In the matter of Iranian nuclearization, U.S. President Barack Obama still doesn’t get it. Economic sanctions will never work. In Tehran’s national decision-making circles, absolutely nothing can compare to the immense power and status that would come with membership in the Nuclear Club. Indeed, if President Ahmadinejad and his clerical masters truly believe in the Shiite apocalypse, the inevitable final battle against “unbelievers,” they would be most willing to accept even corollary military sanctions.
From the standpoint of the United States, a nuclear Iran would pose an unprecedented risk of mass-destruction terrorism. For much smaller Israel, of course, the security risk would be existential.
Legal issues are linked here to various strategic considerations. Supported by international law, specifically by the incontestable right of anticipatory self-defense, Prime Minister Netanyahu understands that any preemptive destruction of Iran’s nuclear infrastructures would involve enormous operational and political difficulties. True, Israel has deployed elements of the “Arrow” system of ballistic missile defense, but even the Arrow could not achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to protect civilian populations. Further, now that Obama has backed away from America’s previously-planned missile shield deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, Israel has no good reason to place its security hopes in any combined systems of active defense.
Even a single incoming nuclear missile that would manage to penetrate Arrow defenses could kill very large numbers of Israelis. Iran, moreover, could decide to share its developing nuclear assets with assorted terror groups, sworn enemies of Israel that would launch using automobiles and ships rather than missiles. These very same groups might seek “soft” targets in selected American or European cities – schools, universities, hospitals, hotels, sports stadiums, subways, etc.
While Obama and the “international community” still fiddles, Iran is plainly augmenting its incendiary intent toward Israel with a corresponding military capacity. Left to violate non-proliferation treaty (NPT) rules with impunity, Iran’s leaders might ultimately be undeterred by any threats of an Israeli and/or American retaliation. Such a possible failure of nuclear deterrence could be the result of a presumed lack of threat credibility, or even of a genuine Iranian disregard for expected harms. In the worst-case scenario, Iran, animated by certain Shiite visions of inevitable conflict, could become the individual suicide bomber writ large. Such a dire prospect is improbable, but it is not unimaginable.
Iran’s illegal nuclearization has already started a perilous domino effect, especially among certain Sunni Arab states in the region. Not long ago, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt revealed possible plans to develop their own respective nuclear capabilities. But strategic stability in a proliferating Middle East could never resemble US-USSR deterrence during the Cold War. Here, the critical assumption of rationality, which always makes national survival the very highest decisional preference, simply might not hold.
If, somehow, Iran does become fully nuclear, Israel will have to promptly reassess its core policy of nuclear ambiguity, and also certain related questions of targeting. These urgent issues were discussed candidly in my own “Project Daniel” final report, first delivered by hand to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on January 16, 2003.
Israel’s security from mass-destruction attacks will depend in part upon its intended targets in Iran, and on the precise extent to which these targets have been expressly identified. For Israel’s survival, it is not enough to merely have The Bomb. Rather, the adequacy of Israel’s nuclear deterrence and preemption policies will depend largely upon:
(1) The presumed destructiveness of these nuclear weapons.
(2) On where these weapons are thought to be targeted.
Obama’s “Road Map” notwithstanding, a nuclear war in the Middle East is not out of the question. Soon, Israel will need to choose prudently between “assured destruction” strategies, and “nuclear war-fighting” strategies. Assured destruction strategies are sometimes called “counter-value” strategies or “mutual assured destruction” (MAD). Drawn from the Cold War, these are strategies of deterrence in which a country primarily targets its strategic weapons on the other side’s civilian populations, and/or on its supporting civilian infrastructures.
Nuclear war-fighting measures, on the other hand, are called “counterforce” strategies. These are systems of deterrence wherein a country primarily targets its strategic nuclear weapons on the other side’s major weapon systems, and on that state’s supporting military assets.
There are distinctly serious survival consequences for choosing one strategy over the other. Israel could also opt for some sort of “mixed” strategy. Still, for Israel, any policy that might encourage nuclear war fighting should be rejected. This advice was an integral part of the once-confidential Project Daniel final report.
In choosing between the two basic strategic alternatives, Israel should always opt for nuclear deterrence based upon assured destruction. This seemingly insensitive recommendation might elicit opposition amid certain publics, but it is, in fact, more humane. A counterforce targeting doctrine would be less persuasive as a nuclear deterrent, especially to states whose leaders could willingly sacrifice entire armies as “martyrs.”
If Israel were to opt for nuclear deterrence based upon counterforce capabilities, its enemies could also feel especially threatened. This condition could then enlarge the prospect of a nuclear aggression against Israel, and of a follow-on nuclear exchange.
Israel’s decisions on counter-value versus counterforce doctrines will depend, in part, on prior investigations of enemy country inclinations to strike first; and on enemy country inclinations to strike all-at-once, or in stages. Should Israeli strategic planners assume that an enemy state in process of “going nuclear” is apt to strike first, and to strike with all of its nuclear weapons right away, Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads – used in retaliation – would hit only empty launchers. In such circumstances, Israel’s only plausible application of counterforce doctrine would be to strike first itself, an option that Israel clearly and completely rejects. From the standpoint of intra-war deterrence, a counter-value strategy would prove vastly more appropriate to a fast peace.
Should Israeli planners assume that an enemy country “going nuclear” is apt to strike first, and to strike in a limited fashion, holding some measure of nuclear firepower in reserve, Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads could have some damage-limiting benefits. Here, counterforce operations could appear to serve both an Israeli non-nuclear preemption, or, should Israel decide not to preempt, an Israeli retaliatory strike. Nonetheless, the benefits to Israel of maintaining any counterforce targeting options are generally outweighed by the reasonably expected costs.
To protect itself against a relentlessly nuclearizing Iran, Israel’s best course may still be to seize the conventional preemption option as soon as possible. (After all, a fully nuclear Iran that would actually welcome apocalyptic endings could bring incomparably higher costs to Israel.) Together with such a permissible option, Israel would have to reject any hint of a counterforce targeting doctrine. But if, as now seems clear, Iran is allowed to continue with its illegal nuclear weapons development, Netanyahu’s correct response should be to quickly end Israel’s historic policy of nuclear ambiguity.
Such a doctrinal termination could permit Israel to enhance its nuclear deterrence posture, but only in regard to a fully rational Iranian adversary. If, after all, Iran’s leaders were to resemble the suicide bomber in macrocosm, they might not be deterred by any expected level of Israeli retaliation.
No country can be required to participate in its own annihilation. Without a prompt and major change in President Obama’s persistently naive attitude toward Iran, a law-enforcing expression of anticipatory self-defense may still offer Israel its only remaining survival option. This will sound unconvincing to many, but rational decision-making – in all fields of human endeavor – is based upon informed comparisons of expected costs and expected benefits.
Does President Obama really believe that both Americans and the Israelis can somehow live with a nuclear Iran? If he does, he should be reminded that a nuclear balance-of-terror in the Middle East could never replicate the earlier stability of U.S.-Soviet mutual deterrence.
This would not be your father’s Cold War.
Louis René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue and the author of many books, monographs and articles dealing with international law, strategic theory, Israeli nuclear policy, and regional nuclear war. In Israel, where he served as Chair of Project Daniel, his work is known to selected military and intelligence communities.