“For By Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War”
The Israeli policy of an undeclared nuclear capacity will not work indefinitely. Left unrevised, this policy will fail. The most obvious locus of failure would be Iran.
To be deterred, a newly nuclear Iran would need convincing assurance that Israel’s atomic weapons were both invulnerable and penetration-capable. Any Iranian judgments about Israel’s capability and willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons would depend largely upon some prior Iranian knowledge of these weapons, including their degree of protection from surprise attack and their capacity to “punch-through” Iranian active and passive defenses.
Ironically, the appearance of Israeli nuclear weapons as uniformly “too large” and “powerful” could weaken Israel’s nuclear posture. For example, Iranian perceptions of exclusively mega-destructive Israeli nuclear weapons could effectively undermine the credibility of Israel’s indispensable nuclear deterrent. Here, Israel’s credibility would vary inversely with the perceived destructiveness of its nuclear arms.
In the world of nuclear strategy, some essential truths are counterintuitive. Coexisting with an already-nuclear Iran, Israel would benefit not from any increased nuclear secrecy (the orthodox and ordinary expectation), but rather from certain forms of expanded nuclear disclosure. In essence, this would mean a full or partial end to Israel’s bomb in the basement.
However regrettable and once preventable, a fully nuclear Iran now appears to be a fait accompli. Neither the “international community” in general, nor Israel in particular, has displayed a sufficient willingness to support needed preemptions. Such preemptions could have been consistent with the criteria of anticipatory self-defense under international law. Needless to say, the so-called “sanctions” sequentially leveled at Tehran represent little more than a fly on the elephant’s back.
A nuclear Iran might decide to share some of its nuclear components and materials with Hezbollah, or with another kindred terrorist group.To prevent this, Jerusalem would need to convince Iran, inter alia, that Israel possesses a rangeof distinctly usable nuclear options. Israeli nuclear ambiguity could be loosened by releasing certain general information regarding the availability of appropriately low-yield weapons. A policy of continued nuclear ambiguity, on the other hand, might not be sufficiently persuasive.
In Jerusalem (and in Tel-Aviv’s Ministry of Defense, of course), the following will soon need to be calculated vis-à-vis a nuclear Iran: the exact extent of subtlety with which Israel should now communicate key portions of its nuclear positions, intentions and capabilities. To ensure that its nuclear forces appear sufficiently usable, invulnerable, and penetration-capable to all prospective attackers, Israel may soon benefit from selectively releasing certain broad outlines of strategic information. This disclosed information would concern, among other things, the hardening, dispersion, multiplication,basing, and yields of selected nuclear forces.
Once it is faced with a nuclear adversary in Tehran, Israel would need to convince its Iranian enemy that it possessed both the will and the capacity to make any intended Iranian nuclear aggression more costly than gainful. No Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure would help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy. For dealing with irrational enemies – those enemies who would not value their own continued national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences – even preemption could now be too late.
To the extent that an Iranian leadership might subscribe to certain end-times visions of a Shiite apocalypse, Iran could surely cast aside all rational behavior. Were this to happen, Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Such a destabilizing prospect is certainly improbable, but it is not inconceivable. A similarly serious prospect exists in already-nuclear and coup-vulnerable Pakistan.
To protect itself against military strikes from rational enemies, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel will need to better exploit every aspect and function of its nuclear arsenal and doctrine. The success of Israel’s efforts here would depend not only upon its selected targeting doctrine (enemy cities and/or military forces), but also upon the extent to which this choice is made known in advance. Before any rational enemies can be deterred from launching first strikes against Israel, and before they can be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following any Israeli non-nuclear preemption, it will not be enough for them to know that Israel has The Bomb. These enemies would also need to recognize that usable Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to enemy attacks, and that at least a determinable number are capable of penetrating high-value population targets.
Removing the bomb from Israel’s basement could enhance Israel’s strategic deterrence to the extent that it would heighten rational enemy perceptions of both secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces. Such a calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for certain enemy first-strike and retaliatory attacks. This brings to mind the so-called Samson Option, which would allow various enemy decision-makers to note and underscore that Israel is prepared to do whatever is needed to survive.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) was Chair of Project Daniel. Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue, he is the author of many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including publications in International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Nativ (Israel); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; Parameters: The Professional Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (DoD); Studies in Conflict and Terrorism; Strategic Review; Contemporary Security Policy; Armed Forces and Society; Israel Affairs; Comparative Strategy; and The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Professor Beres’ monographs on nuclear strategy and nuclear war have been published by The Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel); The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies (University of Notre Dame); The Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva); and the Monograph Series on World Affairs (University of Denver). His frequent opinion columns have appeared in The New York Times; Christian Science Monitor; Chicago Tribune; Washington Post; Washington Times; Boston Globe; USA Today; The Jerusalem Post; Ha’aretz (Israel); Neue Zuricher Zeitung (Switzerland); and U.S. News & World Report.
Dr. Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.