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Israel, Iran, And The Shiite Apocalypse (First of Three Parts)


Beres-Louis-Rene

“All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
– William Butler Yeats, “Easter, 1916”

Finally, after many years of effective disregard, a core irony in the matter of Iranian nuclearization can be acknowledged: For President Ahmadinejad, and also his clerical superiors, any prospect of hastening the Shiite apocalypse – a decidedly “sacred” prospect linked to war with Israel and/or the United States – could be welcomed. Naturally, this religion-driven view of a “terrible beauty” would contrast starkly with senior leadership attitudes in both Jerusalem and Washington. In these plainly more secular circles, of course, any thought of a conscious encouragement for Final Battle must always be rejected.

True, it is indisputable that assorted Scriptural expectations of the End Times are prominently embedded in both Judaism and Christianity. Still, however seriously such cataclysmic hopes and predictions might be accepted among certain Americans and Israelis, any expressly apocalyptic visions of war-encouragement have always been rejected at the critical policy levels of government. In other words, such particular doctrinal visions are inevitably limited to non-official sources.

There does exist, among all of the major national players in the still-unfolding Iran nuclear drama, a more or less commonly accepted element of eschatology. But this potentially tragic theatre concerning Last Things is fashioned out of polar opposites. Thus, the all-consuming apocalyptic violence that might somehow appear positive, purifying, and liberating in Tehra will be seen as negative, defiling, and flagrantly anti-democratic in Western capitals.

In Ahmadinejad’s Iran, massive American and/or Israeli attacks might to some represent a plainly pleasing threat, one to be encouraged and enjoyed in ritualistic deference to deeply felt, religious obligations. In short, from the predictable mega-destructions of any divinely mandated war against “infidels,” a seductively “terrible beauty” could conceivably be born.

As I have indicated often in The Jewish Press, stable nuclear deterrence can exist only between fully rational adversaries; that is, between enemies who would share an overriding commitment to collective self-preservation. Yet, for Israel and/or the United States any protracted standoff with an already nuclear Iran could prove very different from what had once obtained between America and the Soviet Union. In seeking peaceful coexistence with an already-nuclear Iran, this would not be your father’s Cold War.

If it could be determined that containment of an already-nuclear Iran was destined to fail, who should conduct a preemptive attack against pertinent Iranian hard targets? The political and operational difficulties for Israel would be much greater than for the United States. Still, for Israel to do nothing substantial to defend itself from an openly existential assault – to allow a potentially apocalyptic Islamic regime to finally go nuclear – could be suicidal. In essence, such a regime might become the individual suicide-bomber writ large. Here, moreover, we could see the unprecedented appearance of a nuclear suicide state.

Echoing the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, no state, wrote Thomas Jefferson, has any right of national suicide. Rather, every state’s first and irremediable obligation is always the assurance of protection for its citizens or subjects. Always, as legal scholar Hugo Grotius had written even earlier, in 1625 (The Law of War and Peace), innocent life must be preserved.

When Iranian leaders openly proclaim their belief in the Shiite apocalypse, a series of final battles presumed indispensable for transforming the profane “world of war” into the sacred “world of Islam,” far-reaching measures of self-defense must be considered, especially in Jerusalem.

Might “justice” have another face in this particular matter? Leaving aside myriad operational problems of defensive first strikes, some would argue indignantly against any American and/or Israeli preemption on the grounds of nuclear “equity.” Israel already has nuclear weapons, would go this argument. Why, then, should Iran be treated differently?

Further, international law speaks authoritatively of “sovereign equality.” Isn’t there a determinable lack of “fairness” in denying to Iran what has tacitly been allowed to Israel?

Here is a considered answer. Israel’s nuclear forces remain deliberately ambiguous and undeclared. They have never been brandished in a threatening fashion by Israel’s civilian or military leaders.

Nor does Israel ever call for wiping any other state “off the map.” Israel’s nuclear weapons exist only to protect the Jewish state from extraordinary forms of aggression. Understandably, this includes the prevention of another Jewish genocide, and also, jurisprudentially-related crimes against humanity.

Israel’s nuclear deterrent force would never be used except in defensive reprisal for massive enemy first strikes. In practice, this means primarily Iranian attacks involving nuclear, and/or certain biological weapons.

If it should actually have to face nuclear enemies one day, most likely in Iran, Israel could choose to rely upon its own nuclear weapons to reduce the risks of unconventional war, but only insofar as the newly-nuclear enemy state(s) would (1) remain rational and (2) remain convinced that Israel would retaliate with nuclear weapons if attacked with nuclear and/or devastating biological weapons.

(Continued Next Week)

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.

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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