Latest update: December 12th, 2012
What [would be] the effect of Israel-PA agreements in bringing about a Palestinian state? Here, it is altogether probable that Israel’s substantial loss of strategic depth would be recognized by Iran as a significant military liability for Tel-Aviv. Such recognition, in turn, could heat up Iranian intentions against Israel, occasioning an accelerated search for relevant capabilities and consequently a heightened risk of nuclear war initiated from Tehran.
Israel, of course, might foresee such Iranian calculations and seek to compensate for the loss of territories in a number of different ways. Israel, 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, Iran could respond in a more or less parallel fashion, preparing more openly for nuclearization and/or first-strike attacks against the Jewish State.
It is conceivable, on the other hand, that Iran would react to Israel’s greater vulnerability – a vulnerability stemming from the creation of Palestine – by winding down its militarization, including, its specifically nuclear militarization.
But such a reaction would be entirely contingent upon the view from Tehran that Israeli intentions had become benign and/or that a Jewish State in the Middle East was no longer a “malignancy.” At the moment – deciphering Iranian descriptions of an Israel that should be “wiped off the map” – this particular view seems implausible.
Taken alone, a Palestinian State would affect the capabilities and intentions of both Israel and Iran. But if such a state were created at the same time that Israel reduced or abandoned its own nuclear capabilities, the impact could be even more substantial. This scenario should not be dismissed out of hand.
Even today there are several major strategic thinkers at Israel’s most prestigious universities and institutes who will argue unashamedly, for unilateral nuclear disarmament.
In spite of its extraordinary failure in the case of Iran, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty continues to be widely favored as a promising means to reduce the growing risk of nuclear war in the Middle East. From the standpoint of Israeli security, this legalistic preference harbors considerable danger.
Left to the protections of diplomatic agreements, rather than to more pragmatic forms of military self-reliance, the Jewish State might effectively surrender its opportunities to endure. Such surrender would be all the more likely to the extent that it would involve any limitations on Israel’s nuclear deterrent and on essential control of Judea and Samaria.
What would happen if Jerusalem were to relinquish or limit its nuclear option and were forced to accept a new State of Palestine? Significantly, Israel under such circumstances would not only be vastly more vulnerable to Iranian first strikes; it would also have been deprived of its essential preemption option. This is the case, because Israeli counter-retaliatory deterrence would be immobilized by reduction or removal of its nuclear weapons potential.
Also, Israeli preemptions could not possibly be 100 percent effective against Iranian nuclear forces and infrastructures. A less than 100 percent level of effectiveness could be tolerable if Jerusalem had a truly viable anti-tactical ballistic missile capability. But no system of ballistic missile defense can be “leak-proof.”
The prospect of an Israeli preemption against Iran would be affected, among other things, by that militant Islamic state’s willingness and capacity to create an infrastructure to safely manage its nuclear weapons. Inadequate Iranian investment in nuclear weapons survivability could generate substantial Iranian incentives to preempt against Israel. After all, fearing that it might not possess a second-strike capability – a capability to retaliate against Israel after absorbing an Israeli attack – Iran could calculate a decisive military advantage to striking first.
Recognizing this probable calculation, Israel would confront an overwhelming incentive to strike first itself. In the best-case scenario, wherein Israel would receive credible assurances from Tehran concerning Iranian rejection of first-strike options, Jerusalem would understand that such assurances could become meaningless in the wake of Iranian political upheaval.
The existing Iranian enemy is surely bad enough. But faced with a Jihadist enemy state characterized by weak and authoritarian political institutions, fragile civil-military relations and/or competing factions representing several ethnic and religious groupings, Israel could find itself especially compelled to seize upon the preemption imperative.
How would Iran respond to a weakening of Israel’s capabilities and to its correspondingly diminished preemptive intentions? Under such conditions, an informed observer might expect Iran to move even more purposefully and ambitiously toward full-fledged nuclear status, a move that would likely encourage first-strike intentions against the Jewish State.
Before concluding, we must raise the prospect of an Israeli nuclear preemption. It is, of course, exceedingly unlikely that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Although circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would be perfectly rational, it is implausible that Israel would allow itself ever to reach these circumstances.
Moreover, unless the nuclear weapons involved were used in a fashion consistent with the authoritative expectations of the laws of war, this form of preemption would represent a serious violation of international law.
At the same time, the United States of America is already on record in supporting its own right to certain preemptions using nuclear weapons. This assertion was codified in the Department of Defense’s Doctrine For Joint Nuclear Operations (15 March 2005).
Even if such consistency were possible, the psychological/political impact on the world community would be negative and far-reaching. It follows that an Israeli nuclear preemption could be expected only: a. where Israel’s enemies in Iran had acquired nuclear and/or other unconventional weapons judged capable of destroying the Third Temple Commonwealth; b. where these enemies had made clear that their intentions paralleled their capabilities; c. where these enemies were believed ready to begin a “countdown to launch;” and d. where Israel believed that its non-nuclear preemptions could not achieve the needed minimum levels of damage-limitation, i.e., levels consistent with actual preservation of the Jewish State.
Assessments of the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel must take careful account of both country’s capabilities and intentions, the components of these threat dimensions, their sources, their amenability to change and – most important of all – their very complex relationships and foreseeable interactions. Rather than be understood, as separate and disconnected components of threat, these capabilities and intentions must be approached as continually affecting each other, both intra-nationally and internationally.
With such an approach, scholars who would seek to improve Israeli security from Iranian nuclear attack could begin to move in more promising directions, accepting a strategic plan that is now essential to national survival
Copyright The Jewish Press, January 12, 2007. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, especially in relation to Israel and the Middle East. He is Chair of Project Daniel and is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.
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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