International law is not a suicide pact. This particular sentence should be very familiar to this column’s readers. Every state facing plainly existential harms always has the right to defend itself before being attacked. In the increasingly urgent matter of Israel and Iran, a subject on which I have been commenting for some time, any further delay in undertaking permissible acts of preemption could irrevocably doom the Jewish state.
Interestingly enough, as we now know from WikiLeaks, Israel could have even Saudi Arabia on its side. Although King Abdullah’s plaintive plea to the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” was mistakenly ignored, Jerusalem could ultimately turn out to be a far better protective ally for the Saudi King than Washington.
The reverse, however, is not true. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states that share a common fear of Iran would never prove helpful to Israel. Instead, they will continue to accumulate large amounts of America’s most advanced weapon systems without even a tiny probability of ever being capable of using them against Iran. For Riyadh and its Gulf neighbors, such weapons are always only for decoration. When it comes to any actual military action, they will inevitably and desperately turn for help to the United States.
Israel, as always, must stand alone. In the aftermath of any Iranian nuclear attack, which might still be several years away, Washington’s only tangible aid would be to help bury the dead. This limited assistance would not be the result of any indifference or animosity, but rather of an entirely predictable impotence. Simply put, when a nuclear aggression against Israel had already become a fait accompli, there would be nothing else for America to do.
To merely survive, Israel’s immediate obligation must be to enhance its deterrence and defense postures, to consider a prompt end to “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (that is, to take its bomb “out of the basement”), and to further refine still-pertinent preemption options. Israel should never expect stable coexistence with a nuclear Iran ruled by doctrinaire Islamic clerics.
Israel’s core plan for active defense remains the Arrow. To protect against any future nuclear attack from Iran, this advanced system of ballistic missile defense (BMD) must be complemented by recognizably viable options for defensive non-nuclear first strikes against selected Iranian military and industrial targets. It should never be assumed by Israel that a safe and durable “balance of terror” could be created with a staunchly Jihadist Tehran.
Deterrence must always be based upon an assumption of enemy rationality. This assumption might not be warranted, however, in the case of Iran. Here, also, any purported analogy between Iran and our own U.S. deterrence relationship with the former Soviet Union would be misguided.
If Iran’s current leadership could somehow meet the core test of rationality, always valuing national survival more highly than any other preference, there would still exist grave risks to Israel. These hazards would be associated with Tehran’s problematic command and control of any nuclear forces. Even a completely rational Iranian leadership could base its critical nuclear decisions upon erroneous information, on a variety of computer errors, or on precipitous pre-delegations of launch authority.
The related problem of vulnerability to violent regime overthrow, or coup d’état in Tehran, must also be considered in Jerusalem. In addition to the almost-comedic irony of mutual strategic interest between Israel and Saudi Arabia on Iran, another sharply ironic observation can be made: There can be absolutely no assurances that any successor regime in Iran would necessarily pose a diminished security threat to Israel.
If Israel’s Arrow were presumed to be one hundred percent effective, even an irrational Iranian adversary armed with nuclear or biological weapons could be kept away without defensive first strikes and also without any threats of retaliation. The problem is that no BMD system can ever be “leak proof.”
Terrorist proxies in ships or trucks, not missiles, could deliver Iranian nuclear attacks upon Israel. In such low-tech but distinctly high consequence assaults, there would be no benefit to Israel of deploying any anti-missile defenses.
Every state has an indisputable right under international law to act preemptively when facing a potentially mortal aggression. The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice even extends such lawful authority to the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in certain last-resort circumstances. For now, at least, Israel could and should undertake any planned acts of anticipatory self-defense without nuclear weapons. This may now also mean the prudentially targeted elimination of selected enemy scientists, and a critical resort to vital cyber-defenses.
International law is not a suicide pact.
Although President Medvedev claims otherwise, Russia is still selling Iran its S-300 advanced strategic-range air defense system. Once fully deployed, this weapon, which has an “engagement envelope” of at least 100 miles, could greatly complicate the success of any essential Israeli hard-target (military or industrial) preemption.
If Iran should be permitted to become fully nuclear – an entirely likely scenario, as the so-called sanctions represent little more than a fly on the elephant’s back – Israel would need to substantially enhance the credibility of its presumed nuclear deterrent. Israel’s robust second-strike strategic force – hardened; multiplied; and dispersed – would need to be configured to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against selected enemy cities. In technical military terms, this means, for Israel, an openly counter value-targeted nuclear force.
The dangers of a nuclear Iran would directly impact the United States. Over time, the U.S. could become as vulnerable as Israel to certain nuclear-armed terrorist surrogates. Any American plan for a “rogue state” anti-ballistic missile shield, for us, and for our NATO allies, would have exactly the same limitations as Israel’s already-deployed Arrow.
International politics can make strange bedfellows. Now, with Riyadh “on its side,” Israel may finally have the optimal political setting for a last chance at anticipatory self-defense.
International law is not a suicide pact.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He was Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003), and is the author of many major books, articles and monographs on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Dr. Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.