Sometimes, in complex military calculations, truth is counter-intuitive.
In essence, the persuasiveness of Israel’s nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis Iran will require prospective enemy perceptions of retaliatory destructiveness at both the low and high ends of the nuclear yield spectrum. Ending nuclear ambiguity at the optimal time could best allow Israel to foster precisely such needed perceptions. This point is very important and possibly overriding.
Credible nuclear deterrence is never an automatic consequence of merely “being nuclear.” In the particularly arcane world of Israeli nuclear deterrence, it would never be adequate that Iran could simply acknowledge the Jewish state’s nuclear status. Rather, it would be critical, among other things, that Tehran also believe Israel holds distinctly usable nuclear weapons, and that Israel would plainly be willing to launch these weapons in certain clear and more-or-less identifiable circumstances.
Whether Israel’s leaders conclude that they will have to deter a rational or an irrational enemy leadership in Tehran, they will have to consider Moshe Dayan’s injunction. What would be the expected strategic benefits to Israel of appearing to their Iranian foes as a “mad dog”? And what would be the expected costs?
Together with any such consideration, Israel’s civilian and military leadership will need to determine: (1) what, exactly, is valued most highly by Israel’s Iranian enemies; (2) how, exactly, should Israel then leverage fully credible threats against these core enemy preferences.
Under international law, war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. In the best of all possible worlds, Israel might still be able to stop a nuclear Iran with cost-effective and lawful preemptions; that is, with defensive first strikes that are directed against an openly belligerent and verifiably lawless Iran. Fully permissible, as long as they were judged to conform to the Law of Armed Conflict (humanitarian international law), such discriminating and proportionate strikes, observably limited by peremptory rules of “military necessity,” could still represent authentically life-saving expressions of anticipatory self-defense.
But this is not yet the best of all possible worlds, and soon Israel’s prime minister will almost certainly have to deal with a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli. With this in mind, all early critical estimations of Iranian rationality will need to be correlated with appropriate Israeli strategies of defense and deterrence. Even in a worst case scenario, one in which Israeli military intelligence would determine a compelling risk of enemy irrationality, a thoughtful dissuasion plan to protect against Iranian nuclear weapons could still be fashioned.
This binary plan would seek to deter any Iranian resort to nuclear weapons, and, simultaneously, to intercept any incoming weapons that might still be fired if deterrence should fail. While the warning is now often repeated again and again that Shiite eschatology in Iran could actually welcome a cleansing or apocalyptic war with “infidel” foes, such a purely abstract doctrine of End Times is ultimately apt to yield to more pragmatic calculations. In the end, high-sounding religious doctrines of Final Battle that were initially trumpeted in Tehran will likely be trumped by more narrowly mundane judgments of both personal and geo-strategic advantage.
The primary goal of Israel’s nuclear forces, whether still in the “basement” or partially disclosed, must always be deterrence ex ante, not preemption or reprisal ex post. If, however, nuclear weapons should be introduced into a conflict between Israel and Iran, some form of nuclear war fighting could ensue.
This would be the case as long as: (a) Iranian first strikes against Israel would not destroy that country’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) Iranian retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy Iranian second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliations for Iranian conventional and/or chemical/biological first strikes would not destroy Iran’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capabilities.
From the critical standpoint of protecting its security and survival, this means Israel should now take proper steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the corresponding unlikelihood of (c) and (d). It will always be in Israel’s interests to avoid nuclear war fighting wherever possible.
For Israel, both nuclear and non-nuclear preemptions of Iranian unconventional aggression could lead to nuclear exchanges. This would depend, in part, upon the effectiveness and breadth of Israeli targeting; the surviving number of Iranian nuclear weapons; and the willingness of Iranian leaders to risk eliciting Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations.