. Should Israeli strategic planners assume that certain enemy countries that are in process of going nuclear are apt to strike first and to strike in an unlimited fashion (that is, to fire all of their nuclear weapons right away), Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads – used in retaliation – would likely hit only empty silos/launchers.
In such circumstances, Israel’s only rational application of counterforce doctrine would be to strike first, itself. If, for whatever reason, Israel were to reject still available preemption options, there would be no reason to opt for a counterforce strategy. From the standpoint of persuasive intra-war deterrence, a counter-value strategy would prove vastly more appropriate.
Should Israeli planners assume that the enemy countries going nuclear are apt to strike first and to strike in a limited fashion – holding some significant measure of nuclear firepower in reserve for follow-on strikes – 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. But the underlying assumption here about enemy behavior is implausible.
Should an Israeli first-strike be intentionally limited, perhaps because it would be coupled with an assurance of no further destruction in exchange for an end to hostilities, counterforce operations could seemingly serve an Israeli counter-retaliatory strike. This is because Israel’s attempt at intra-war deterrence could fail, occasioning the need for follow-on strikes to produce badly needed damage-limitation.
Nonetheless, the overall argument for Israeli counterforce options is founded upon a complex illusion. The prospective benefits to Israel of maintaining any counterforce targeting options are outweighed by the prospective costs.
It is plain, especially after Baker-Hamilton, that regional nuclear war is a distinct possibility for Israel, and that adequate preparations now need to be made to prevent such a war. These preparations will require, immediately, a clear awareness of how a nuclear 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. Simultaneously, Israel should reject even any hint of counterforce targeting doctrine, and focus instead upon massive counter-value reprisals.
International law is not a suicide pact. Every state has the established right to defend itself and its people against aggression, especially where these attacks would involve mass-destruction weapons. Israel, now facing a verifiably clear and undisguised risk of genocidal war from Iran, would assuredly never consider the first use of nuclear weapons. Should Iranian atomic genocide ever be unleashed against Israel’s cities, the Islamic Republic’s leaders should understand fully and in advance that Israel would respond with vastly more than parallel destructiveness.
Copyright, The Jewish Press, January 26, 2007. All rights Reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli nuclear strategy.The Chair of “Project Daniel,”a private advisory group dealing with the growing Iranian nuclear threat to Israel, he is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.