Latest update: January 10th, 2013
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.
An Israeli nuclear preemption against Iran is highly improbable and effectively inconceivable. In principle, however, there are certain residual circumstances in which such a strike could still be perfectly rational.
These are circumstances wherein (1) Iran had already acquired and deployed nuclear weapons presumed capable of destroying Israel; (2) Iran had been open and forthright about its genocidal intentions toward Israel; (3) Iran was reliably believed ready to begin an actual countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel believed that non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve levels of damage-limitation consistent with its own physical survival.
Before such an argument on the logical possibility of preemption could be rejected, one would necessarily have to assume that ensuring national self-preservation was somehow not Israel’s highest priority. Such an assumption, of course, would be incorrect on its face.
What’s next for Israel in the recognizably existential matter of a steadily nuclearizing Iran? The answer will necessarily be contingent upon Jerusalem’s antecedent judgments concerning Iranian decision-making on core strategic matters. Whether Israel should choose a last-minute preemption, or opt instead for a policy of long-term nuclear deterrence and corollary active defense, will depend upon what Prime Minister Netanyahu and his senior advisers may expect from enemy leaders in Tehran – rationality; irrationality; or madness.
In July 1945, upon observing the results of the first atomic test in the New Mexico desert, J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred book of the Hindus: “I am become death,” recited the erudite American physicist, “the destroyer of worlds.”
Today, more than sixty-seven years after the Manhattan Project, we should be reminded of another portentous Oppenheimer metaphor, the dreadful image of nuclear adversaries as “two scorpions in a bottle.” Unless Israel can still find a way to remain as the only viable nuclear power in the Middle East, it will have to determine, as a residual strategy, the best way to coexist in close quarters with a determinedly hostile “scorpion.”
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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