This article was written by Professor Beres exactly 10 years ago, January 1996. Today, with Iran less than two years away from a marked capacity to use nuclear weapons against Israel, one conclusion is clear: The author’s preemption argument should have been heeded much earlier.
In calculating the Iranian threat to national survival, Israeli strategists will have to consider both enemy capabilities and enemy intentions. Yet, because such threat components are never entirely discrete, but rather interdependent, interpenetrating and interactive, these strategists will have to look closely at all pertinent relationships. Here they will need to understand that: (1) capabilities affect intentions; (2) intentions affect capabilities; and (3) the combined effects of capabilities and intentions may be synergistic, producing policy outcomes that are greatly accelerated or even more than the simple sum of these effects.
For the moment, there are many in Israel who would maintain that Teheran’s unconventional capabilities remain problematic and that this Islamic regime’s actual interest in attacking Israel is certainly very low. Yet, over the next few years, that country’s ongoing development of chemical/biological/nuclear weapons could be substantial, creating conditions wherein a first-strike against Israel could be construed as perfectly rational. Whether correct or incorrect in its calculations, an Iranian leadership that believes it can strike Israel with impunity or near impunity – i.e., that it can preemptively destroy Israel’s nuclear retaliatory capacity – could be strongly motivated to undertake such a strike. Such motivation, of course, would be heightened to the extent that Iran remained confident about Jerusalem’s own reluctance to preempt, a reluctance – as we have already seen – that is likely an integral feature of the so-called Middle East Peace Process.
Iranian capabilities, therefore, could affect, possibly even determine, Iranian intentions. The Iranian threat to Israel might, however, originate differently. In this scenario, Iran’s intentions toward the Jewish State, irremediably hostile and perhaps even authentically genocidal, could hasten Teheran’s development of unconventional military capabilities. Here, representing genuinely far-reaching international hatreds rather than mere bluster and propagandistic bravado, Iranian diatribes against Israel would accelerate dramatically the production/deployment of extraordinarily destructive forces, weapons and postures. What has been described now are circumstances where Iranian intentions could affect, possibly even determine, Iranian capabilities.
What if Iran’s intentions toward Israel were not irremediably hostile or genocidal? What if its public bombast were not an expression of genuinely belligerent motivations, but a position designed entirely for political consumption? The short answer to these questions is that such shallow and contrived intentions would not impact Iranian capabilties,vis- a-vis Israel. But, upon reflection, it is altogether likely that even inauthentic expressions of intent could, over time, become authentic, that repeated again and again over many years, such expressions could become self-fulfilling. For those who might doubt such a transformation, one where Iranian leaders would begin to believe their own rhetoric in spite of themselves – incrementally and unwittingly – one need only recall the history of the Cold War. It would, therefore, be premature for Israel to draw comfort from the argument that Iranian intentions are effectively harmless. Such intentions could impact Iranian capabilities decisively over time.
The most complex relationships between Iranian capabilities and intentions, and potentially the most consequential to Israeli security, survival, and power, concern synergy. The issue here is not whether, or to what extent, one threat component affects the other, but instead how certain of their various combinations might: (a) produce an ongoing series of interactions that moves relentlessly toward war; or (b) produce a wholly new effect, an effect of which neither capability nor intention is individually capable.
An example of (a) would be an Iranian “bolt-from-the- blue” attack against Israel that is launched only because of the particularly synergistic way in which capabilities and intentions feed upon each other. In the fashion of a human pathology that is hastened by the interactive effects of two individually potent carcinogens, e.g., alcohol and tobacco, such an attack (metaphorically, a pathogenic intrusion into the Israeli “organism”) would be speeded up and perhaps even made possible because of the specific way in which “carcinogenic” capabilities and intentions continuously transform and enlarge each other.
An example of (b) would be an Iranian attack against Israel – bolt-from-the-blue or product of escalation, conventional or unconventional – that would not otherwise even have taken place. This example is plausible to the extent that one believes Iran would never strike first against Israel, irrespective of Iran’s singular intentions and capabilities, unless these two threat components were judged mutually reinforcing. Returning to our metaphor, the pathogenic intrusion into the Israeli “organism” in this example would produce a distinctly different “disease,” one that could not have been produced independently by either individual “carcinogen,” and one that could be either more or less injurious than the other synergistic outcome.
Let us now explore further the pertinent constraints codified in the Oslo accords. Should Iran recognize the inhibitions on Israeli preemptive action that stem from these accords, that Islamic enemy state could calculate as follows: As our (Iranian) nuclearization will be less threatened by Israeli preeemptive attack because of Israel’s adherence to diplomatic agreements, we (Iran) should expand our unconventional capabilities – especially our nuclear weapons capabilities – as quickly as practicable. Such a calculation could also enlarge Iranian intentions to attack Israel and might even make cost-effective hostile actions by Iran that would not otherwise have been possible.
What if the Oslo accords should lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, an outcome that seems indisputable so long as Israel continues with its suicidal plans for territorial surrender? Here, it is altogether probable that Israel’s loss of strategic depth would be recognized by Iran as a significant liability for Israel. Such recognition, in turn, could heat up Iranian intentions against Israel, occasioning an accelerated search for capabilities and consequently a heightened risk of war initiated from Teheran.
Israel, of course, might forsee such Iranian calaculations and seek to compensate for the loss of territories in a number of different ways. Jerusalem, for example, could decide to take its bomb out of the “basement,” as a deterrence-enhancing measure, and/or it could accept a heightened willingness to launch preemptive strikes against enemy (including Iran) hard targets. Made aware of such Israeli intentions, intentions that would accrue from Israel’s new vulnerabilities, Iran could respond in a more or less parallel fashion, preparing more openly for nuclearization and/or for first-strike attacks against the Jewish State.
There is one last point of real consequence. Should Israel ever conclude that an act of anticipatory self-defense is needed against Iranian military assets, it may still resist this act because of world public opinion. If, however, Israel began immediately to alert the world to Iran’s aggressive intentions against Israel and its growing nuclear capabilities, the Jewish State might not be self-deterred from launching a life-saving preemption. Israel, therefore, should cease immediately its general, counterproductive silence on Iran, and should remind the world, instead, of Teheran’s commitment, in word and deed, to destroy the Jewish State. Such a reminder would not be propagandistic, to be sure, but rather a prudent and entirely honest component of reasonable self-defense.
Israel thus faces a unique dual-preemption imperative. It must, in effect, preempt its own military preemption of Iranian mass-destruction assets with a far-reaching public-relations preemption of expected global condemnation. Unless the second preemption action precedes the first, and does so in a timely and convincing fashion, the defensive destruction of Teheran’s developing nuclear weapons capacity would elicit uniformly negative reactions all over the world. For Israel, constrained by the Oslo accords, preemption is already very problematic and power, therefore, is already diminishing. Recalling Sun-Tzu, leaders of the Jewish State must bear in mind: “One who knows when he can fight, and when he cannot fight, will be victorious.”
Copyright The Jewish Press, February 10, 2006. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Strategic and Military Affairs Columnist for The Jewish Press. He is also Chair of “Project Daniel.”