Can Israel and a Nuclear Iran Coexist?

Two scorpions in a bottle?

Tags: Nuclear Bomb
Prof. Louis René Beres

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

I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. (Bhagavad-Gita)

On July 16, 1945, upon witnessing the first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert, American physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoted somberly from the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred book of the Hindus. "I am become death," recited the head of the Manhattan Project, "the destroyer of worlds."

At that time, quite understandably, Oppenheimer must have felt that the sheer magnitude of destruction afforded by splitting the atom would make any derivative weaponry inherently dangerous and destabilizing. Yet, subsequent history may actually have suggested otherwise, and there is now ample reason to believe that the post-War condition of superpower nuclear duopoly, or as more commonly known, nuclear bipolarity, effectively prevented a third world war. If true, this would mean, at least in principle, that two nuclear powers could conceivably live alongside each other like "two scorpions in a bottle." This discomfiting image had been Oppenheimer's own preferred metaphor to describe and understand U.S.-Soviet coexistence

But what if there were more than two "scorpions," a situation that plainly already exists?  And what if there were substantial asymmetries between the "scorpions," including assorted basic differences on the matter of "rationality?" In international relations theory, of course, rationality always means an identifiable hierarchy of preferences in which national survival is valued above all else. More technically, a rational state is one whose decision-makers always value such survival more highly than any other single preference, or combination of preferences.

What, we may ask, might Oppenheimer have predicted about a steadily nuclearizing Iran, a state which, in the past, has expressed openly annihilatory sentiments toward Israel? Would he have suggested that Israel do everything possible to somehow "live with" a nuclear Iran? Or would he have even been able to imagine any such scenario, at a time, in the late 1940s and 1950s, where foreseeable nuclear deterrence could only seem possible between two overwhelmingly dominant superpowers?

From a purely historical perspective, these questions are intriguing, but, at least in policy terms, they are essentially beside the point. For now, what really needs to be understood are the specifically expected dynamics of nuclear deterrence between an already-nuclear Israel, and a soon to be nuclear Iran. Would these two adversarial states, when both are more-or-less nuclear, be able to replicate the impressive strategic stability of the earlier Cold War?

This question still needs to be asked after the November 23, 2013 Geneva Interim Agreement between the P5+1 states, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Inevitably, whatever the intentions of U.S. President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State John Kerry, this agreement will fail to prevent Iran from "going nuclear."

Shortly, Israel will need to ask this critical question, and then make some very difficult eleventh-hour decisions. Either preempt against Iran's pertinent nuclear assets and infrastructures, thereby incurring (with high probability) more-or-less substantial (non-nuclear) military reprisals, or decide against such preemption, in favor of long-term nuclear deterrence. Israel's final decision in this matter will depend upon its antecedent answers to certain core psychological questions.

Is the Iranian adversary expectedly rational,? they will need to inquire in Jerusalem, valuing its national survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences? 

It is also possible, Israeli analysts will take note, that authoritative Iranian decision-makers could expectedly be neither rational nor irrational, but mad. In such unlikely, but especially daunting circumstances, deterrence would no longer serve any conceivable Israeli strategic purpose. At that point, Jerusalem's only effectively remaining policy choice would be: (1) to hope desperately for clerical regime change in Tehran (not just a change in secular authority), but otherwise passively await Israel's destruction, or (2) to strike first itself, preemptively, whatever the global outcry, and irrespective of the anticipated military consequences.

These are not frivolous or contrived descriptions of presumed Iranian leadership orientations. The resultant wisdom of any considered Israeli preemption will ultimately depend upon choosing correctly, and on reliably anticipating Iranian judgments over an extended period of time. For genuine safety, Israel must prepare to make decisions that are subtle, nuanced, and of protracted utility.

More than likely, Iran is not a mad or "crazy" state. Although, it is true, at least doctrinally, that Iran's political and clerical leaders could sometime decide to welcome the Shiite apocalypse, and even its associated destructions, these enemy decision-makers might still remain subject to certain different sorts of deterrent threats. Faced with such extraordinary circumstances, conditions wherein an already-nuclear Iran could not be effectively prevented from striking first by threatening the "usual" harms of retaliatory destruction, Israel would need to identify, in advance, less-orthodox, but still promising, forms of reprisal.

Such eccentric kinds of reprisal would inevitably center upon those preeminent religious preferences, and institutions that remain most indisputably sacred to Shiite Iran.

For Israel, facing a rational adversary would undoubtedly be best. A presumably rational leadership in Tehran would make it significantly easier for Jerusalem to reasonably forego the preemption option. In these more predictable circumstances, Iran could still be more-or-less reliably deterred by some or all of the standard military threats available to states, credible warnings that are conspicuously linked to "assured destruction."

But it is not for Israel to choose the preferred degree of enemy rationality. Moreover, there are other pertinent considerations here, factors that could portend grave hazards even from an altogether rational Iranian nuclear adversary. These noteworthy factors would bear upon certain issues of Iranian nuclear command and control; issues of stability of Iranian strategic decision-making, during periods of crisis, or mounting tensions; and issues of Iranian leadership capacity to decipher a rapidly changing and presumably more threatening strategic environment. This last issue would involve Tehran's incremental assessments of expectedly ramped up U.S. and/or Israeli responses to an unhindered Iranian nuclearization.

Unless there is an eleventh-hour defensive first strike by Israel, a now- improbable attack that would most likely follow an authoritative determination of actual or prospective Iranian "madness," a new nuclear adversary in the region will make its appearance. For Israel, this perilous development would then mandate a prudent and well thought out plan forcoexistence. Then, in other words, Israel would have to learn exactly how to "live with" a nuclear Iran.

There would be no reasonable alternative.

It would be a complex and problematic education. Forging such a requisite policy of nuclear deterrence would require, among other things,(1) reduced ambiguity about particular elements of Israel's 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, in order to bring together all of these complex and intersecting enhancements in a coherent mission plan, (6) a comprehensive strategic doctrine.

Additionally, because of the residual but serious prospect of Iranian irrationality, not madness, 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 could actually be very small, but, if considered together with Iran's Shiite eschatology, it might still not be negligible.

Steadily, Israel is strengthening its plans for ballistic missile defense, most visibly on the Arrow system, and also on Iron Dome, a lower-altitude interceptor that is designed to guard against shorter-range rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza. Iron Dome, of course, was used with considerable success in Operation Pillar of Defense. Unavoidably, however, these defensive systems, including certain others which are still in the development phase, would have leakage.

Because system penetration by even a single enemy missile carrying a nuclear warhead could be intolerable, by definition, their principal interception benefit could not reasonably lie in added physical protection for Israeli populations. Instead, any still-considerable benefit would have to lie elsewhere, that is, in potentially critical enhancements of Israeli nuclear deterrence.

If still rational, a newly-nuclear Iran would require incrementally increasing numbers of offensive missiles. This would be needed to achieve or to maintain a sufficiently destructive first-strike capability against Israel. There could come a time, however, when Iran would become able to deploy substantially 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 cease functioning as critically supportive adjuncts to Israeli nuclear deterrence.

In the improbable case of anticipated Iranian decisional "madness," a still timely preemption against Iran, even if at very great cost and risk to Israel, could prove necessary. Yet, at least in itself, this plainly 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.

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 religious goals), 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 in those cases where Iran had first been judged to be rational.

There is, however, 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 Iran-centered 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 perilous prospect is more likely than that of encountering irrationality at the national or state level. 

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 recognizably hardened, multiplied, and dispersed.

Recognizability is critical, because the only reality that will be real in its deterrence consequences is perceived reality. In the language of philosophy, we would call this a "phenomenological," as opposed to a "behavioral" or "positivist," perspective.

 This visibly second-strike nuclear force should be made ready to inflict "assured destruction" against certain precisely-identifiable enemy cities. In military parlance, therefore, Israel will need to convince Iran that its strategic targeting doctrine is plainly "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 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

Sometimes, in complex military calculations, truth is counter-intuitive.

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. This point is very important.

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, observably limited by 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, soon, Israel's Prime Minister will 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 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 vastly 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 always 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 proper 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.

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 ensuring national self-preservation was somehow not Israel's highest priority. Such an assumption, of course, would be incorrect on its face.

What's next for Israel in the recognizably existential matter of a steadily nuclearizing Iran? The answer will necessarily be contingent upon Jerusalem's antecedent judgments concerning Iranian decision-making on core strategic matters. Whether Israel should choose a last-minute preemption, or opt instead for a policy of long-term nuclear deterrence and corollary active defense, will depend upon what Prime Minister Netanyahu and his senior advisors may expect from enemy leaders in Tehran - rationality; irrationality; or madness.

The Israeli side will also need to look very closely at Tehran's expected reliability of nuclear command and control (judgments of such unreliability could heighten any Israeli incentives to preempt), but it is unlikely that such a look would prove equally determinative.

Today, more than sixty-eight years after the Manhattan Project, Israeli decision-makers should be reminded of Oppenheimer's second relevant metaphor, the perplexing image of nuclear adversaries as "two scorpions in a bottle."  Unless Israel can still find a way to somehow remain as the only genuine nuclear power in the Middle East, it will have to determine, as an unavoidably residual strategy, just how to coexist with an expectedly hostile "scorpion."       

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University.  Chair of Project Daniel  (Israel, 2003), he is the author of many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including publications in International Security (Harvard);World Politics (Princeton); The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Nativ (Israel); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs (Israel); Parameters: The Professional Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (DoD); Studies in Conflict and Terrorism; Strategic Review; International Journal; International Relations; Jerusalem Journal of International Relations; Contemporary Security Policy; Armed Forces and Society; Virginia Journal of International Law; Israel Affairs; Comparative Strategy; The American Journal of Jurisprudence; The Hudson Review; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; Policy Sciences; The Policy Studies Journal; Cambridge Review of International Affairs(UK); The Stanford Journal of International Studies; Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law; The American Political Science Review; Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law; and The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Professor Beres’ monographs on nuclear strategy and nuclear war have been published by The Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel); The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies (University of Notre Dame); The Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva); The Monograph Series on World Affairs (University of Denver); and the Herzliya Conference Working Paper Series (Israel).His columns have appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times; The Washington Times; The Washington Post; The Christian Science Monitor; Neue Zurcher Zeitung(Switzerland); Boston Globe; Chicago Tribune; Los Angeles Times; Ha’aretz(Israel); The Jerusalem Post (Israel); Israel National News (Israel); The Atlantic; and U.S. News and World Report. He has lectured, in Israel, at the National Defense College (IDF); The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies; The BESA Center for Strategic Studies; and the Dayan Forum.

Dr. Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.

This article first appeared in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs,