A Nuclear Iran and the Futility of Sanctions

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.

  • Geoffrey Britain

    A number of people suspect that Obama has made clear that should Netanyahu attack Iran, there will be severe and fatal economic and diplomatic consequences.

    A preemptive Israeli nuclear attack upon Iran will be viewed by a majority of the world's public and characterized by the world's MSM as an ‘unprovoked attack’ and would likely result in a a marked decline in the US public’s support for Israel, which currently stands at 57%. If it dips below 50% as the result of an Israeli nuclear attack, it would provide the needed political cover for Obama and the Dems to severely punish Israel.

    So, if Netanyahu attacks Iran with nukes (and he lacks the conventional resources to otherwise effectively attack Iran) Obama has almost certainly 'hinted' to Netanyahu that he and the Dems will push a Bill through Congress to cut off ALL US aid to Israel.

    Further, Obama will then join Russia, China and most of the UN in imposing severe economic and diplomatic restrictions upon Israel, ‘to bring them to their senses’, which of course, will lead to Israel’s financial collapse.

    It will be Israel against the world.

    That is the conundrum facing Israel. Attack and face the world starving Israel into submission and then a resultant annihilation.

    Do nothing and, take the chance that the Iranian’s won’t attack, either directly or through proxies.

    There may however, be a third option.

    Israel institutes a new policy of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ between Israel and Islam.

    Thus, when Iran gets nukes, Netanyahu responds with the new policy, announced at the UN.

    Israel now deems any nuclear armed Muslim nation, or Islamic group attacking Israel with nukes, to be an ‘agent’ of Islam. As it is Islam that is the motivating factor in the unremitting animosity of the Muslim world against Israel and the Jews.

    That, given Israel’s size, a nuclear attack upon Tel Aviv and/or Jerusalem would effectively destroy Israel and in retaliation for an attempt at what Israel will now consider an act and policy of genocide against the Jewish people, Israel will respond against Islam.

    Therefore, Israel now serves notice that any nuclear attack upon Israel, whether directly by any Islamic nation or by a terrorist group such as Hamas or Hezbollah will be considered an attack upon Israel by Islam. A state of war will then result between Islam and Israel, who will respond with nukes.

    Iran and Mecca will be immediately destroyed and, any other Islamic targets deemed by Israel to be complicit will also be destroyed.

    What I’m suggesting is that Israel use its nuclear capacity to set up deterrence of Islam.

    Israel must face the real enemy and make it crystal clear that any nuclear attack upon Israel will result in Iran (as the foremost sponsor of terrorism against Israel) and every Islamic holy sites’… utter destruction.

    • William Smart

      Israel is not in danger from a nuclear attack but neither can it survive the hostility that has slowly built up against it. Aliyah has dried up, yerida is booming and the curtain is coming down.

    • http://www.yuksel.org Edip Yuksel

      It is entertaining to read a bunch of paranoid Zionsts producing their own Armageddon senarios. Ironically, the most sensible option for Israel is forgotten: treat palestinians like equals rather than like your slaves or prisoners in your fascist concentration camp.

      The zionist arrogance will bring their end. Wait and see.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/Rifleman Rifleman

        Perhaps the 'palestinians' should act like equals first, instead of the terrorists they are.

      • ViewPoint

        It was reported in Dec/09 that in the 5 years that the Palestinians have had Gaza; rape, murder, torture etc. has risen 77%. This is Palestinians committing the worst of crimes against their own people… so what realistic chance is there for Israel?

        Furthermore, giving the Palestinians the Gaza to improve relations did not work… it did not stop the rockets… it didn't slow them down… in fact, the attacks increased.

        In addition, the Israelis have continued to deliver tons of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians while they continue to attack. What other nation would give even a loaf of bread to those utterly determined to wipe them out? Treating the Palestinians with generosity, compassion did not work… treating them as equals will do even less… because to be their equals would mean that the Israeli's would have to lower themselves to become like them. It is clear that the Palestinians have no interest in being equals. They have only one interest and that is the annihilation of Israel. This is not in dispute; it's in their charter for the whole world to see.

        • http://www.yuksel.org Edip Yuksel

          To justify their treatment of blacks, racist white people have been using exactly the same arguments.

          You destroy people's homes, murder them, kidnap them, torture them, bomb their livelihood, confiscate their wealth, and then accuse them of not having progress and peace in their society.

          You might fool some people all the time, all people some time, but you cannot fool all people all the time. The Zionists are naked and the world has witnessed its ugly and monstrous face.

  • http://australianzionist.blogspot.com/2010_03_01_archive.html David

    This is assuming that Iran does not gain a nuclear capacity, otherwise this nuclear proliferation will spread among the other Middle East countries. Who could tell where any nuke came from if several other countries in the region have them.
    Is it not the best option to stop any spread now, rather than have to threaten those who have them?
    As always Israel will have to stand alone and make the decision – but not before it is too late. I would not trust in Iran not sharing their new-found nukes with all and sundry. We know their style already. Are we hoping they will keep it in the cupboard…

  • http://hakemiat-e-mardom.blogspot.com/ Dr. Arash Irandoost

    Now more than ever, Israel need the opposition groups inside and outside Iran to get rid of Islamic republic, before it is too late! fact is Israel want to have its cake and eat it to which if continued, will result in its demise. Israel can not longer stand and watch, and like the UN and US remain quiet in the face of massive human rights violation, rape and torture inside Iran. This is a great opportunity for Israel not to vacillate and join the people of Iran who overwhelmingly see Israel as a potential and former ally of the Iranian people. Israel has the resources the Iranian opposition desperately needs to counter this medieval regime and help Iran join the community of nations and retain its glorious past and rightful place in the community of nations.

  • Tom

    "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."

    Improbable? Hardly! Deterring an Islam that is fixated on the end of the world is out of the question.

  • George

    The talk of a limited preventative strike against Iran is just feel-good talk. it will delay, but not prevent, the acquisition of a device by Iran and will do so at the cost of entrenching the mullahs — in effect worsening the stand-off. If Iran cannot be deterred, only an annihilatory attack or an armed invasion are realistic options.

  • Eddie

    I add that there should be a M.A.D. (Mecca Assured Destruction), as there was a Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine between the US and the former USSR.

    Certainly if the US or Hindu majority India or Israel suffer a nuke attack, Mecca/Makkah, Medina, Qom get hit, in spades, for starters. Do islamofascists believe that Infidels would respect a Muslim holy site after a nuke attack on Infidel population centers?

    The Islamofascist Republic of iran is doing everything possible to trigger the retaliatory destruction of Mecca and the Kabba. Why? Is it a Sunni .vs. Shiite jihad? Muslim apocalyptic fundamentalism?

    The real kicker is that so-called “progressives” howl in self righteous atheistic indignation if a Christian quotes the Bible, but those same progressively mentally ill hypocrites are deferential to Islamofascists.

    Plus the hugo chavez dictatorship of Venezuela supports the Islamofascist regime and undoubtedly wants some of the NK/AQ Khan nuke technology.

    If the Islamofascist Regime of iran isn’t defanged, the World is doomed as it was in 1939, appeasing nazi Germany – except the Israelis are NOT the unarmed Jews of WW2 nazi filth infested europe (aka eurabia).

  • USMCSniper

    Russia and China have both watched us do nothing but talk and even with threats to North Korea regarding them going nuclear we did nothing even when they did. They are watching us talk and retreat again and again with Iran while they are both in bed with Iran economically and selling Iran advance military weapons like the S-300 anti aircraft/missles platforms, nuclear technologies, and intermediate range missle systems.

  • Turbeaux

    Given the fact that a nuclear armed Iran will inevitably mean the end of Israel and given the fact that the Obama administration has also refused all Israeli request for weapons since coming to power, whether it was for refueling aircraft or bunker buster bombs, leaves Israel with no other choice but to use nuclear weapons to not only damage Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but also to obliterate the regime. It’s a matter of survival. Anything less would only open Israel up for retaliation.

  • Avraham Wolf

    Israel will attack Iran and the United States with the world community will verbally condemn Israel’s action. But the truth is that the world (excluding Muslim Obama) would breath a sigh of relief. The world will not go to war over Iran’s demise and the price of gas will go down as the supply of petroleum without Iran will remain the same for many years.

    Israel will preserve its existence if necessary by using the weapons built with Israel’s technology sold to it by the last George Bush before he left office. Iran will never know what hit it and their proxies around the world will die off like bees without a queen.

    Israel along with all the world’s secret services are well aware of the state of Iran’s nuclear progress as those in Iran who hate the Islamic sharia government are willingly selling all the information to the world in the hope of preserving their country.

    All will come to be in good time.

  • USMCSniper

    Iran answers sanctions with threats of war. While dismissing the sanctions threat, Iran has also warned against any military steps against its nuclear program. After several warnings that it would hit back at Israel if attacked from there, Iran's military chief said Thursday he would target U.S. forces stationed in the Middle East if Washington attacked. "If America presents Iran with a serious threat and undertakes any measure against Iran, none of the American soldiers who are currently in the region would go back to America alive," Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency. U.S. troops are engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which border Iran.