Facing a Nuclear Iran: Israel's Remaining Options

Nuclear strategy is a "game" that sane and rational decision-makers must play.

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Prof. Louis René Beres,

Louis René Beres
Louis René Beres

In the best of all possible worlds, Iran could still be kept distant from nuclear weapons. In the real world, however, any such operational success is increasingly unlikely. More precisely, the remaining odds of Israel being able to undertake a cost-effective preemption against Iran, an act of "anticipatory self-defense" in the formal language of international law, are incontestably very low.

What next? Almost certainly, Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv will need to make appropriate preparations for long-term co-existence with a new nuclear adversary. As part of any such more-or-less regrettable preparations, Israel will have to continue with its already impressive developments in ballistic missile defense (BMD.) Although Israel's well-tested Arrow and corollary interceptors could never be adequate for "soft-point" or city defense, these systems could still enhance the Jewish State's indispensable nuclear deterrent.

By forcing any attacker to constantly recalculate the  requirements of "assured destruction," Israeli BMD could make it unrewarding for any prospective aggressor to strike first. Knowing that its capacity to assuredly destroy Israel's nuclear retaliatory forces with a first-strike attack could be steadily eroded by incremental deployments of BMD, Iran could decide that such an attack would be more costly than gainful. Of course, any such relatively optimistic conclusion would be premised on the antecedent assumption that Iran's decisions will always be rational.

But what if such a promising assumption should not actually be warranted?  Moreover, irrationality is not the same as madness. Unlike a "crazy" or "mad" adversary, which would have no discernible order of preferences, an irrational Iranian leadership might still maintain a distinct and consistent hierarchy of wants.

Such an Iranian leadership might not be successfully deterred by more traditional threats of military destruction. This is because a canonical Shiite eschatology could authentically welcome certain "end times" confrontations with "unbelievers." Nonetheless, this leadership might still refrain from any attacks that would expectedly harm its principal and overriding religious values or institutions. Preventing an attack upon the "holy city" of Qom, could be a glaringly good example.\

It is also reasonable to expect that even an irrational Iranian leadership would esteem certain of its primary military institutions. This leadership might still be subject to deterrence by various compelling threats to these institutions. A pertinent example would be the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a core power behind the Iranian dictatorship, a principal foe of the Iranian people, and the current leadership's generally preferred instrument of terror and repression.

It could be productive for Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv to hold at risk the Guard's physical facilities, its terrorist training camps, its navy of small attack boats, its missile program, the homes of its leaders, and even its space program.

Most civilian targets would be excluded from an Israeli attack; so would those particular military targets that were not identifiably Guard-related. Any such calculated exclusion would not only be in Israel's best overall strategic interests. It would also be necessary to ensure normal Israeli compliance with the law of war, a commendably exemplary adherence to military rules that has long characterized Israel's defense forces.

Ethical conduct is deeply embedded in authoritative IDF protocols. This moral imperative is well-known to every soldier of Israel as Tohar HaNeshek, or the "purity of arms."

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, a nuclear Iran could still be very dangerous to Israel if its leadership were in fact able to meet the usual criteria of rationality. Miscalculations, or errors in information, or successful coup d'états,  could lead even a fully rational Iranian adversary to strike first. In these particular circumstances, moreover, the very best anti-missile defenses would still be inadequate for providing any significant population protections.

 If Iran were presumed to be rational, in the usual sense of valuing its national physical survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences, Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv could then begin to consider certain plausible benefits of pretended irrationality. Years ago, Israeli General Moshe Dayan, had warned prophetically:  "Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother." In this crude but insightful metaphor, Dayan had already understood that it can sometimes be rational for states to pretend irrationality.

 What if an Iranian adversary were presumed to be irrational in the sense of not caring most about its own national survival? In this aberrant but still conceivable case, there would be no discernible deterrence benefit to Israel in assuming a posture of pretended irrationality. Here, the more probable threat of a massive nuclear counterstrike by Israel would probably be no more persuasive in Tehran, than if Iran's self-declared enemy were presumed to be rational.

  "Do you know what it means to find yourself face to face with a madman?" inquires Luigi Pirandello's Henry IV. While this pithy theatrical query does have some  relevance to Israel's mounting  security concerns with Iran, the grave strategic challenges issuing from that country will be more apt to come from decision-makers (1) who are not mad; and (2) who are rational. Soon, with this clarifying idea suitably in mind, Israel will need to fashion a vastly more focused and formal strategic doctrine, one from which aptly nuanced policies and operations could be reliably fashioned and drawn.

This doctrine would identify and correlate all available strategic options (deterrence; preemption; active defense; strategic targeting; and nuclear war fighting) with critical national survival goals. It would also take very close account of possible interactions between these discrete, but sometimes intersecting, strategic options.

Inevitably, calculating these complex interactions will present Israel with a computational task on the highest order of difficulty. In some cases, it may even develop that the anticipated "whole" of Iranian-inflicted harms could be greater than the technical sum of its discrete "parts." Recognizing this task as a preeminently intellectual  problem, is the necessary first step in meeting Israel's  imperiled survival goals.

In the broadest possible terms, Israel has no real choice. Nuclear strategy is a "game" that sane and rational decision-makers must play. But, to compete effectively, any would-be victor must first assess (1) the expected rationality of each opponent; and (2) the probable costs and benefits of pretending irrationality itself.

These are interpenetrating and generally imprecise forms of assessment. They represent challenging but vital judgments that will require accompanying refinements in intelligence and counter-intelligence. Also needed will be carefully calculated, selectively partial, and meticulously delicate movements away from extant national policies of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.

For Israel, it will soon no longer be sensible to keep its "bomb" in the "basement."

More than likely, Iran will manage to join the "nuclear club." How, then, will its key leadership figures proceed to rank order Tehran's vital preferences? To answer precisely this question should now become a primary security policy obligation in Israel.

 Any failure to answer successfully could have genuinely existential consequences for the Jewish State.  

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980); Mimicking Sisyphus: America's Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1983); Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1986); and Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1987). In the United States, he has published often in such Department of  Defense journals as Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College, and Special Warfare. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). http://www.acpr.org.il/ENGLISH-NATIV/03-ISSUE/daniel-3.htm. Professor Beres, who has contributed several Working Papers to the annual strategy conference in Herzliya,  was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.