If You Like North Korea, You'll Love Iran (part II)

Before concluding their plans, Israeli strategists must examine, among all the options, the conceivable but also implausible prospect of an Israeli nuclear preemption.

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Prof. Louis René Beres,

Louis René Beres
Louis René Beres


Whether correct or incorrect in its calculations, any Iranian leadership that believes it can strike Israel with impunity, or near-impunity, could be strongly motivated to undertake such a strike. Such motivation could be heightened to the extent that Iran were to remain uncertain about Israel's own preemption plans. Iranian capabilities could affect, and then possibly even determine, Iranian intentions.

For its part, Israel will almost certainly fashion its still possible, but now distinctly residual, preemption plans upon a number of critical factors, including, but not limited to: (a) expected probability of Iranian first-strikes; (b) expected harms of Iranian first-strikes (itself dependent upon the nature of Iranian weaponry, projected Iranian targeting doctrine, and multiplication/dispersion/hardening of Israeli nuclear forces); (c) expected schedule of Iranian nuclear weapons deployment; (d) expected efficiency of Iranian active defenses over time (anti-tactical ballistic missile system developments); (e) expected efficiency of Israeli active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of Israeli hard-target ("counterforce") operations over time; (g) expected reactions of other regional Arab/Islamic enemies; and (h) expected “international community” reactions to Israeli preemptions.

The overriding Iranian strategic threat to Israel could originate from another direction. In this scenario, Iran's intentions toward the Jewish State, hostile and genocidal, would accelerate and expand Tehran's development of nuclear military capabilities. Representing genuinely far-reaching religious hatreds rather than mere propagandistic bluster, Iranian diatribes to "wipe Israel off the map" could essentially ensure the full production/deployment of extraordinarily destructive forces, weapons and postures. These are circumstances, therefore, where Iranian intentions could affect, and more-or-less determine, Iranian nuclear capabilities.

What if Iran's intentions toward Israel are not authentically genocidal? What if its bombast, which may or may not continue in any new period of Iranian governmental instability, were not a verifiable expression of truly exterminatory motivations, but rather a public position designed only for political and theological consumption? The short and seemingly obvious answer to these questions is that such shallow and contrived intentions would not meaningfully impact Iranian nuclear capabilities vis-à-vis Israel.

Upon reflection, however, it is still likely, and, at the very least, still plausible, that even inauthentic expressions of genocidal intent could, over time, become authentic. This means that such exterminatory expressions, when repeated again and again over months and years, could somehow become self-fulfilling. This is not a gratuitous idea that should be dismissed out of hand.

The most complex relationships between Iranian capabilities and intentions, and potentially the most consequential to Israeli security and survival, would concern synergy. Here, the issue is not whether, or to what extent, one threat component might affect the other, but instead, how certain of their various combinations might: (a) produce an ongoing series of interactions that moves relentlessly, through its own dialectical momentum, toward nuclear war; or (b) produce a wholly new effect, an effect of which either capability or intention is individually incapable.

An example of (a) would be an Iranian "bolt-from-the-blue" nuclear attack against Israel that is launched only because of the particular way in which capabilities and intentions feed upon each other. An example of (b) would be any Iranian attack against Israel - bolt-from-the-blue or product of escalation, conventional or unconventional - that would not otherwise have taken place.

This example is realistic to the extent one believes that Iran would never strike first against Israel, irrespective of Iran's singular intentions and capabilities, unless these two particular threat components were first judged to be mutually reinforcing.

Admittedly, such complex strategic calculations are very confusing, but we may now move ahead to examine certain more concrete concerns. How, especially with an American president in the White House who favors far-reaching Israeli territorial concessions, might the so-called Israel-Palestinian Authority Road Map affect Iran’s nascent nuclear posture toward the Jewish State? This is an important question, and, oddly, one that is almost never asked.

One expected answer, considerable factual evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, is that the newest "peace" agreements, by codifying and demonstrating Israel's commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes, would themselves diminish the Iranian threat. After all, inquires this particular argument, wouldn't world public opinion uniformly condemn Iran for any act of aggression directed against a now visibly cooperative and land-surrendering Israel? Wouldn't, therefore, Iran’s aggressive intentions be reduced, or even removed, a change that could then slow down Tehran's pertinent nuclearization, and consequently, the overall existential danger to Israel originating from that country?

Perhaps. But this conclusion should be seen as very doubtful. It is also plausible that because of the Road Map, Israel's inclination to preempt Iranian nuclear aggression may already have been starkly curtailed.

Despite Israel’s unassailable right to anticipatory self-defense under international law, wouldn't the entire global community still frown upon any such preemption in the midst of an ongoing, albeit stalled, "peace process?” Moreover, if Iran should recognize these effective inhibitions on Israeli action that stem from Israel-PA agreements, President Ahmadinejad could expectedly calculate as follows: “As our (Iranian) nuclearization will be less threatened by Israeli preemptive attack after the Road Map, we (Iran) should increase our nuclear capabilities.”

Such a calculation could effectively enlarge Iranian intentions to attack Israel, and might even make cost-effective certain hostile actions by Iran that would not otherwise have been considered, or perhaps might never even have been thought possible.

What about the intended effect of Israel-PA Two-State agreements in bringing about a Palestinian state? It is, in fact, altogether probable that Israel's substantial loss of strategic depth would be recognized by Iran as a significant new military liability for Tel-Aviv/Jerusalem. Such recognition, in turn, could heat up Iranian attack intentions against Israel, occasioning an accelerated search for relevant capabilities, and consequently a heightened risk of an eventual nuclear war initiated from Tehran.

Israel, of course, might foresee precisely such Iranian calculations, and thus seek to compensate for the loss of territories/strategic depth in a number of different and purposeful ways. Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, for example, could decide to take its bomb out of the "basement," thereby ending “deliberate ambiguity” for the presumed sake of enhancing deterrence, and/or it could accept a heightened willingness to launch preemptive strikes against certain Jihadist enemy (including Iranian) hard targets. Made aware of any such Israeli intentions, Iran could then respond in a more or less parallel fashion, preparing even more openly for nuclearization, and/or for first-strike attacks against the Jewish State.

To protect itself against military strikes from rational enemies, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel will need to optimally exploit every aspect and function of its nuclear arsenal and doctrine. The success of Israel's efforts here will depend not only upon its selected targeting doctrine (enemy cities and/or military forces; “counter value” or “counterforce”), but also upon the extent to which this choice is made known in advance. Before any rational enemies can be deterred from launching first strikes against Israel, and before they can be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following any Israeli non-nuclear preemption, it will not be enough for them to know that Israel simply has The Bomb.

These enemies would also need to recognize that usable Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to enemy attacks, and that at least a determinable number are capable of penetrating high-value population targets. To reduce vulnerability, Israel, because of its very small size, may ultimately have to examine the cost-effectiveness of more extensive sea-basing of nuclear forces, including perhaps even ballistic missile submarines.

Removing the bomb from Israel's “basement” could effectively enhance Israel's strategic deterrence to the extent that it would heighten rational enemy perceptions of both secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces. Such a calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for certain enemy first-strike and retaliatory attacks. This brings to mind the so-called Samson Option, which could allow various enemy decision-makers to note and underscore that Israel is prepared to do whatever is needed to survive.

By definition, the Samson Option, any Samson Option, would require a prior removal of Israel’s bomb from the “basement. Only an end, more–or-less selective, to its nuclear ambiguity posture, could allow Israel to exploit the potentially considerable benefits of a Samson Option. Should Israel choose to keep its bomb in the “basement,” therefore, it would necessarily deny itself any benefits of the Samson Option.

Whatever its preferred level of ambiguity, Israel’s nuclear strategy remains correctly oriented toward deterrence, not to war-fighting. The Samson Option refers to a policy that would be based in part upon a more-or-less implicit threat of massive nuclear retaliation for certain specific enemy aggressions. Such a policy could be invoked credibly only in those particular cases where such aggressions would threaten Israel’s very existence, and where they would involve far more destructive and high-yield nuclear weapons than what might otherwise be thought “usable.” This means that a Samson Option could make sense only in presumably “last-resort,” or “near last-resort,” circumstances.

It also means that where Samson is involved, an end to deliberate ambiguity could help Israel by emphasizing that specific portion of its nuclear arsenal that is less usable. This would indicate that the persuasiveness of Israel's nuclear deterrent 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 proper time could best permit Israel to foster such perceptions.

The main objective of any Samson Option would not be to communicate the availability of a graduated Israeli nuclear deterrent. Instead, it would intend to signal the more-or-less unstated “promise” of a counter-city (“counter-value”) reprisal. Made plausible only by a calculated and timely end to absolute nuclear ambiguity, the Samson Option would be unlikely to deter any aggressions short of "high end" nuclear and/or certain biological first strikes upon the Jewish State.

Myth has its own pertinent grammar and syntax. Samson would “say” the following to all potential nuclear attackers: “We (Israel) may have to “die,” but (this time) we won’t die alone.” Still, the Samson Option could serve Israel only as an important adjunct to deterrence, and also to certain remaining preemption options, but not as a core nuclear strategy.

The Samson Option should never be confused with Israel’s overriding security objective, which is to always seek stable deterrence at the lowest possible levels of possible military conflict.

In broad outline, “Samson” could support Israel’s nuclear deterrence by demonstrating an Israeli willingness to take certain strategic risks, including even existential risks. Earlier, Moshe Dayan had understood and embraced this particular form of logic: “Israel must be like a mad dog, said Dayan, too dangerous to bother.”

In our often counter-intuitive strategic world, it can sometimes be rational to pretend irrationality. Always, the nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would depend in part upon an enemy state’s awareness of Israel’s disclosed “counter-value” targeting posture. In the final analysis, there are specific and valuable critical security benefits that would likely accrue to Israel as the result of a purposefully selective and incremental end to its policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.

The time to begin such an “end” has not yet arrived. But at the precise moment that Iran verifiably crosses the nuclear threshold, Israel should begin immediately to remove the Bomb from its “basement.” When this critical moment arrives, Israel should already have configured (1) its planned allocation of nuclear assets; and (2) the extent to which this particular configuration should now be disclosed. This could, importantly, enhance the credibility of its nuclear deterrence posture.

To optimize Israel's selective easing of nuclear ambiguity, Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv - preferably, with pertinent support from Washington - would need to deploy, inter alia, a fully-recognizable second-strike nuclear force. Such a robust strategic force - hardened, multiplied and dispersed – must be fashioned to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against major enemy cities. Iran, it follows, so long as it is led by rational decision-makers, should always be made to understand that the actual costs of any planned aggressions against Israel would exceed any conceivable gains.

The deterrence benefits of any Israeli modifications of deliberate ambiguity would be limited to rational adversaries. If, after all, enemy decision-makers might sometime value certain national or religious preferences more highly than their own country's physical survival, they would not be deterred by any enhanced forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence, including even a nuanced and purposeful removal of Israel's bomb from the "basement."

Whatever Israel decides to do about deliberate ambiguity, there will be greater or lesser security costs stemming from the creation of “Palestine.” In principle, at least, it is conceivable that Iran would react to Israel's now expanded overall strategic vulnerability by winding down its own militarization, including even its specifically nuclear militarization. But such a reaction would be entirely contingent upon the view from Tehran that Israeli intentions had somehow become benign, and/or that a Jewish State in the Middle East was no longer a theological “malignancy.” At the moment, deciphering persistent Iranian descriptions of an Israel that should be made to disappear; this sanguine view would seem both foolhardy and implausible.

Taken by itself, a Palestinian State could affect the military capabilities and intentions of both Israel and Iran. Still, if such a new Arab state were created at the same time that Israel had reduced or abandoned its own nuclear capabilities, the impact could be more substantial. This particular scenario should not be dismissed lightly.

Even today, there are several major strategic thinkers at Israel's most prestigious universities and institutes who will argue unashamedly for nuclear disarmament as part of a “nuclear weapons free zone.” Moreover, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state that is “demilitarized” is plainly directed for domestic political consumption, and also to mollify, somewhat, U.S. President Barack Obama.

In spite of its noteworthy failure in the case of Iran, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty continues to be widely favored as a presumably promising means to reduce the risk of nuclear war in the Middle East. From the standpoint of Israeli security, this contrived legal preference harbors considerable, and quite possibly unforeseen, danger. Left to the protections of distinctly one-sided diplomatic agreements, rather than to more traditionally pragmatic forms of military self-reliance, the Jewish State could effectively surrender its indispensable opportunities to endure. Such an existential surrender could be all the more likely to the extent that it would involve any codified limitations on Israel's nuclear deterrent, and also on essential Israeli control of Judea and Samaria (West Bank).

What would happen if Jerusalem were to relinquish or limit its nuclear option, and were forced to accept a new State of Palestine? Israel, under such difficult circumstances, would not only be more vulnerable to Iranian first-strikes, it would also have been deprived of its last remaining preemption options. This is the case because an altogether essential Israeli counter-retaliatory deterrent would be immobilized by any reduction or removal of its nuclear weapons potential, and, as corollary, because Israeli preemptions could not possibly be 100% effective against Iranian nuclear forces and infrastructures.

A less than 100% level of effectiveness could conceivably be tolerable if Jerusalem/Tel Aviv had a perfectly viable anti-tactical ballistic missile (ATBM) capability, but no system of ballistic missile defense (BMD), even Israel’s exemplary “Arrow,” or Hetz, can ever be "leak-proof." No system of BMD, anywhere, can be meaningfully appraised as either “reliable” or “unreliable.”

Operational reliability of intercept is an inherently “soft” concept, and any missile defense system, however successful in its repeated test outcomes, will have consequential “leakage.” Whether or not such leakage could fall within acceptable levels would ultimately depend largely upon the precise kinds of warheads that are fitted upon an enemy’s missiles. The Arrow’s multiple and commendable test successes might not be reproducible against faster, and incrementally more advanced, Iranian missiles.

In evaluating any still-remaining preemption option vis-à-vis Iran, Israeli military planners must first consider the expected leakage rate of the Arrow. In principle, a tiny number of enemy missiles penetrating Arrow defenses might still be “acceptable” if their warheads were to contain “only” conventional high explosive, or even “only” chemical high explosive. But if the incoming warheads were in any way nuclear and/or biological, even an extremely “low” rate of leakage would be intolerable.

A fully zero leakage rate would be necessary to adequately protect Israel against any nuclear and/or biological warheads, and such a zero leakage rate is unattainable. This means that Israel can never depend entirely upon its anti-ballistic missiles to defend against any future WMD attack from Iran, and that even a thoroughly capable Arrow interception system could never obviate altogether Israel’s preemption option. There would, of course, be no need for any preemption option at all if Iranian decision-makers could somehow be presumed 100 percent subject to Israeli threats of deterrence, but no such presumption could possibly be warranted.

This is the case not only because Iranian decision-makers might not always conform to the expectations of rationality – that is, that they would always value national self-preservation more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences – but because they could also make assorted errors in decisional calculation that would lead, however unwittingly, to war.

Another key point needs to be made. Even if Israel could somehow expect a 100 percent reliability of interception for Arrow (a technically inconceivable expectation), this would still have no effect on the remaining unconventional weapons threat issuing from various Iranian-terrorist surrogates. Such proxies could choose to employ much shorter-range missiles, and/or assorted delivery systems from ships, trucks, or automobiles.

Some special sources of vulnerability for Israel, corollary Iron Dome protections notwithstanding, would likely be in Lebanon, where Hezbollah proxies for Iran are busily preparing for the next war, and in Gaza, where Iran-supported (Sunni) Hamas is developing new ties with both al-Qaeda and, in post-Mubarak Egypt, with certain new elements of its spiritual “parent,” the Muslim Brotherhood.

In view of all these considerations, Israel must immediately and recognizably strengthen its nuclear deterrence posture, especially, as now seems likely, it will have to forego any once-remaining preemption option. To be deterred, a rational adversary will need to calculate that Israel’s second-strike forces are plainly invulnerable to any first-strike aggressions. Facing the Arrow, this adversary (here, Iran) will now require increasing numbers of missiles to achieve an assuredly destructive first-strike capability against Israel. At a minimum, therefore, Arrow should compel a rational enemy, including Iran, to delay any considered first-strike attack against Israel.

With any non-rational adversary, however, all Israeli bets on successful nuclear deterrence would be summarily nullified. Again, by definition, a non-rational adversary in world politics does not mean “crazy.” It means an enemy that does not value its own continued survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences.

Israel must continue to develop, test and implement an Arrow-based interception capability to match the threat dictated by all enemy ballistic missiles. It must, simultaneously, continue to prepare for certain residually still-possible preemptions, and to continuously enhance the credibility (presumed invulnerability, and penetration-capability) of its hardened and dispersed nuclear deterrent. Regarding such enhanced credibility, Israel must appropriately operationalize a thoroughly recognizable second-strike nuclear force that can inflict unacceptable retaliatory strikes against identifiable enemy cities.

Israel must make it clear to a would-be nuclear aggressor, always, that its multiple layer active defenses would operate simultaneously with decisive nuclear retaliations. Iran must be made to understand, by Israeli plan, that Arrow-plus deployment does not in any way preclude, or even render less likely, an Israeli nuclear reprisal.

The distinctly remote prospect of any Israeli preemption against Iran could be affected, inter alia, by that Islamic Republic’s inadequate willingness and capacity to create a suitable infrastructure to safely manage its (soon) new nuclear weapons. Ironically, a too little Iranian investment in nuclear weapons survivability could generate substantial Iranian incentives to strike first against Israel. After all, fearing that it might not possess a second-strike capability, a capability to retaliate against Israel after absorbing an Israeli first-strike attack, Iran could then calculate quite rationally a decisive military advantage to "preemption." Jurisprudentially, of course, any such first-strike aggression by Iran would be self-servingly called “anticipatory self-defense” by the country’s leaders.

Aware of this plausible calculation, Israel could confront an overwhelming incentive to strike first itself. Even in the best case scenario, wherein Israel would receive credible assurances from Tehran concerning Iranian rejection of any first-strike options, Jerusalem/Tel Aviv would understand that any such assurances could become meaningless in the wake of any further Iranian political upheaval. Though highly unlikely, Israel faced with an enemy state characterized by weak and authoritarian political institutions, fragile civil-military relations, and/or competing factions representing several ethnic and religious groupings, could find itself strongly compelled to seize upon any still-remaining preemption imperative.

How would Iran respond to a weakening of Israel's capabilities, and to its correspondingly diminished preemptive intentions? Under such conditions, an informed observer might expect Iran to move even more purposefully and quickly, toward full-fledged nuclear status, a move that could then encourage first-strike intentions against the Jewish State.

Before concluding their plans, Israeli strategists must examine the conceivable but also implausible prospect of an Israeli nuclear preemption. It is, of course, exceedingly unlikely that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Although circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would, in fact, be perfectly rational, circumstances that have even been formally recognized and approved, at least in the generic sense, by the UN’s International Court of Justice, in its legal Advisory Opinion in 1996, it is still simply difficult to imagine that Israel would ever allow itself to opt for any nuclear forms of self-defense.

Unless the nuclear weapons involved were used in a fashion consistent with the authoritative expectations of the laws of war, the law of armed conflict, this particular form of preemption could also represent, prima facie, a very serious violation of international humanitarian law. Significantly, however, the United States is still on record in stating its own principled right to certain preemption options using nuclear weapons. This assertion was expressly codified in the Department of Defense's Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations of 15 March, 2005. Although President Barack Obama has already introduced certain important modifications to U.S. nuclear doctrine, this particular assertion still remains in legal force.

In theory, at least, an Israeli nuclear preemption could be conceivable : (a) where Israel's regime enemies in Iran had acquired nuclear and/or other unconventional weapons judged capable of utterly destroying the Jewish State; (b) where these enemies had made clear that their intentions fully paralleled their capabilities; (c) where these enemies were confirmed ready to begin a "countdown to launch;" and (d) where Israel’s leaders confirmed that the country’s non-nuclear preemptions could not achieve the absolutely minimum needed levels of damage-limitation, i.e., levels consistent with physical preservation of the Jewish State.

Productive assessments of the full Iranian nuclear threat to Israel should take careful account of both country's capabilities and intentions, the precise components of these two threat dimensions, their sources, their amenability to change, and, most important of all, their very complex relationships and foreseeable interactions. Rather than be understood as separate and disconnected components of threat, these capabilities and intentions must always be approached as factors continually affecting each other, both intra-nationally and internationally. With such a consciously synergistic approach, all who would still seek to improve Israeli security from any future Iranian nuclear attack could finally begin to move in more promising directions.

In the final analysis, to make genuinely durable progress in reducing prospective enemy nuclear threats, Israeli planners will first have to plan very precisely and systematically for dealing with non-rational adversaries. Although, by definition, such enemies could not be deterred by Israeli threats of overwhelming retaliatory destruction, that is, by "ordinary" threats of retaliation, there will still be other values or preferences that they do hold to be important, and perhaps even, sacred. For Israel, therefore, an urgent task will be to (1) correctly and comprehensively identify all such values or preferences, and (2) meaningfully design corollary policies in which these particular cherished values or preferences could be suitably and credibly obstructed.