Photo Credit:
Louis Rene Beres

Present-day Israel is engaged in a condition of protracted belligerency with Iran. Again and again, Tehran has declared unambiguously that there exists a formal state of war with Israel. Once Iran is allowed to cross much publicized “red lines” of uranium enrichment, and become fully nuclear, Israel’s realistic options for anticipatory self-defense will likely have been removed.

In such eleventh-hour circumstances, Jerusalem’s only remaining strategic options would center on some still-practicable combination of active ballistic missile defense, and nuclear deterrence. The resulting condition of mutual nuclear vulnerability could resemble earlier Cold War images of two scorpions in a bottle, the metaphoric description originally offered by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. It would likely become a “fusion” of mutual uncertainty and radical instability, an explosive posture considerably more unpredictable than earlier U.S.-Soviet conditions of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Above all, this is because of the possibility of Iranian leadership irrationality, a fearful prospect that could immobilize nuclear deterrence.

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Under all relevant criteria of international law, Iran’s ongoing stance toward Israel remains unequivocally genocidal. Because international law is not a suicide pact, Jerusalem, now facing a fusion of enemy nuclear capacity with enemy criminal intent, reserves every reciprocal right of national self-protection. This includes the right to anticipatory self-defense.

In the end, Israeli calculations of genocide prevention from Iran would have to display pragmatic as well as legal components. Any Israeli decision to preempt against Iran would have to be based not only on a due conformance with the rules of applicable law, but also on overriding strategic and operational expectations. Even if Israel were to fully accept the lawfulness of anticipatory self-defense against Iran, it would act accordingly only if such a complex defense were also expected to work.

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Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with 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.
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