With steady Iranian nuclearization correctly at the forefront of world public attention, no country has more to fear than the State of Israel. Less than half the size of Lake Michigan, Israel fully understands that the Iranian president’s incessant bluster about wiping the Jewish State “off the map” is far more than mere posturing. It is, rather, an unambiguous declaration of criminal intent to commit genocide.
Genocide is a codified crime under international law. To survive into the future, Israel’s leaders and allies now recognize that Iran’s explicitly exterminatory intent is being augmented by a developing capacity. Left to his own devices, free of any preemptive interference with the Islamic Republic’s planned atomic arsenal of bombs and missiles (an interference that would certainly be a proper expression of “anticipatory self defense”), Iran’s president might not be deterred by any threats of Israeli and/or American retaliation. This 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, after all, 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 – at the same time – it is by no means unimaginable.
How should Israel respond to such a dire set of circumstances? One important 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 Defense Ministry’s determined targets and on the precise extent to which these targets have been openly identified. Contrary to conventional wisdom, 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 exactly, these weapons are authoritatively thought to be directed.
A nuclear war in the Middle East is not out of the question. Indeed, there are a number of different scenarios that could result in an Israeli use of nuclear weapons. Israel will need to choose prudently between what are called “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 – any counterforce nuclear doctrines – 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; nothing else matters.
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 in fact, it is substantially more humane. Further, 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 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 Arab/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 Israel’s 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. However, 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 as 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 Israel’s counterforce options is founded upon a complex illusion. The prospective benefits to Israel of maintaining any counterforce targeting options are greatly outweighed by the prospective costs.
It is plain 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 very best course is still 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. But 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 considerably more than parallel destructiveness.
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 Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, he is Chair of “Project Daniel,” a private advisory group dealing with the growing Iranian nuclear threat to Israel.