Facing Iran at the 11th Hour

Israel must act according to the following indispensable nuclear doctrine.

Prof. Louis René Beres,

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

For by Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War (Proverbs  24:6)

Special to Israel National News      

Always, in core matters of war and peace, timing is everything. For Israel, finally made aware that U.S.-led diplomacy with Iran never had a chance, all remaining strategic options are starkly polar. In essence, either the IDF launches a last-minute defensive strike - what international law would call "anticipatory self-defense"[1] - or the beleaguered mini-state prepares to settle in for a protracted process of mutual deterrence and (hopefully) war-free coexistence.

Escalation Dominance

Should Israel decide to decline any residual preemption options, and get ready instead for reliable and extended dissuasion of its newly nuclear adversary, certain corresponding decisions would also need to be made. Among other things, these imperatively prompt decisions would concern an ever-expanding and potentially interminable role for multilayered ballistic missile defense,[2] and a useful discontinuance of Israel's deliberate nuclear ambiguity.[3]To be sure, it could soon become necessary for Jerusalem to convince Tehran, that Israel’s undisclosed nuclear forces are (1) substantially secure from all enemy first-strike attacks,[4] and (2) entirely capable of penetrating enemy active defenses.

Communicate the following core message to Iran: Israel’s retaliatory nuclear weapons are not too destructive for actual operational use.
It would also become necessary to persuade a now-nuclear Iran that Israel’s own nuclear weapons were plainly usable. This persuasive task could require some consciously nuanced and carefully-considered efforts to remove "the bomb" from Israel's "basement." One specific reason for undertaking any such removal would be to assure Iranian decision-makers that Israeli nuclear weapons were not only "real" and functional, but also capable of undergoing variable calibrations to meet different degrees of plausible enemy threat.

In the “good old days” of the original U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War (and we may now be on the brink of "Cold War II"), such tangibly measured strategic calculations had been granted their own special name. The proper term was “escalation dominance.” Even then, it had already been understood, by both superpowers, that adequate security from any nuclear attack must include not only protections from "bolt-from-the-blue" missile attacks, but also the avoidance of unwitting or uncontrolled escalations from conventional war to atomic war.

Occasionally, especially in working complex strategic calculations, truth can be counter-intuitive. In this connection, regarding needed Israeli preparations for safety from a nearly-nuclear Iran,[5] there exists an obvious but still generally overlooked irony. It is that in all foreseeable circumstances of nuclear deterrence, the credibility of pertinent Israeli threats could sometimes vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. This suggests that one distinctly compelling reason for moving deliberately from nuclear ambiguity to certain limited forms of nuclear disclosure would be to communicate the following core message to Iran: Israel’s retaliatory nuclear weapons are not too destructive for actual operational use.

Counter-value vs. Counterforce

Soon, Israel’s decision-makers will also need to proceed more self-consciously and explicitly on rendering another very important basic judgment. This closely-related decision would concern an essentially fundamental strategic choice between "assured destruction” and "nuclear war fighting.” In appropriate military parlance, assured destruction strategies are generally referred to as "counter-value" or “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) strategies.

Nuclear war fighting strategies, on the other hand, are more typically synonymous with counterforce .

Counter-value and counterforce strategies represent alternative theories of deterrence, differential nuclear postures in which a particular state chooses to primarily target its strategic nuclear weapons on either its presumed enemy’s "soft" civilian populations and supporting infrastructures, or on that same enemy's "hard" military assets. Although seemingly in prima facie violation of humanitarian international law, or the law of armed conflict (because counter-value doctrine would apparently disregard, by definition, the binding legal obligation to protect noncombatants), it is still reasonable to recall this relevant fact: 

Favoring counter-value targeting doctrines could more persuasively reduce the probability of a nuclear war. Significantly, this means that any Israeli commitment to assured destruction strategies could ultimately prove less corrosive, and thus more humane.

It is also plausible that a state such as Israel, contemplating "counter-value versus counterforce" targeting issues, would opt for some sort of appropriately "mixed" strategy. In any event, whichever nuclear deterrence strategy Israel might decide to choose, what would ultimately matter is only what Iran itself would perceive as real.

In choosing between the two core nuclear targeting alternatives, Israel could decide to opt for nuclear deterrence based primarily upon assured destruction strategies. Here, however, in the negative consequences column, it could invite an enlarged risk of "losing" any nuclear war that might actually arise. This is because counter-value-targeted nuclear weapons would not be designed to efficiently destroy military targets.

If, on the other hand, Israel were to opt for nuclear deterrence based primarily upon counterforce capabilities, Iran could feel especially threatened, a potentially precarious condition that could then, incrementally, heighten the prospect of an enemy first-strike, and thereby of an eventual nuclear exchange.

There are certain "intervening variables" to be considered. Israel's strategic decisions on counter-value versus counterforce doctrines should depend, at least in part, on its prior investigations of: (1) enemy state inclinations to strike first; and (2) enemy state inclinations to strike all-at-once, or in stages.

Should Israeli strategic planners assume that a nuclear Iran is apt to strike first, and to strike in an unlimited fashion (that is, to fire all or most of its nuclear weapons, right away), Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads, used in retaliation, could hit only empty silos/launchers. Anticipating these manifestly unfavorable circumstances, Israel's only reasonable application of counterforce doctrine would then be to strike first itself.

Nonetheless, any idea of an Israeli nuclear preemption, even if technically "rational" and legal, would likely be dismissed out-of-hand in Jerusalem.

Concerning specific jurisprudential issues of law and nuclear weapons use, the U.N.'s International Court of Justice, in a 1996 Advisory Opinion, ruled that nuclear weapons could sometimes be used permissibly, but only in circumstances when the "very survival of a state would be at stake."

If, as now seems most likely, Israel were to reject all residual preemption options, there could be no compelling reason to opt for a counterforce strategy vis-à-vis Iran. Rather, from the plainly critical standpoint of persuasive intra-war deterrence, a counter-value strategy would then prove more appropriate. With precisely this in mind, The Project Daniel Group, in 2004, had urged Israel to "focus its (second-strike) resources on counter-value warheads...."[6] This particular suggestion still makes sense today.

Should Israeli planners assume that an already-nuclear Iran is apt to strike first, but, for whatever reason, to strike "only" in a limited fashion, holding some measure of nuclear firepower in reserve for anticipated follow-on strikes, Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads might then display certain damage-limiting benefits. Moreover, such counterforce targeting preparations could serve an Israeli conventional preemption, either as a compelling counter-retaliatory threat, or, should Israel decide not to preempt, as a threatened Israeli retaliation.

For example, should a conventional Israeli defensive first-strike be intentionally limited, perhaps because it would have been coupled together with a calculated quid-pro-quo of no further destruction in exchange for an enemy cessation of hostilities, recognizable counterforce targeting preparations could serve to reinforce an Israeli counter-retaliatory strike. Here, Israel's attempt at intra-war deterrence could fail, thus occasioning the need for additional follow-on damage limiting strikes.

Preparation as Deterrence

Israeli preparations for nuclear war-fighting should never be interpreted as a distinct alternative to nuclear deterrence. Instead, such preparations should always be considered as essential and integral components of Israeli nuclear deterrence. The overriding purpose of Israel's nuclear forces, whether still ambiguous, or newly disclosed, must consistently be deterrence, not actual military engagement.

In principle, of course, nuclear war-fighting scenarios are not ipso facto out-of-the-question, but they should nonetheless always be rejected by Israel whenever possible.

In the still-valid counsel of Project Daniel: "The primary point of Israel's nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post." Or, conceptualized in the historically antecedent language of Sun-Tzu, the ancient Chinese military thinker, Israel should be very conspicuously guided by the following strategic understanding: "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is always the true pinnacle of excellence."[7]       

Yet, even at this late date, there are existentially menacing circumstances that could sometime turn a rational Israeli prime minister toward preemption. These are prospectively catastrophic circumstances wherein all final American-led nuclear negotiations with Iran will have decisively failed - circumstances that are, in fact, altogether imaginable and even likely- and in which a scenario of sustained and stable nuclear deterrence with Iran is assessed as highly improbable or even inconceivable.

Here, especially if Israeli leadership should have corollary doubts about Iranian decisional rationality, it could still make sound strategic sense to launch certain appropriately defensive first strike attacks. This is the case, moreover, even if the expected retaliatory and public relations consequences for Israel would be expectedly overwhelming.

The Rationality Factor

Finally, there are two related observations.

First, even if it could be assumed, by Israel, that Iranian leaders will always seek to act rationally, this would ignore the all-important accuracy of information used to make rational decisions. Rationality, in all strategic calculations, refers only to the intention of maximizing preferences. It says nothing about whether or not the information being used is actually correct or incorrect. This means that perfectly rational Iranian leaders could sometime make errors in calculation that would lead them to launch aggressive war against Israel.[8]

Second, Iranian leaders could sometime actually be irrational, but this would not mean that they were also mad or "crazy." Rather, in all matters, an irrational national decision is one which does not place the very highest value upon national survival. For a pertinent example, Iranian decision-makers could sometime choose to act upon a particular preference-ordering that values destruction of the Jewish State and the corollary fulfillment of presumed religious expectations more highly than the Shiite republic's physical existence.

In principle, at least, faced with such an irrational adversary, Israel could still manage to forge a successful plan for deterrence. Here, however, Jerusalem would first need to base its discernibly calculable threats upon those identifiable religious institutions and infrastructures held most sacred in Tehran.

When the ancient Greek leader, Pericles, delivered his famous Funeral Oration, with its ritualistic praise of Athenian civilization - a speech we know by way of Thucydides Peloponnesian War - his perspective was largely strategic. Long before military calculations had ever needed to include nuclear weapons, and about a half-century after the Persian (Iranian) defeat of Greece at Thermopylae by Xerxes, Pericles had already understood the vital connections between enemy power and self-inflicted error: "What I fear more than the  strategies of our enemies," Pericles had warned, "is our own mistakes."

There is a critically important lesson here for Israel: In observing possible Iranian preparations for catastrophic nuclear war, do not forget that the ultimate effectiveness of these preparations will depend upon Israel's carefully selected responses.

This lesson represents genuinely "wise counsel."

Louis René Beres, born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli nuclear strategy. His most recent contributions were published in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); The International Journal of Intelligence and CounterintelligenceParameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Israel Journal of Foreign AffairsHerzliya Conference Working Papers(Israel); INSS Strategic Assessment (Israel); BESA Perspectives (Israel); Institute for Policy and Strategy (Israel); and The Brown Journal of World Affairs. Professor Beres' tenth book - Israel's Nuclear Strategy: Surviving Amid Chaos - will be published later this year.


[1] The legal right of "anticipatory self-defense," which is the jurisprudential equivalent of "preemption," has its modern origins in the so-called "Caroline Incident." This incident was a part of the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada, against British rule. Following the Caroline, even the threat of armed attack may sometimes be accepted as justification for a militarily defensive action. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then-U.S. Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require any prior armed attack. Here, a defensive military response to armed threat was judged to be permissible, so long as the danger posed was ascertainably "instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation." Of course, today, in the nuclear age, this right could be substantially more compelling and more urgent.

[2] See, on this role: Louis René Beres and (Major-General/IDF/Res.) Isaac Ben-Israel, "Think Anticipatory Self-Defense," The Jerusalem Post, October 22, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, "The Limits of Deterrence," Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, "Deterring Iran," Washington Times, June 10, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, "Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack," Washington Times, January 27, 2009; and Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, "Defending Israel from Iranian Nuclear Attack," The Jewish Press, March 13, 2013. See, also: Louis RenéBeres and (General/USAF/Ret.) John T. Chain, "Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran," The Atlantic, August 9, 2012; Professor Beres and General Chain, "Living With Iran," BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Israel, May 2014; and Louis René Beres and (Lt. General/USAF/Ret.) Thomas McInerney, "Obama's Inconceivable, Undesirable, Nuclear-Free Dream," US News & World Report, August 29, 2013.

[3] See, on such discontinuance: Louis René Beres, "Like Two Scorpions in a Bottle: Could Israel and a Nuclear Iran Coexist in the Middle East," The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 8., No. 1, 2014, pp. 23-32; Louis René Beres, "Facing Myriad Enemies: Core Elements of Israeli Nuclear Deterrence," The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. XX, Issue 1., Fall/Winter 2013, pp. 17-30; Louis René Beres, "Lessons for Israel from Ancient Chinese Military Thought: Facing Iranian Nuclearization with Sun-Tzu," Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, 2013; Louis René Beres, "Striking Hezbollah-Bound Weapons in Syria: Israel's Actions Under International Law," Harvard National Security Journal, 2013; Louis René Beres, "Looking Ahead: Revising Israel's Nuclear Ambiguity in the Middle East," Herzliya Conference, 2013, March 2013; IDC/Herzliya; Louis René Beres and General (USAF/Ret.) John T. Chain, "Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?" The Atlantic, 2012.

[4] Recently, improved security for Israeli nuclear forces has been associated with enhanced sea-basing options. See, on these options: Louis René Beres and (Admiral/USN/ret.) Leon "Bud" Edney, "Israel's Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine-Basing," The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014; and Professor Beres and Admiral Edney, "A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel," Washington Times, September 5, 2014.

[5] On July 23, 2014, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, called openly for the annihilation of Israel. See: Y. Mansharof, E. Kharrazi, Y. Lahat, and A. Savyon, "Quds Day in Iran: Calls for Annihilation of Israel and Arming the West Bank," MEMRI, July 25, 2014, Inquiry and Analysis Series Report, No. 1107.

[6] See: Israel's Strategic Future: Project Daniel, The Project Daniel Group, Louis René Beres, Chair, Ariel Center for Policy Research, ACPR Policy Paper No. 155, Israel, May 2004, 64 pp.

[7] In heeding this ancient counsel, Israeli decision-makers will always have to bear in mind the totality of the Iranian threat, that is, the direct perils of a nuclear missile attack, and also the indirect risks issuing from assorted Iranian surrogates. Most plainly, Iranian surrogate power resides in the Shiite militia, Hezbollah, which now operates out of Syria, as well as Lebanon; in the government and its derivative militias in Iraq; in Shiite Houthi rebels, now expanding their control across Yemen; and even in Sunni Hamas, which sometimes represents specifically Iranian preferences and expectations in Palestinian Gaza. Significantly, the cumulative impact of Iranian-posed direct and indirect threats to Israel is plausibly greater than the simple sum of its parts -  in other words, this injurious impact is authentically synergistic.

[8] For pertinent law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX),  29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, and U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and Charter of the United Nations, Art. 51., Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force, for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat., 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans, 1153, 1976, and Y.B.U.N. 1043.