Looking ahead: Longer term prospects for an Israel-Iran nuclear war
Looking ahead: Longer term prospects for an Israel-Iran nuclear war

ABSTRACT: With Prime Minister Netanyahu just reaffirming that Israel will strike both Iranian and Syrian targets as needed - most recently, after an Iranian drone briefly entered Israeli airspace, and an IAF F-161 plane was shot down - Israeli defense planners must also plan assiduously for more catastrophic future engagements. At some more-or-less determinable point, even an outright use of nuclear weapons  against or by Iran might not be out of the question. In this regard, Israel's ritually traditional and legally correct reaffirmation of its legitimate rights to reprisal could sometime need to be augmented,inter alia, by substantially more far-reaching acts of "anticipatory" self-defense.

"For By Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War." Proverbs, 24,6

For the moment, of course, an Israel-Iran nuclear war is logically out of the question, and thereby not meaningfully subject to any tangible calculations. After all, Iran is not yet an operational nuclear power, and there is literally no point in presuming any useful possibilities for systematic or genuinely scientific investigation. Nonetheless, in prospectively existential matters, prudence can (and should) take assorted innovative forms, and the July 14, 2015 Vienna Pact (JCPOA) concerning Iranian nuclear weapons will not constrain Tehran indefinitely.[1]

Inevitably, therefore, Jerusalem will have to plan accordingly, including at least residual preparations for a still-suitable but plausibly limited preemption option.

This assessment is pertinent because, at this already late date, launching any tactically comprehensive preemption against pertinent Iranian weapons and infrastructures is likely no longer achievable. In this connection, even back in 2003, when my own Project Daniel Group had offered a very early report on Iranian nuclearization to then-Israeli PM Ariel Sharon, Iranian targets were already more daunting than was Iraq's Osiraq reactor on June 7, 1981.[2]

In any event, to the limited extent that they may even be usefully estimated, the calculable risks of a future Israel-Iran nuclear war would depend upon whether such conflict were intentional, unintentional, or accidental. Apart from applying this critical tripartite distinction, there could be no supportable reason to expect any systematic and purposeful strategic assessments from Tel Aviv. Always, however, once applied, Israeli planners must proceed with an unassailably core understanding that their enormously complex subject is sui generis, "wide open" to multiple non-verifiable assumptions and theories.[3]

it may make good sense to study what is currently happening between Washington and Pyongyang as a partial "model" for ascertaining Israel's long-term existential threats from Iran.
Nonetheless, it remains essential that competent Israeli strategic analysts soon do their available best to examine and measure all current and future nuclear risks originating from Iran. In this connection, it may make good sense to study what is currently happening between Washington and Pyongyang as a partial "model" for ascertaining Israel's long-term existential threats from Iran. To wit, in examining the more-or-less overheated rhetoric coming from both US President Trump and North Korean President Kim Jung-Un, it appears that neither leader is currently paying appropriately close attention to the very particular risks of an unintentional or accidental nuclear war.

This means, among other things, that both Trump and Kim now seem to assume (however quietly or unwittingly) the other's complete rationality.

If no such mutual assumption existed, it simply would make no sense for either president to deliberately strike authentically existential fear in the heart of the other. Further, without such a mutual assignment of rationality, both Trump and Kim would expectedly become more sensitive to the considerable and increasingly palpable dangers of ramped-up rhetoric. But is such a core assumption realistically valid, for either one or both of these adversarial national leaders?

Again, in venturing an informed reply, there are some potentially important lessons here for Israel. For example, should President Trump and his principal advisers begin to fear North Korean enemy irrationality, persistently graduated threats of US retaliation might then make no convincing deterrent sense. Then, instead, American national security could have to depend upon some presumptively optimal combination of ballistic missile defense and defensive first strikes, or on actual preemption. Naturally, it is literally in every "player's" best interest that such a perilous dependence be scrupulously avoided.

For the moment, at least, it does seem that Kim Jung Un values his own life and that of his own nation more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences. He thereby remains subject to US nuclear deterrence. Here, however, it will also be important for the American president to carefully distinguish between genuine enemy irrationality and pretended enemy irrationality.

In the past, we may recall, Mr. Trump has openly praised feigned irrationality as a US security strategy. Indeed, his "fire and fury" warning might merely have reflected his preferred "rationality of pretended irrationality" posture for the United States. But such a preference is not without assorted inherent dangers, and could rapidly devolve into a double-edged sword phenomenon. Most worrisome is that although neither side may want a war in any tangible form, either or both players could still commit catastrophic errors during their overtly competitive and presumptively zero-sum searches for "escalation dominance."

Significantly, these crucial errors are more apt to occur in those conspicuously unsteady circumstances where one or both leaders should choose to rely upon increasingly hyperbolic and sequential verbal escalations.

Looking ahead, and by extrapolation from one region to another, there are assorted "messages" here for Israeli planners in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

An unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang (or, in the future, between Jerusalem and Teheran) could take place not only as an evident result of misunderstandings or miscalculations between fully rational leaders, but also in unintended consequence of particular mechanical, electrical, or computer malfunctions. This should now bring to mind a corollary distinction between unintentional/inadvertent nuclear war, and an accidental nuclear war. Though all accidental nuclear war must be unintentional, not every unintentional nuclear war would necessarily occur by accident. Rather, an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could sometime be the catastrophic result of certain fundamental misjudgments about enemy intentions, and/or unforeseen "synergies" between North Korean and American (or, in the future, Israeli and Iranian) crisis decisions.

By definition, strategic synergies are complicated and hard to decipher. Also worth noting, in this regard, is that such synergies or mutually-reinforcing interactions could quickly "cascade," one into another, thereby producing an out-of-control panoply of more abundant complexity and unfathomably stark contradiction. In any future face-off between Jerusalem and Tehran, Israel's prime minister could sometime over-estimate his own cumulative power and derivatively under-estimate that of his opponent. This over-estimation/under-estimation could take place unilaterally, or simultaneously, with more-or-less corresponding misjudgments occasioned by leaders in Iran.

The results, of course, could turn out to be far more bewildering and insidiously multi-layered than either one or both adversarial national leaders had originally expected.

"In war," says Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously in his classic On War, "everything is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult."

There is more. In fashioning a successful "endgame" to any future nuclear confrontation with Iran, it would be vital for Israel's leaders to first understand that this sort of crisis is necessarily about far more than maximizing any relative "correlation of forces" or missile-interception capabilities. What Israel will require here is something vastly more comprehensive than some narrowly tactical or operational assessment of prospective risks and benefits.

Insofar as a nuclear war has never been fought, what will be needed is more broadly intellectual guidance than Israel should ever reasonably expect from even its most senior and accomplished military officers. To be sure, this is not on account of any foreseeable intrinsic or irremediable deficiencies on their part, but because a nuclear war would (hopefully) still be without a usable precedent.

In essence, there are no conceivable experts on fighting a nuclear war, not in Washington, not in Pyongyang, not in Jerusalem, not in Tehran.

Not anywhere.

One last point about any still-estimable risks of a future Israel-Iran nuclear war. From the standpoint of Jerusalem, the only truly successful outcome could be a crisis or confrontation that ends with a discernible diminution of Iranian nuclear war fighting capabilities and intentions. Therefore, it would represent a very grave mistake for Israel to ever settle for any bloated boasts of "victory" that were based only upon a one-time or singular-event avoidance of nuclear war. It follows that Israel ought never to be taking such unequivocally existential risks with Tehran if the best recognizable outcome could only be a status quo ante bellum.

Providing for Israeli national security vis-à-vis a still-nuclearizing Iran ought never become a seat-of-the-pants "game" - that is, the sort of wholly arbitrary stance taken by US President Donald Trump opposite North Korea. Without any suitably long-term, systematic and deeply-thoughtful plan in place for avoiding a future nuclear war with Iran, a nuclear conflict that is deliberate, unintentional or accidental could sometime ensue. Accordingly, at every stage of its inherently unsteady competition with Tehran, Jerusalem should never lose sight of the only rational "use" for its presumptive nuclear weapons and doctrine.

Always, for Israel, such weapons and doctrine can have only one proper objective:  Deterrence ex ante, never revenge ex post.

 For Israel, recalling the timeless admonition at Proverbs, there can be no wiser counsel.       

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016). 


In 2003, Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel in Israel (Iran's nuclear weapons, for PM Sharon).