Iran and the Bomb

National leaders rely too much upon hope.

Prof. Louis René Beres,

Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene Beres
israelnewsphoto: R. B.
Benjamin Netanyahu has his work cut out for him. Regarding Iran, both the United States and Israel have yet to act in their own self-interest. Instead, each has already allowed a potentially unique threat to reach a point
This will make them both dependent on the always-problematic assumption of rationality.
of possibly no return. For Israel, the ultimate cost of this inaction could be existential.

Why? National leaders rely upon hope. Again and again, however, they hope too much. Sometimes, this misplaced optimism has the emotionally satisfying, but strategically injurious, effect of blocking off productive policies. It may even have the effect of encouraging catastrophic war and terrorism.

Notwithstanding the right of anticipatory self-defense under international law, neither Israel nor the United States has been willing to act preemptively. Iran continues its unhindered march toward full membership in the Nuclear Club.

Israel and the US, it seems, will have to seek safety in the so-called logic of deterrence. Ironically, this will make them both dependent on the always-problematic assumption of rationality.

We begin to see the self-destructive circularity of current reasoning in both Jerusalem and Washington. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Barack Obama may vainly attempt to achieve stable deterrence with Tehran. Hoping that a new balance of terror with Iran could be premised upon the US-USSR Cold War model, Washington and Jerusalem will ultimately be disappointed. This model simply doesn't apply here.

Deterrence will likely be grafted upon very weak conceptual and psychological foundations. For Israel, a principal component of strategic policy has always been to keep its bomb in the basement. In Israel, there must soon be a renewed examination of continued nuclear ambiguity.

Arguably, at least until now, nuclear opacity has "worked." Although Israel's nuclear ambiguity has obviously done little to deter "ordinary" conventional enemy aggressions or multiple acts of terror, it has succeeded in keeping the country's enemies from mounting truly existential aggressions. These aggressions could have been mounted without nuclear or biological weapons, simply because - as the strategic theorist Clausewitz once wrote - there does come a point when "mass counts."

Israel's many enemies have always had an obvious advantage in "mass." None of Israel's foes has "the bomb," but together - in a determined collaboration - they could still have acquired the capacity to carry out substantial assaults. Acting collectively, these states and their assorted insurgent proxies, even without nuclear weapons, could already have inflicted huge harms upon the Jewish State.

Israel's policy of deliberate ambiguity will not work indefinitely. To be deterred, a fully nuclear Iran would need assurance that Israel's own nuclear weapons were invulnerable and penetration-capable. Any Iranian judgments about Israel's willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons would largely depend upon a foreknowledge of these weapons.

Iranian perceptions of only mega-destructive Israeli nuclear weapons could undermine the credibility of Israel's deterrence. Ironically, Israel's credibility could vary inversely with the perceived destructiveness of its nuclear arms. In coexisting with an already-nuclear Iran, Israel would likely benefit not from any increased nuclear secrecy, but rather from expanded nuclear disclosure. This would mean a full or partial end to Israel's "bomb in the basement."

Iran might decide to share some of its nuclear components and materials with Hizbullah or another kindred terrorist group. To prevent this, Jerusalem would need to convince Iran that Israel possesses a range of distinctly usable nuclear options. Once again, nuclear ambiguity might not remain sufficiently persuasive to ensure Israel's nuclear deterrence posture.

Ideally, Israel and the United States will never allow Iran to become fully nuclear. But failing such determination, it will still not be enough that Israel's enemies know only the basic contours of Israel's nuclear capacity. Jerusalem will also need to move deliberately from ambiguity to some precise level of disclosure. What will soon need to be calculated vis-a-vis a prospectively nuclear Iran is the exact extent of subtlety with which Israel should communicate portions of its nuclear positions, intentions and capabilities.

Any rationale for Israeli nuclear disclosure would inhere in the understanding that nuclear weapons can serve Israel's security in a number of different ways. Once faced with a nuclear fait accompli in Tehran, Israel would need to convince its principal enemy that it possessed both the will and the capacity to make any intended Iranian nuclear aggression more costly than gainful. By definition, no Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure would help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy, in Iran or anywhere else.

To the extent that an Iranian leadership might subscribe to visions of a Shiite apocalypse, Iran could cast aside all rational behavior. Were this to happen, Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Such a destabilizing prospect is improbable, but it is not inconceivable. Indeed, this is now becoming a deeply serious prospect in already-nuclear Pakistan.

To protect itself against enemy strikes, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel must quickly and correctly exploit every aspect and function of its still opaque nuclear arsenal. The success of Israel's efforts will depend not only upon its selected configuration of "counterforce" and "countervalue" operations, but also upon the extent to which this choice is made known in advance to both enemy states, and to certain of their non-state surrogates. Before such enemies can be deterred from launching first strikes against Israel, and before they can be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following an Israeli non-
Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm.
nuclear preemption, it will not be enough to know only that Israel has The Bomb. These enemies would also need to recognize that Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to such attacks, and that some are pointed directly at high-value population targets.

Removing the bomb from Israel's basement could enhance Israel's strategic deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of 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.

For now, the bomb should remain ambiguous, if only to ward off any increasingly likely (albeit misguided) pressures on Israel from the new administration in Washington to give up its nuclear forces But soon, and certainly no later than the very moment that Iran is discovered to be close to completing its own nuclear weapons capability, the Jewish State should prepare to put an immediate end to ambiguity.

For Israel, barring real regime change in Tehran, there can never be any reliable peace with a nuclear Iran. If neither Israel nor the United States will undertake preemptive destruction of Iran's developing nuclear program, then Israel will have to take its bomb out of the "basement." There are still good reasons to doubt that such a removal would even be adequate to maintain Israel's deterrence posture, but there is no reason to doubt that it would be better done than left undone. Ironically, and also beyond reasonable doubt, any Israeli failure to promptly end nuclear ambiguity at the critical time could undermine US security.