“Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman?” asks playwright Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV. “Madmen, luck folk, construct without logic, or rather with a logic that flies like a feather.”
What is true for individuals can also be true for entire countries. In the always bewildering theatre of modern world politics, a drama so unpredictable that it often bristles with absurdity, calculated decisions based on ordinary logic can quickly crumble before madness. Even more ominously, any country’s particular misfortunes could reach the outer limits of tolerability if enemy madness and nuclear weapons should somehow come together.
Enter (stage left and stage right) Israel and Iran. For the moment, there is no discernible evidence to suggest that the leadership in Tehran is mad or “crazy.” At the same time, irrationality is not the same as madness, and these Iranian leaders might nonetheless fulfill the usual criteria of a non-rational state. In such circumstances, Iran’s decision-makers could choose to value certain preferences more highly than national survival, but their hierarchy or rank-order of preferences could still be both determinable and consistent.
Even if there should be no Israeli or American preemption at the eleventh hour, Israeli security would not inevitably be lost. True, an irrational Iran might not be responsive to ordinary threats of retaliatory destruction, as would a fully rational enemy state, but it could still remain susceptible to certain other pertinent threats. For Israel, therefore, this means a primary and prompt obligation to (1) identify such alternative threats, and (2) fashion them into an appropriate new policy framework of viable deterrence.
In principle, by choosing to forgo anticipatory self-defense against Iran, the legal equivalent of a permissible first-strike, Israel would have to live with protracted uncertainty. Here, after all, “coexistence” with Iran could mean living under a literally unending threat of Iranian nuclear attack. With precisely this devastating prospect in mind, Israel has already been expanding and upgrading its complex network of interrelated active defenses.
The foundation of Israel’s active defense plan for Iran remains the Arrow anti-ballistic missile program. Iron Dome, a reinforcing system, is intended primarily for intercepting shorter-range rocket attacks. David’s Sling, in still earlier stages of development, is designed for use against medium-range rockets and cruise missiles.
Judging from the most recent tests, everything appears technically sound and promising.
A nagging problem could still lie in accepting too many optimistic assumptions about active defense. No system of ballistic missile defense (BMD) can ever be presumed reliable enough to preclude a fully complementary strategy of deterrence. Always, with BMD, there may be unacceptable levels of “leakage,” obviously an especially risky outcome if the incoming warheads should be biological or nuclear.
Now, Israel must move, visibly and verifiably, to strengthen its ambiguous nuclear deterrent. To be dissuaded from launching an attack, any rational adversary, and possibly an irrational one, would first need to calculate that Israel’s second-strike forces were sufficiently invulnerable to any considered first-strike aggressions. Facing Israel’s Arrow, this adversary would likely require steadily increasing numbers of missiles, in order to achieve an assuredly destructive first-strike capability. Over time, however, this adversary could efficiently undermine the core deterrence benefits of Israel’s active defenses, simply by adding regular increments of offensive missiles.
Israel must continue to develop, test, and implement an interception capability that will match the cumulative enemy threat. It must also take innovative steps to enhance the credibility of its still-ambiguous nuclear deterrent. If Iranian nuclearization should proceed unimpeded, for example, Israel will have to prepare, very promptly, to remove its bomb from the “basement.” Undoubtedly, in these unstable circumstances, a continuing posture of deliberate nuclear ambiguity could no longer be judged “cost-effective.”