Latest update: January 10th, 2013
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, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.
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