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I have written previously here about Iran’s nuclearization and its accompanying intent to annihilate Israel. Still, the whole story has not yet been told, and it is now time to think more carefully and systematically about ensuring Israel’s survival. The time for exclusively visceral reactions is now over. Instead, we must ask: What, precisely, does the Iranian fusion of nuclear capability and genocidal intent really mean for Israel?

Military strategists and intelligence analysts traditionally distinguish between capabilities and intentions. But these components of threat are never entirely separate. Indeed, they are often not only interpenetrating and interdependent, but also interactive.


This means 1) capabilities affect intentions and vice-versa; and 2) the combined effects of capabilities and intentions may be synergistic, producing policy outcomes that are greatly accelerated and/or are more than the simple sum of these effects. Understood in terms of Iran’s growing atomic threat to Israel, these relationships between capabilities and intentions now warrant particularly close consideration.

For the moment, those who would still downplay the genocidal Iranian threat argue that Tehran’s nuclear capabilities remain problematic and/or that its willingness to attack Israel is very low. Some of this more-optimistic argument is based on usual assumptions of rationality, and on associated notions that Iran will indefinitely remain subject to retaliatory threats of Israeli nuclear deterrence.

Yet, over the next 12 months, Iran’s ongoing progress toward nuclear weapons could become irreversible. In turn, this could create conditions whereby even a massive first-strike against Israel might be regarded in Tehran as rational.

Even if it could be correctly assumed that Iran’s leaders will always be rational, a questionable assumption, to be sure, this would say nothing about the accuracy of information used in making rational calculations. Rationality refers only to the intention of maximizing specified values. It says nothing about whether the information used is actually correct or incorrect. So, perfectly rational Iranian leaders could assuredly make errors in calculation that would lead their state to begin a catastrophic war against Israel.

Whether correct or incorrect in its calculations, an Iranian leadership that believes it can strike Israel with impunity or near-impunity, could be strongly motivated to undertake such a strike. Such motivation would be heightened to the extent that Iran remained uncertain about Israel’s own pre-emption plans. Here, Iranian capabilities would affect, possibly even determine, Iranian intentions.

For its part, Israel will almost certainly fashion its pre-emption plans upon a number of critical factors, including, but not limited to: a. expected probability of Iranian first-strikes; b. expected harms of Iranian first-strikes (itself dependent upon the nature of Iranian weaponry, projected Iranian targeting doctrine, and multiplication/dispersion/ hardening of Israeli nuclear forces); c. expected schedule of Iranian nuclear weapons deployment; d. expected efficiency of Iranian active defenses over time (anti-tactical ballistic missile system developments); e. expected efficiency of Israeli active defenses over time; f. expected efficiency of Israeli hard-target (counterforce) operations over time; g. expected reactions of other regional enemies (e.g., Syria; Lebanon; Saudi Arabia); and h. expected international community reactions to Israeli preemptions.

The Iranian threat to Israel might originate from another direction. In this scenario, Iran’s intentions toward the Jewish State, hostile and even expressly genocidal, could accelerate and expand Tehran’s development of nuclear military capabilities.

Here, representing genuinely far-reaching Islamic hatreds rather than mere propagandistic bluster, Iranian diatribes to “wipe Israel off the map” would essentially ensure the full production/deployment of extraordinarily destructive forces, weapons and postures. These are circumstances where Iranian intentions could affect and determine Iranian nuclear capabilities.

What if Iran’s intentions toward Israel were not authentically genocidal? What if its public bombast were not an expression of truly exterminatory motivations, but rather a position designed entirely for political and theological consumption? The short and obvious answer to these questions is that such shallow and contrived intentions would not impact Iranian nuclear capabilities vis-à-vis Israel.

Yet, upon reflection, it is rather likely that even inauthentic expressions of genocidal intent could, over time, become authentic. Repeated again and again over months and years, such expressions could become self-fulfilling.

The most complex relationships between Iranian capabilities and intentions – and potentially, the most consequential to Israeli security and survival – concern synergy. Here the issue 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, through its own dialectical momentum, toward nuclear war, or b. produce a wholly new effect, an effect of which either capability or intention is individually incapable.

An example of (a) would be an Iranian “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack against Israel that is launched only because of the particular way in which capabilities and intentions feed upon each other. An example of (b) would be any Iranian attack against Israel – bolt-from-the-blue or product of escalation, conventional or unconventional – that would not otherwise 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.

Now, these calculations are complex and confusing, but let us move immediately to examine even more concrete and urgent concerns. How might the Israel-Palestinian Authority “Road Map” affect Iranian nuclear posture toward the Jewish State? Some have been quick to suggest (incontestable factual evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) that the newest “peace” agreements, by codifying and demonstrating Israel’s commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes will diminish the Iranian threat.

After all, wouldn’t world public opinion uniformly condemn Iran for any act of aggression directed against a steadily surrendering Israel? And wouldn’t, therefore, Iranian aggressive intentions be reduced or even removed, a change that could slow down Tehran’s pertinent nuclearization and consequently the overall existential danger to Israel from that country? Perhaps. But this conclusion must be seen as very doubtful.

It is also plausible that because of the “Road Map,” Israel’s inclination to pre-empt Iranian nuclear aggression has been diminished. Wouldn’t the entire global community frown upon such preemption in the midst of an ongoing, albeit stalled, “peace process” in the region?

Moreover, if Iran should recognize these effective inhibitions on Israeli action that stem from the Israel-PA agreements, that country could calculate as follows: As our (Iranian) nuclearization will be less threatened by Israeli pre-emptive attack after the Road Map, we (Iran) should increase our nuclear capabilities.

Such a calculation could enlarge Iranian intentions to attack Israel, and might even make cost-effective certain hostile actions by Iran that would not otherwise have been considered or perhaps even have been possible.

Copyright The Jewish Press, December 22, 2006. 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.


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Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue and the author of twelve books and several hundred articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. He was Chair of Project Daniel, which submitted its special report on Israel’s Strategic Future to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on January 16, 2003.