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Israel already has a robust second-strike nuclear force. This force, hardened and dispersed, must now be made more recognizably ready to inflict an unacceptable retaliatory salvo. As exclusively “counterforce” targeting could have significant deterrence shortfalls, Israel’s primary nuclear targets must always be identifiable enemy cities. From the critical standpoint of enhancing deterrence, it may also be time for Israel to release selected information about its specifically sea-based retaliatory forces.
Israel must clarify that Arrow and other defenses would operate simultaneously, or in tandem, with Israeli nuclear retaliations. Iran must be made to understand that Israel’s defensive deployments would never preclude, or even render less probable, an Israeli nuclear reprisal.
Looking back, it is clear that Iran should never have been allowed to proceed this far with its illegal military nuclearization. Presently, of course, Israel will have to deal with a uniquely hostile enemy regime by instituting steady enhancements of both its nuclear deterrence and active defense capabilities. Although the desirability of regime-change in Tehran might at first appear self-evident, such a transformation could ultimately offer Israel little more than an ill-fated illusion of enhanced security.
It is worth considering that a successor regime in Tehran could prove worse for Jerusalem, and also for Washington. Judged from the particularly relevant standpoint of jihadist inclinations, Ahmadinejad may in fact not yet represent the most dangerous expression of Iranian leadership.
There is also the question of enemy delivery systems. In this connection, Iranian nuclear arms could be directed toward Israel, not only via direct missile strike, but also by terrorist-proxy platforms, including cars, trucks, and boats. Should a newly nuclear Iran ever decide to share certain of its weapons-usable materials and scientific personnel with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel might then have to face a heightened prospect of nuclear terrorism. Ultimately, the considerable dangers posed could impact American cities as well.
Soon, to adapt a currently popular political metaphor, leaders in Israel and the United States will no longer be able to “kick the Iranian nuclear can” down the road. More than likely, however, in their closing operational calculations, the preemption option will have to be rejected. Almost certainly, this option will have become more costly than gainful.
What’s left? Deterrence, even of an enemy state that might sometime not value its physical survival above all other values, could still work. For Israel, successfully deterring a possibly irrational nuclear adversary in Tehran need not be out of the question.
An irrational Iranian adversary might still have a consistent and “transitive” hierarchy of preferences. In this case, the very top or apex of the preference hierarchy would reveal the immutable religious expectations of Shiite Islam. If properly “encouraged” by Israel and the United States, leaders in Iran could reasonably calculate that the all-important theological benefits of a long-term peace with Israel would actually exceed the expected benefits of war.
Finally, it is also possible, perhaps even most probable, that Iranian leadership elites will remain entirely rational, thus valuing their country’s physical survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences. Iran, in such circumstances, would remain subject to the same “normal” threats of retaliatory destruction as other rational states in world politics. While there can never be any absolute assurances of such a preferred scenario, it would still be premature to conclude that a newly nuclear Iran, whether rational or irrational, would inevitably lash out viscerally or blindly at its enemies.
An irrational Iranian regime might not necessarily lie beyond the ordinary calculations of international deterrence. Of course, it may present Israel with an altogether intimidating aspect of incessant belligerence and bombast, but not necessarily with the face of a “madman.”
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. The author of many major books and articles in the field, he was Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003). John T. Chain (USAF/Ret.) was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC), and Director, Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff. General Chain also served as Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, and Director, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
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