Latest update: January 10th, 2013
Israel’s final decision concerning what to do about a nuclear Iran will depend on answers to certain core psychological questions. Is the Iranian adversary rational, valuing national survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences? Or, on even a single occasion, is this enemy more apt to prove itself irrational, thereby choosing to value certain preferences more highly than the country’s indispensable physical security?
It is also possible that authoritative Iranian decision-makers could be neither rational or irrational but mad. In such unlikely, but especially daunting, circumstances, deterrence would no longer serve any conceivable Israeli strategic purpose. At that point, Jerusalem’s only effectively remaining policy choice would be: (1) to hope for regime change in Tehran, but otherwise passively await Israel’s destruction, or (2) to strike first itself, preemptively, whatever the global outcry, and irrespective of the shattering military consequences.
These are not frivolous or contrived descriptions of presumed Iranian leadership orientations. To be sure, the resultant wisdom of any considered Israeli preemption will ultimately depend on choosing correctly, and on reliably anticipating Iranian judgments over an extended period of time. For genuine safety, Israel must prepare to make decisions that are subtle, nuanced, and of protracted utility.
This is not the time to confuse conventional meanings with strategic precision. Even an irrational Iranian leadership could maintain a distinct and determinable hierarchy of preferences. Unlike trying to influence a “mad” leadership, therefore, it could still be purposeful for Israel to attempt deterrence of such a “merely” irrational adversary.
More than likely, Iran is not a mad or crazy state. Though it is true, at least doctrinally, that Iran’s political and clerical leaders could sometime decide to welcome the Shiite apocalypse, and even its associated destructions, these enemy decision-makers might still remain subject to certain different sorts of deterrent threats.
Faced with such extraordinary circumstances, conditions under which an already nuclear Iran could not be effectively prevented from striking first by threatening the usual harms of retaliatory destruction, Israel would need to identify, in advance, less orthodox but still promising, forms of reprisal.
Such eccentric kinds of reprisal would inevitably center upon those preeminent religious preferences and institutions that remain most indisputably sacred to Shiite Iran.
For Israel, facing a rational adversary would undoubtedly be best. A presumably rational leadership in Tehran would make it significantly easier for Jerusalem to reasonably forego the preemption option. In these more predictable circumstances, Iran could still be reliably deterred by some or all of the standard military threats available to states, credible warnings that are conspicuously linked to “assured destruction.”
But it is not for Israel to choose the preferred degree of enemy rationality.
Unless there is an eleventh-hour defensive first strike by Israel – a now improbable attack that would most likely follow an authoritative determination of actual or prospective Iranian “madness” – a new nuclear adversary in the region will make its appearance. For Israel, this portentous development would then mandate a prudent and well thought out plan for coexistence. Then, in other words, Israel would have to learn to “live with” a nuclear Iran.
There would be no reasonable alternative.
And it would be a complex and problematic education. Forging such a requisite policy of nuclear deterrence would require, among other things, (1) reduced ambiguity about particular elements of Israel’s strategic forces; (2) enhanced and partially disclosed nuclear targeting options; (3) substantial and partially revealed programs for improved active defenses; (4) certain recognizable steps to ensure the perceived survivability of its nuclear retaliatory forces, including more or less explicit references to Israeli sea-basing of such forces; (5) further expansion of preparations for both cyber-defense and cyber-war; and, in order to bring together all of these complex and intersecting enhancements in a coherent mission plan, and (6) a comprehensive strategic doctrine.
Additionally, because of the residual but serious prospect of Iranian irrationality – not madness – Israel’s military planners will have to identify suitable ways of ensuring that even a nuclear “suicide state” could be deterred. Such a uniquely perilous threat could actually be very small, but, if considered together with Iran’s Shiite eschatology, it might still not be negligible.
Further, while the expected probability of having to face such an irrational enemy state could be very low, the expected disutility or anticipated harm of any single deterrence failure could be flat out unacceptable.
(Continued Next Week)Louis Rene Beres
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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