Following his early June speech delivered in Cairo, U.S. President Obama pretty much gave the final green light to Tehran. More precisely, with regard to ongoing Iranian nuclearization, the president signaled plainly that further economic sanctions, and not any defensive military action, were the only remaining option. In Jerusalem, one must presume, Prime Minister Netanyahu understood immediately the substantially changing drift of American foreign policy toward the Middle East. For Israel, therefore, a new plan for dealing with an unprecedented strategic menace would now be necessary. This plan would somehow have to be based on “living with Iran.”
To be sure, Mr. Netanyahu also understands that any such coexistence will require certain suitable and far-reaching refinements in Israel’s nuclear doctrine. In this connection, little if anything has ever been codified or even publicly considered. After all, even now, everything about Israel’s nuclear posture remains ambiguous. Israel’s bomb is still deeply buried in the country’s “basement.”
How has this posture of deliberate ambiguity or opacity worked thus far? It obviously has done very little to deter “ordinary” conventional enemy aggressions or acts of terror. But it has likely succeeded in keeping the country’s principal enemies from mounting consequential mega-attacks. This is no minor accomplishment.
None of Israel’s foes presently has “the bomb,” but together – in any determined collaboration – they could already have acquired the capacity to mount attacks of genuinely existential magnitude. Acting collectively and purposefully, these states and their assorted insurgent proxies, even without nuclear weapons, could still have inflicted enormous harm upon the Jewish State.
Now, stubbornly oblivious to both the hollow threats from Washington, and to the equally feeble calls for meaningful sanctions by the so-called “international community,” Tehran continues to vigorously “go nuclear.” In a few years, Israel will almost certainly face an openly genocidal nuclear Iran. To protect itself, Israel will have to prepare to defend against a determined and possibly even irrational nuclear adversary with both ballistic missile defense (Arrow) and improved nuclear deterrence.
There are other related issues. Iran is a state that might share some of its nuclear components and materials with Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations.This means that continued nuclear ambiguity might not remain sufficiently persuasive to ensure Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture in various critical circumstances.
Prime Minister Netanyahu surely understands that adequate deterrence of Iran could soon require some release of pertinent Israeli nuclear details. Concerning these details, less rather than more Israeli nuclear secrecy could be required. Ironically, perhaps, what will now need to be determined by the prime minister is the precise extent and subtlety with which Israel should communicate its nuclear positions, intentions and capabilities to Iran, and to certain other selected states and state surrogates in world politics.
The strategic rationale for such carefully constructed forms of nuclear disclosure would rest on the understanding that nuclear weapons can best serve Israel’s security in a number of different ways, and that all of these ways could benefit the Jewish State to the extent that certain aspects of nuclear weapons and strategies were actually disclosed. The form and extent of such strategic disclosure could be more critical than ever before, because the new president of the United States is altogether determined to proceed with a still one-sided “peace process.” In its potentially destructive synergies with a nuclearizing Iran, Barack Obama’s “Two-State Solution” could quickly overwhelm Israel with an effective Final Solution.
For the foreseeable future, Israel’s state enemies – especially Iran, Egypt (peace treaty notwithstanding) and Syria – will continue to enlarge and refine their conventional and unconventional military capabilities. Even if certain enemy-state capabilities do not yet fully parallel their intentions, this could change very quickly. As indicated above, Mr. Ahmadinejad or his successor could even cast aside all of the usual considerations of rational behavior. Were this to happen, the Islamic Republic of Iran could become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Such a destabilizing prospect is improbable, but it is not inconceivable.
To protect itself against enemy strikes, particularly those attacks that could carry intolerable costs, Israel will need to prepare to exploit every relevant aspect and function of its own nuclear arsenal and doctrine. The success of Israel’s efforts here will depend not only on its particular choice of targeting doctrine (“counterforce” or “counter city”), but also upon the extent to which this critical choice is made known in advance to both enemy states (primarily Iran) and to their non-state surrogates. Before such enemies can be deterred from launching first strikes against Israel, and before they can be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following any Israeli preemption, it may not be enough to know only that Israel has the bomb. These enemies may also need to recognize that Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to such attacks, and that they are pointed directly at high-value population targets.
Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of 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. From the standpoint of successful nuclear deterrence, perceived willingness is always just as important as perceived capability.
For now, as Mr. Netanyahu surely understands, Israel’s bomb should remain ambiguous. But soon, at the very moment that Iran is discovered to be close to completing its own nuclear weapons capability, the Jewish State should put a prompt end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
Prime Minister Netanyahu recognizes the stark shortcomings of President Obama’s plan for peace in the Middle East. He understands that there could never be any durable and reliable peace with a nuclear Iran. But as it is now inconceivable that the United States will undertake preemptive destruction of Iran’s nearly completed nuclear program (what would be a permissible act of “anticipatory self-defense” under customary international law), Israel will – inter alia – have to take its own bomb out of the “basement.” Whatever its specific details and nuances, such an essential end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity may still not be sufficient to save Israel from eventual nuclear war with Iran. Nonetheless, in the changing world emerging after Mr. Obama’s unfortunate Cairo speech, it would surely be better for Israel than continuing with a no longer viable nuclear policy of calculated uncertainty.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) was Chair of Project Daniel. Born in Switzerland (1945), he is Professor of International Law at Purdue, and is the author of many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.