There is a widely unrecognized but still-meaningful irony in the continuing saga of Iranian nuclearization. From the standpoint of President Ahmadinejad and his clerical masters in Tehran, any prospect of hastening the Shiite apocalypse should naturally be welcomed. In the United States and Israel, on the other hand, any conscious encouragement of a Final Battle between “Good” and “Evil” must always be strenuously rejected.
Whatever Scriptural expectations of End Times may be found embedded in Judaism and Christianity, and however seriously they may be accepted among particular American and Israeli populations, these expressly apocalyptic visions are always rejected as plausible policy options.
This is, of course, as it should be. There exists, among all the major national players in the Iran nuclear drama, a more or less acceptable element of eschatology. But this potentially tragic drama is fashioned out of starkly polar opposites. The all-consuming apocalyptic violence that could seem altogether positive and purifying in Tehran would appear plainly negative and even grievously defiling in both Washington and Jerusalem.
To avoid further acquiescence in the “fate” planned for them in Tehran (economic sanctions clearly and predictably have had no remedial effect on President Ahmadinejad’s nuclear decisional calculus), Israel and/or the United States may ultimately have to take some form of appropriate military action. As I written repeatedly in The Jewish Press, it is already dreadfully late for any effective preemption against relevant Iranian nuclear assets and infrastructures. It is also very unlikely (perhaps even inconceivable) that Nobel Peace laureate, President Barack Obama, would display the extraordinary will needed to undertake any such problematic and controversial (albeit, possibly law-enforcing and life-saving) operation.
President Obama does hint oddly and obliquely at a regrettable military remedy, reprisal, but it is one that could only be ex post. Retaliation, unlike preemption, can come only after the fact. It cannot prevent nuclear aggression; it can merely promise (more or less persuasively) some forms of punishment.
In the case of Ahmadinejad’s Iran, preemption represents a threat that could be disregarded entirely in deference to far more deeply felt religious obligations. Here, acting as the individual suicide bomber in macrocosm, Iran would offer itself eagerly in the spirit of Shahada, ready and willing to accept a collective Death for Allah.
Sometimes an oxymoron may have a proper place, even in cold and hard matters of military strategy. In this connection, few Iran watchers have paid any serious attention to an utterly critical point: Nuclear deterrence can exist only between fully rational adversaries– that is, between enemies who share an overriding commitment to collective self-preservation. For Israel and/or the United States, any standoff with an already nuclear Iran could thus be very different from what once obtained between America and the Soviet Union.This would not be your father’s Cold War.
Who should conduct a preemptive attack against selected Iranian hard targets if all else fails? Naturally, the political and operational difficulties for Israel would be much greater than for the United States. Yet, for Israel to do nothing substantial to defend itself from an openly existential assault – to allow a potentially apocalyptic Islamic regime to “go nuclear” – could be suicidal.
Echoing the seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, no state, wrote Thomas Jefferson, has the right of national suicide. Rather, every state’s first obligation is always the assurance of protection. Innocent life must be preserved. When Iranian leaders openly proclaim 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,” very far-reaching and possibly problematic measures of self-defense must immediately be considered.
Might “justice” have another face in this particular strategic matter? Some would argue indignantly against any American and/or Israeli preemption on the grounds of a presumed need for nuclear “equity.” Israel already has nuclear weapons, goes this disingenuous argument.
Why, then, should Iran be treated differently? International law speaks repeatedly of “sovereign equality.” Isn’t there an evident lack of “fairness” in denying to Iran what has tacitly been allowed to Israel?
Consider this: Israel’s nuclear forces remain deliberately ambiguousand undeclared. Certainly, 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 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 now means essentially Iranian attacks involving nuclear and/or certain biological weapons. For the time being, none of Israel’s enemies is nuclear, but – naturally – this could change.
If it should actually have to face nuclear enemies one day, a not-improbable scenario, Israel could choose to rely upon its own nuclear weapons to reduce the risks of unconventional war. But such reliance would make strategic sense 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.
For Israel and its also imperiled U.S. ally (let’s not forget that American military power is now extremely stretched and limited), there would be very complex problems to solve if an enemy state such as Iran were ultimately permitted to “go nuclear.” These problems would undermine the conceptually neat but decidedly unrealistic notion of any balanced nuclear deterrence in the region, a notion now gaining increasing popularity in both Washington and Jerusalem. The Middle East could simply not sustain the comforting equilibrium that had once characterized U.S.-Soviet relations.
Whether for reasons of miscalculation, accident, unauthorized capacity to fire, outright irrationality or the presumed imperatives of “Jihad,” an enemy state in this fevered neighborhood could conceivably opt to launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel in spite of Israel’s own obvious and forseeably secure nuclear capability. In short, a Cold War type of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (a so-called “balance of terror”) could not exist in the present Middle East.
(To be continued)
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many major books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including recent contributions to International Security (Harvard); NATIV (Israel/Hebrew); Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs (Israel/English); Parameters (The Journal of the US Army War College); The Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law and International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Some of his earlier writings on both strategic and jurisprudential matters appeared in such journals as World Politics (Princeton); Strategic Review; Special Warfare (DoD); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Affairs; Counterterrorism and Security International; Policy Sciences and Armed Forces and Society. Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel, which submitted its then-confidential final report on ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on January 16, 2003. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.