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Still Facing Existential Threats: Nuclear War And Genocide In The Middle East (Part One)


Beres-Louis-Rene

“In a dark time,” says the poet Theodore Roethke, “the eye begins to see.” Today, with improving sight, the Iranian nuclear threat should remain bright in our visual field. Despite a recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that effectively supports Tehran’s multiple lies and deceptions, this unconventional threat remains existential. It follows that an Israeli and/or American preemptive strike against certain Iranian nuclear assets and infrastructures should still not be ruled out.

To be sure, it is unlikely the Bush Administration would now have the political will to undertake such an obviously unpopular (albeit entirely legal) act of anticipatory self-defense. It is also clear that attendant diplomatic costs and operational difficulties for Israel would be substantial. Yet, to do nothing meaningful to defend oneself – to simply allow an expressly genocidal regime to “go nuclear” – would be sorely irresponsible.

The moral imperative is plain. Every state’s first obligation is the assurance of protection. Innocent life must ultimately be preserved. When Iran openly proclaims its 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,” essential self-defense becomes a legitimate concern. All the more so, it would seem, for the Jewish State, whose leaders and citizens understand Israel’s very distinctive place in the world of war.

Does “justice” have another face in this matter? Some would argue forcefully against any American and/or Israeli preemption on the curious grounds of a presumed need for “equity.” Israel already has nuclear weapons, goes this 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?

Hardly. 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. Never. 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 explicit and extraordinary forms of aggression. 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 means primarily Iranian attacks involving nuclear and/or certain biological weapons. For the time being, none of Israel’s enemies are nuclear, but this could change. If it should actually have to face nuclear enemies one day, 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 nuclearly if attacked with nuclear and/or devastating biological weapons.

For Israel and its U.S. ally, there would be very complex problems to identify and solve if an enemy state such as Iran were allowed to “go nuclear.” These problems would undermine the neat but unrealistic notion of any balanced nuclear deterrence in the region. 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 opt to launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel in spite of that country’s own obvious and secure nuclear capability. Let us not be deceived: A Cold War type of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (a so-called “balance of terror”) could not obtain in the Middle East.

After any enemy nuclear aggression, Israel would certainly respond with a nuclear retaliatory strike. Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine, such a reprisal would likely be launched against the aggressor’s capital city and/or against similarly high-value urban targets. There would be absolutely no assurances, in response to this sort of genocidal aggression, that Israel would limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets. For further clarification, it would be useful to read the final report of Project Daniel, “Israel’s Strategic Future.” My regular readers in The Jewish Press will already be familiar with this report.

What if the enemy’s first strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or “minor” biological weapons? In this case, Israel might still launch a presumptively proportionate nuclear reprisal, but this would depend largely upon Israel’s calculated expectations of follow-on aggression and on its associated determinations of comparative damage-limitation. Should Israel absorb a massive conventional first-strike, a nuclear retaliation could not be ruled out. This is plausible if: (1) the aggressor were perceived to hold nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in reserve; and/or (2) Israel’s leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent national annihilation. Recognizing Israel’s small size, the calculated threshold of existential harms would be determinably lower than Israel’s total physical devastation.

(To be continued)

Copyright © The Jewish Press, March 21, 2008. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Professor Beres was Chair of “Project Daniel,” which submitted its special report on ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE to former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon on January 16, 2003. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

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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