Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: Iran, Jihad and "End Times": Part II

As was clarified by Project Daniel’s final report, Israel’s Strategic Future (Israel, 2003), it is always in Israel’s interest to avoid nuclear war fighting in any form.
Published: Tuesday, October 02, 2012 10:36 AM


(for part one, click here)

The primary point of Israel's nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not preemption or reprisal ex post.

If, however, nuclear weapons should ever be introduced into a conflict between Israel and one or more of the several states that still wish to destroy it, some form of nuclear war fighting could ensue. This would be the case so long as:

(a) enemy state first-strikes against Israel would not destroy the Jewish State's second-strike nuclear capability;

(b) enemy state retaliations for Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel's nuclear counter-retaliatory capability;

(c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capabilities; and

(d) Israeli retaliation for enemy state conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.

From the standpoint of protecting its security and survival, this means that Israel should now take prompt and immediate steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d). As was clarified by Project Daniel’s final report, Israel’s Strategic Future (Israel, 2003), it is always in Israel’s interest to avoid nuclear war fighting in any form.

For Israel, both nuclear and non-nuclear preemptions of enemy unconventional aggressions could lead to nuclear exchanges. These outcomes would depend, in part, upon the effectiveness and breadth of Israeli targeting, the surviving number of enemy nuclear weapons, and also the willingness of enemy leaders to risk Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations. Significantly, the likelihood of nuclear exchanges would be greatest where potential state aggressors were allowed to deploy ever-larger numbers of certain unconventional weapons without eliciting appropriate and effective Israeli preemptions.

This point is frequently overlooked by all those who regularly oppose any pertinent forms of anticipatory self-defense by Israel.

Should any enemy nuclear deployments be allowed, Israel could then forfeit the non-nuclear preemption option. Its only remaining alternatives to nuclear preemption would then be:

(1) a no-longer viable conventional preemption; or

(2) a decision to do nothing, thereby relying for security on the problematic logic of nuclear deterrence, and on the corollary and inherently limited protections of ballistic missile defense.

In principle, at least, this means that the risks of an Israeli nuclear preemption, of nuclear exchanges with an enemy state, and of enemy nuclear first strikes might all still be reduced by certain Israeli non-nuclear preemptions.

While still unrecognized in Washington, there is no greater power in world politics than power over death. In this connection, the idea of apocalypse figures scripturally in both Judaism and Christianity, but it very likely appeared for the very first time among the Zoroastrians in ancient Persia. This is basically the same region as modern day Iran.

For President Ahmadinejad, still deeply concerned with power over death, there could be a determinably terrible beauty in transforming the “World of War” into the “World of Islam.” For this Iranian president, and more importantly, for his clerical masters, any “end of the world” struggle spawned by such transformation could enticingly open the way, at least for vast legions of true believers, to a life everlasting. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that these Iranian decision-makers might still discover an overwhelmingly positive outcome in their deeply-felt end-of-the-world imaginings.

Where shall we go from here? Nuclear deterrence is a "game" that sane and rational governments may have to play, but there can be no reciprocal assurance that potential enemies will necessarily be sane and rational.

This presents a grave security problem, because the entire logic of nuclear deterrence rests squarely on the core assumption that each state will always value its continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. Even a nuclear-weapons state that is able to assuredly destroy an aggressor after suffering an enemy first-strike attack could, therefore, end up “losing” the game.

Now, even after Prime Minister Netanyahu's September 27, 2012, UN speech, a nuclear Iran is pretty much a fait accompli. For Israel, soon to be deprived of any remaining cost-effective preemption options, this likely means an imperative policy of coexistence with a nuclear Iran.

This indispensable strategy of Israeli nuclear deterrence will call, inter alia, for reduced ambiguity about certain of its strategic forces; enhanced and partially disclosed nuclear targeting options; substantial and partially disclosed programs for active defenses; recognizable steps to ensure the survivability of its nuclear retaliatory forces; and, to bring all of these elements together in a coherent “mission plan,” a fully comprehensive strategic doctrine.

In addition, because of the logical and historical possibility of enemy irrationality, Israel's military planners must identify suitable ways of ensuring that even a nuclear "suicide state" could be deterred. Such a perilous threat is perhaps “small,” but it is assuredly not negligible. And even if the probability of ever having to face such an irrational enemy state may be “low,” the disutility or expected harms of any single deterrence failure could still be intolerably high.

Israel needs to maintain and strengthen its plans for ballistic missile defense (the Arrow system), and also for Iron Dome, a lower-altitude interceptor designed to guard against shorter-range rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza. These systems, including Magic Wand, which is still in the development phase, will inevitably have "leakage." Their principal benefit, it is expected, will ultimately lie in enhanced deterrence, rather than in any added increments of direct physical protection of civilians.

A newly-nuclear Iran, if still rational, would require steadily increasing numbers of offensive missiles to achieve a sufficiently destructive first-strike capability against Israel. Still, there could come a time when Iran would be able to deploy far more than a small number of nuclear-tipped missiles. Should that happen, Arrow, Iron Dome and, potentially, Magic Wand, could cease offering their critical enhancements of Israeli nuclear deterrence. This cessation could happen incrementally, or all at once.

What if the leaders of a newly-nuclear Iran did not meet the expectations of rational behavior in world politics?

What if these leaders were animated by compelling visions of a Shiite apocalypse?

What if this leadership did not consistently value Iran's national survival as a state more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences?

In such unprecedented or sui generis circumstances, Israel's leaders would need to look closely at two eccentric and more-or-less untried deterrence strategies, possibly in tandem with one another.

First, these leaders would have to understand that even an irrational Iranian leadership could have altogether distinct preferences, and even identifiable hierarchies of preferences. Their task would be to determine precisely what these particular preferences might be (most likely, of course, they would have to do with certain presumed religious goals), and how these preferences are apt to be ranked in Tehran.

Second, Israel's leaders would have to determine the expected deterrence benefits of their own pretended irrationality. An irrational Iranian enemy could be less likely to strike first if it felt that Israel's decision-makers, either routinely or episodically, were irrational themselves. Years ago, General Moshe Dayan, then Israel's Minister of Defense, said: "Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother." Here, Dayan revealed an intuitive awareness of the possible benefits to Israel of feigned irrationality. At the same time, pretended irrationality could be a double-edged sword, and – at least in principle – present a palpable incentive for Israel's enemies to strike first themselves.

There is an antecedent point. Before Israel's leaders could proceed with any usable plans for deterring an irrational nuclear adversary, especially Iran, they would first need to be convinced that this adversary was, in fact, genuinely irrational, and not merely pretending irrationality.

The early and continuous sequencing of this vital judgment cannot be overstated. Because all specific Israeli deterrence policies must be premised upon the presumed rationality or irrationality of nuclear enemies, ascertaining precise enemy preference and preference-orderings over time should become the very first phase of purposeful strategic planning in Tel-Aviv. It goes without saying that Israel's usual military assets should be carefully augmented by collaboration with selected elements of its wider intelligence community.

Finally, as a newly-nuclear Iran could decide to share some of its fissile materials and technologies with assorted terrorist groups, Israel's leaders will also have to deal with the prospect of irrational nuclear enemies at the sub-state level. This prospect is likely much greater than that of irrationality at the national or state level. At the same time, the particular harms suffered from any such instances of nuclear terror would probably be less overwhelming.


Years ago, General Moshe Dayan, then Israel's Minister of Defense, said: "Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother."
Soon, facing the prospect of a nuclear Iran, Israel will need to select refined and workable options to deal with two separate but interpenetrating levels of danger. Should Iranian leaders be judged to meet the usual tests of rationality in world politics, Israel will have to focus especially upon reducing its nuclear ambiguity, on taking its bomb out of the "basement," and on operationalizing a retaliatory force that is appropriately hardened and dispersed. In design, this second-strike nuclear force, counter value, not counter-force targeted, should be recognizably ready to inflict assured destruction against specifically identifiable enemy cities.

In circumstances where Israel's leaders would determine that they may have to deter an irrational enemy leadership in Tehran or elsewhere, they will also have to consider the possible strategic benefits of appearing as a "mad dog," or adopting a strategy of pretended irrationality. Together with any such consideration, both Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, civilian leadership and military, will need to determine what, exactly, is valued most highly by Israel's pertinent enemies, and then prepare to issue fully credible threats to obstruct these core enemy preferences.

Whether Iran's leadership is expected to be rational or irrational, Israel will need to continue with its steadily expanding programs for cyber-defense and cyber-war. Moreover, there are also particular circumstances wherein it could be purposeful for Israel to adopt a strategy of pretended irrationality vis-à-vis a presumably rational Iranian adversary.

In the past, a nuclear Iran might still have been prevented by timely strategies of preemption. But, today, in the steadily diminishing prospect of any remaining options for anticipatory self-defense, Israel's best available choice will likely be to prepare for reliable deterrence of an already-nuclear Iran. It will be a daunting task, to be sure.

This task will require, in part, very carefully considered analyses of prospectively irrational nuclear adversaries, especially their probable response to more-or-less plausible expectations of Israeli irrationality, and also their underlying hierarchy or discernible rank-ordering of national preferences.

LOUIS RENÉ BERESwas educated at Princeton(Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many major books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including recent contributions to International Security (Harvard); NATIV (Israel/Hebrew); Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs (Israel/English); Parameters(The Journal of the US Army War College);The Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, and International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Some of his earlier writings on both strategic and jurisprudential matters appeared in such journals as World Politics(Princeton); Strategic Review; Special Warfare (DoD); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Affairs; Counterterrorism and Security International; Policy Sciencesand Armed Forces and Society. ProfessorBeres was Chair of Project Daniel, which submitted its then-confidential final report on Israel’s Strategic Future to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on January 16, 2003. Earlier, in 1980, he published Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press); and, in1986, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York: D.C. Heath, Lexington Books).