"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."
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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