What Does Netanyahu Do Now About Preemption?

The nagging question of Iranian rationality is at the core of every decision. Is Iran rational, irrational or mad? How does Israel prevent nuclear war?

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Prof. Louis René Beres,

Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene Beres
israelnewsphoto: R. B.

Before activating (with Cabinet approval) his preemption decision on a still-nuclearizing Iran, Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, must first venture a critical prior judgment. Looking cumulatively and systematically at all pertinent intelligence data, he will have to determine, dispassionately, whether Iranian decision-makers are apt to be rational, irrational, or mad. This will be a difficult but utterly indispensable determination.

These are not frivolous or arbitrary characterizations of enemy leadership elites. There are, in fact, vitally significant differences between these three core alternatives. Indeed, the ultimate wisdom of any considered Israeli preemption will depend upon (1) choosing correctly; and (2) accurately predicting Iranian rationality over time.

Words matter. Here, amid a generally cacophonous clamor of peripheral noise, they matter a great deal. In world politics, "irrational" does not mean the same as "mad," or "crazy." It does mean consistently valuing certain goals or objectives more highly than national survival.

In such rare, but not unprecedented circumstances, a country's irrational leadership may still maintain a distinct and determinable hierarchy of preferences. Unlike trying to influence a genuinely "mad" leadership, it is possible to effectively deter a ("merely") irrational adversary.

For the moment, and despite popular caricatures in the world press, Iran is not a crazy or radically whimsical state. Although it is true, at least doctrinally, that Iran's political and clerical leaders could sometime welcome the Shiite apocalypse, and even its corollary catastrophic destructions, these decision-makers might still remain subject to different kinds of deterrent threats. Faced with such circumstances, wherein an already-nuclear Iran could not be prevented from striking first by employing the "usual" threats of retaliatory destruction, Israel would need to identify, in advance, other less-orthodox, but still promising, threats of reprisal.

Inevitably, such unorthodox and specialized threats would concern those preeminent religious preferences and institutions that remain most deeply valued by Shiite Iran.

A presumptively rational leadership in Tehran would make it easier for Jerusalem to forego the preemption option. After all, in such vastly more predictable circumstances, Iran could still be reliably deterred by some or all of the standard military threats, warnings that are ordinarily linked to "assured destruction."

Unless there is an eleventh-hour defensive first strike by Israel, a considered attack that would most likely follow a determination of actual or prospective Iranian "madness" - and an irreversible judgment that could prove to be correct or incorrect - a new nuclear adversary in the region will become a fait accompli.

For Israel, this appearance would then mandate a prudent plan to coexist or "live with" a nuclear Iran. Immediately, forging such a necessary strategy of nuclear deterrence would, inter alia,call for

(1) reduced ambiguity about particular elements of its strategic forces;

(2) enhanced and partially disclosed nuclear targeting options;

(3) substantial and partially revealed programs for improved active defenses;

(4) certain recognizable steps to ensure the perceived survivability of its nuclear retaliatory forces, including more or less explicit references to Israeli sea-basing of such forces;

(5) further expansion of preparations for both cyber-defense and cyber-war; and,

(6) in order to bring together all of these complex and intersecting enhancements in a coherent mission plan, a comprehensive strategic doctrine.

Additionally, because of the residual but still consequential prospect of Iranian irrationality (notmadness), Israel's military planners will have to identify suitable ways of ensuring that even a nuclear "suicide state" could be deterred. Such a uniquely perilous threat might actually be very small, but, if considered together with Iran's Shiite eschatology, it might not be negligible. Further, while the expected probability of having to face such an irrational enemy state could be very low, the disutility or expected harm of any single deterrence failure could still be unacceptably high.

Israel is steadily strengthening its plans for ballistic missile defense, most visibly on the Arrowsystem, and on Iron Dome, a lower-altitude interceptor designed to guard against shorter-range rocket attacks, especially from Lebanon and Gaza. These defensive systems, including certain others which are still in the development phase, would inevitably have leakage. It follows that because system penetration by even a single enemy missile carrying a nuclear warhead could, by definition, be intolerable, their principal benefit would not ultimately lie in supplying any added physical protection for Israeli populations. Instead, this still-considerable benefit would have to lie elsewhere; that is, in expected enhancements of Israeli deterrence.

Another computational strategic caveat unfolds. A newly-nuclear Iran, if still rational, would require incrementally increasing numbers of offensive missiles in order to achieve or maintain a sufficiently destructive first-strike capability against Israel. There could come a time, however, when Iran would be able to deploy meaningfully more than a small number of nuclear-tipped missiles. Should that happen, all of Israel's active defenses, already inadequate as ultimate guarantors of physical protection, could also cease functioning as critically supportive adjuncts to Israeli nuclear deterrence.

A still timely preemption against Iran, even at very great cost and risk to Israel, could prove indispensable in the case of anticipated Iranian decisional "madness." Yet, at least in itself, this destabilizing scenario is insufficiently plausible to warrant defensive first-strikes. Israel would be better served by a bifurcated or two-pronged plan for successful deterrence. Here, one "prong" would be designed for an expectedly rational Iranian adversary; the other, for a presumptively irrational one.

In broadest policy contours, we already know what Israel would need to do in order to maintain a stable deterrence posture vis-à-vis a newly-nuclear Iran. But what if the leaders of such an adversary did not meet the characteristic expectations of rational behavior in world politics? In short, what if this leadership, from the very start, or perhaps more slowly, over time, chose not to consistently value Iran's national survival as a state more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences?

In such acutely threatening circumstances, Israel's leaders would need to look closely at two eccentric and more-or-less untried nuclear deterrence strategies, possibly even in tandem with one another. First, these leaders would have to understand that even an irrational Iranian leadership could display distinct preferences, and associated hierarchies or rank-orderings of preferences. Their task, then, would be to determine precisely what these particular preferences might be (most likely, they would have to do with certain presumed religiousgoals), and, also, how these preferences are apt to be ranked in Tehran.

Second, among other things, Israel's leaders would have to determine the likely deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality. An irrational Iranian enemy, if it felt that Israel's decision-makers were irrational themselves, could be determinedly less likely to strike first. Years ago, General Moshe Dayan, then Israel's Minister of Defense, urged: "Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother." With this possibly prophetic warning, Dayan had revealed an intuitive awareness of the possible long-term benefits, to Israel, of feigned irrationality.

Of course, pretending irrationality could also be a double-edged sword, frightening the Iranian side to a point where it might actually feel more compelled to strike first itself. This risk of unwittingly encouraging enemy aggression could apply as well to an Iranian adversary that had been deemed rational. In this connection, it is worth noting, Israel could apply the tactic of pretended irrationality to a presumptively rational Iranian leadership, as well as to an expectedly irrational one. On analytic balance, it may even be more purposeful for Israel to use this tactic where Iran had first been judged to be rational.

The dialectics of such nuanced calculations are enormously complex, and also potentially bewildering. Still, they must be studied and worked through meticulously, and by all seriously concerned strategists and decision-makers.

There is a relevant prior point. Before Israel's leaders could proceed gainfully with any plans for deterring an irrational Iranian nuclear adversary, they would first need to be convinced that this adversary was, in fact, genuinely irrational, and not simply pretending irrationality.

The importance of an early sequencing for this vital judgment cannot be overstated. Because all specific Israeli deterrence policies must be founded upon the presumed rationality or irrationality of prospective nuclear enemies, accurately determining precise enemy preferences and preference-orderings will have to become the very first core phase of strategic planning in Tel-Aviv.

Finally, as a newly-nuclear Iran could sometime 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 daunting prospect is more likely than that of encountering irrationality at the national or state level. At the same time, at least in principle, the harms suffered from any such instances of nuclear terror would probably be on a tangibly lower order of magnitude.

Soon, if it has already decided against preemption, Israel will need to select appropriately refined and workable options for dealing 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 then have to focus upon reducing its longstanding nuclear ambiguity, or, on taking its bomb out of the "basement." It will also need to operationalize an adequate retaliatory force that is recognizablyhardened, multiplied, and dispersed.

This second-strike nuclear force should be made visibly ready to inflict "assured destruction" against certain precisely-identifiable enemy cities. In military parlance, Israel will need to convince Iran that its strategic targeting doctrine is "counter value," not "counterforce." It may also have to communicate to Iran certain partial and very general information about the sea-basing of selected Israeli second-strike forces.

Ironically, an Iranian perception of Israeli nuclear weapons as uniformly too large, or too powerful, could conceivably weaken Israel's nuclear deterrence posture. For example, Iranian perceptions of exclusively mega-destructive Israeli nuclear weapons could effectively undermine the credibility of Israel's nuclear deterrent. Although counter-intuitive, Israel's credibility in certain confrontational circumstances could vary inversely with the perceived destructiveness of its nuclear arms.

In essence, the persuasiveness of Israel's nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis Iran will require prospective enemy perceptions of retaliatory destructiveness at both the low and high ends of the nuclear yield spectrum. Ending nuclear ambiguity at the optimal time could best allow Israel to foster precisely such needed perceptions.

Credible nuclear deterrence is never an automatic consequence of merely "being nuclear." In the particularly arcane world of Israeli nuclear deterrence, it would never be adequate that Iran could simply acknowledge the Jewish State's nuclear status. Rather, it would be critical, among other things, that Tehran also believe that Israel holds distinctly usable nuclear weapons, and that Israel would plainly be willing to launch these weapons in certain clear and more-or-less identifiable circumstances.

Whether Israel's leaders conclude that they will have to deter a rational or an irrational enemy leadership in Tehran, a leadership now in control of at least some nuclear weapons, they will have to consider Moshe Dayan's injunction. What would be the expected strategic benefits to Israel of appearing to their Iranian foes as a "mad dog?" And what would be the expected costs?

Together with any such consideration, Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, both civilian leadership and military, will need to determine: (1) what, exactly, is valued most highly by Israel's Iranian enemies; (2) how, exactly, should Israel then leverage fully credible threats against these core enemy preferences.

Under international law, war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. In the best of all possible worlds, Israel might still be able to stop a nuclear Iran with cost-effective and lawful preemptions; that is, with defensive first strikes that are directed against an openly-belligerent and verifiably lawless Iran. Fully permissible, as long as they were judged to conform to the Law of Armed Conflict (humanitarian international law), such discriminating and proportionate strikes, conspicuously limited by peremptory rules of "military necessity," could still represent authentically life-saving expressions of anticipatory self-defense.

But this is not yet the best of all possible worlds, and Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu will soon almost certainly have to deal with a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli. With this in mind, all early critical estimations of Iranian rationality will need to be correlated with appropriate Israeli strategies of defense and deterrence. Even in a "worst case" scenario, one in which Israeli military intelligence (Aman) would determine a compelling risk of enemy irrationality, a thoughtful dissuasion plan to protect against Iranian nuclear weapons could still be fashioned.

This binary plan would seek to deter any Iranian resort to nuclear weapons, and, simultaneously, to intercept any incoming weapons that might still be fired if deterrence should fail. While the warning is now often repeated again and again that Shiite eschatology in Iran could actually welcome a cleansing or apocalyptic war with "infidel" foes, such a purely abstract doctrine of End Times is ultimately apt to yield to more pragmatic calculations. In the end, high-sounding religious doctrines of "Final Battle" that were initially trumpeted in Tehran, will likely be trumped by more narrowly mundane judgments of both personal and geo-strategic advantage.

The primary goal of Israel's nuclear forces, whether still in the "basement," or partially disclosed, must be deterrence ex ante, not preemption or reprisal ex post. If, however, nuclear weapons should be introduced into a conflict between Israel and Iran, some form of nuclear war fighting could ensue. This would be the case as long as: (a) Iranian first-strikes against Israel would not destroy that country's second-strike nuclear capability; (b) Iranian retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel's nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy Iranian second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliations for Iranian conventional and/or chemical/biological first strikes would not destroy Iran's nuclear counter-retaliatory capabilities.

From the critical standpoint of protecting its security and survival, this means that Israel should now take steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the corresponding unlikelihood of (c) and (d). It will always be in Israel's interests to avoid nuclear war fighting wherever possible.

For Israel, both nuclear and non-nuclear preemptions of Iranian unconventional aggression could lead to nuclear exchanges. This would depend, in part, upon the effectiveness and breadth of Israeli targeting; the surviving number of Iranian nuclear weapons; and the willingness of Iranian leaders to risk eliciting Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations.

An Israeli nuclear preemption against Iran is highly improbable and effectively inconceivable. In principle, however, there are still certain residual circumstances in which such a strike could still be perfectly rational. These are circumstances wherein 

(1) Iran had already acquired and deployed nuclear weapons presumed capable of destroying Israel;

(2) Iran had been open and forthright about its genocidal intentions toward Israel;

(3) Iran was reliably believed ready to begin an actual countdown-to-launch; and

(4) Israel believed that non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve levels of damage-limitation consistent with its own physical survival.

Before such an argument on the logical possibility of preemption could be rejected, one would necessarily have to assume that national self-preservation was not Israel's very highest priority. Such an assumption would be ill-founded.

A nuclear war in the Middle East would resemble any other incurable disease. The only reasonable "cure," therefore, must lie in prevention. For Israel, this means an early and informed determination of likely enemy orientations toward the Jewish State.

For Israel, this means a still-timely discrimination between enemy rationality,irrationality, and madness.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He is the author of many books and articles dealing with war, terrorism and counter-terrorism, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1979), and Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980). Professor Beres has examined WMD terrorism for more than forty years, earlier in consultation with the Nuclear Control Institute, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Defense Nuclear Agency (DoD), and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center/U.S. Army Special Operations Forces. His recent articles have appeared in Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College; Special Warfare (Department of Defense); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; International Security (Harvard); and The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. The Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003), Dr. Beres' work is well-known to certain Israeli intelligence and military communities. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.