Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene BeresProf. Louis René Beres

Though still discussed only in whispers, a conceivable end-point of the current Gaza War would involve the threat or use of nuclear weapons. This is the case because even a pre-nuclear Iran could elicit an Israeli nuclear warning or nuclear retaliation. More precisely, by its continuously law-violating support of Palestinian Hamas, Iran could sometime place itself in direct military confrontation with Israel, a prospect that would then accelerate competitive risk taking in a mutual search for “escalation dominance.”

For the moment, an authentic Israel-Iran nuclear war would not be possible, but even a pre-nuclear Iran could still mount massive “nuclear “attacks upon Israel with radiation dispersal weapons and/or with conventional rocket attacks on Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor. If, as expected, Iran becomes genuinely nuclear – that is, a state armed with chain-reaction/critical mass nuclear explosives – fiercely competitive processes of “escalation dominance” could then spawn a full-blown nuclear war.

Accordingly, it is high time for Israel to begin an incremental process of selective nuclear disclosure (an end to traditional “nuclear ambiguity” or the “bomb in the basement”) and to progressively identify its presumed “Samson Option.” The point of this last-resort option would not be for Israel to “die with the Philistines,” per Samson in the biblical Book of Judges, but to enhance the credibility of the nation’s national nuclear deterrent.

What is the historic context of these obligatory calculations and Israel’s ongoing “Operation Swords of Iron?” Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, world politics have been anarchic. In essence, this means that every nation-state’s security – but especially a beleaguered state such as Israel - must rely upon the bewildering dynamics of a military threat system.

There is more. To best ensure a sustainably credible deterrence posture, Israel must display an evident willingness to acquire “escalation dominance.” This means a conspicuous supremacy in strategic risk-taking.

Significantly, in our unpredictable nuclear age, this obligation could produce either a deliberate or inadvertent nuclear war. In regard to an inadvertent (unintentional) nuclear war, it would be a mistake for Israeli planners and policy-makers to simply assume that a mega-conflict between adversarial states would always reflect rational decision-making. Moreover, even rational adversaries could produce unwanted and potentially intolerable outcomes. For Israel, the survival problem here would not be one of Iranian irrationality or madness, but rather the cumulatively injurious total of rationally calculating enemies.

There are not just casual or random thoughts. Israel needs exceptionally capable strategic thinkers, not just tacticians. And these thinkers ought to continuously inquire if there is any remediating place for science within their calculations?

Are the odds of a specifically nuclear conflict meaningfully calculable? The only correct answer is “no.” This is because valid probability judgments in logic and mathematics must always be based upon the frequency of relevant past events - that is, how many times has this happened before? Though plainly a good thing, there has never been a “relevant past event” a nuclear war from which Israeli planners could abstract meaningful probabilities.

Further details will need clarification. Even if assumptions of Iranian rationality were reasonable and well-founded, there would still remain various attendant dangers of unintentional nuclear war. Such potentially existential dangers could be produced by enemy hacking operations, computer malfunction (an accidental nuclear war) or decision-making miscalculation - whether by the enemy, by Israel or by both parties.

Additionally, in the especially ominous third scenario, damaging synergies could arise that would prove difficult or impossible to manage or reverse. By definition, the “whole” outcome in a synergistic interaction would be greater than the sum of its “parts.” Such “force-multiplying” interactions could surface all at once (as a “bolt from the blue”) or in more-or-less fathomable increments.

Since 1945, the historic “balance of power” has been transformed, in part, into a “balance of terror.” To a largely unforeseeable extent, the geo-strategic search for “escalation dominance” by Israel and Iran – a search spawned in part by security expectations of the current Gaza War - could greatly enlarge the risks of an inadvertent nuclear war. This assertion obtains even if Iran were to remain non–nuclear because seemingly out-of-control escalations could at some time prod Israel to cross the nuclear combat threshold.

The oft-underestimated risks of a direct Israel-Iran war could include nuclear war by accident and/or by decisional miscalculation. In this increasingly plausible scenario, the “solution” for Israel would not be to “wish-away” the mutually reinforcing search for “escalation dominance,” but to manage all prospectively nuclear crises at their lowest possible levels of destructiveness.

Wherever feasible, of course, it would be best to avoid such crises altogether and to maintain reliable “circuit breakers” against strategic hacking and technical malfunction at the same time. But for durable nuclear war avoidance in the Middle East, a more tangibly long-term strategy will be required.

There is more to consider. The Iranian threat to Israel – now a derivative consequence of Iran’s links to Hamas and Hezbollah – does not exist in vacuo. There are other potential foes and worrisome alliances. Pakistan is an already nuclear Islamic state with substantial ties to China. Pakistan, like Israel, is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). “Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in On War, “but the simplest thing is very difficult.” For Israel’s strategic war planners, it’s a good time to re-read Clausewitz,

Israel should comprehensively consider whether there could ever be an auspicious place for nuclear threats against its still non-nuclear adversary in Tehran. In part, the “answers” here would depend upon Israel’s prior transformations of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (the “bomb in the basement”) into more promising postures of “deliberate nuclear disclosure.” Though all such considerations would concern matters that are sui generis or without historical precedent, Israel has no logical alternative to appropriate analytic investigations.

Subsidiary questions arise.

What is the probabilistic difference between a deliberate or intentional nuclear war, and one that would be unintentional or inadvertent? Though rarely discussed by laypersons, this utterly core distinction is indispensable to estimating the likelihood of any nuclear conflict.

There is more. Capable Israeli strategists will have to devise optimal strategies for calculating and averting a nuclear war with Iran. This critical task’s difficulty will vary, among other things, according to

(1) presumed Iranian intention;

(2) presumed plausibility of accident or Iranian hacking intrusion; and/or

(3) presumed plausibility of an Iranian miscalculation.

Words matter. Any particular instance of accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent. Not every case of an inadvertent nuclear war, however, would be the result of accident. On such terminological matters, the conceptual distinctions will have to be studied and kept prudently in mind by Israeli strategic thinkers.

Additional warnings will obtain. The problem of “escalation dominance” should never be approached by Israeli security policy-makers as a narrowly political or tactical issue. Rather, informed by suitably in-depth historical understandings and by carefully refined analytic capacities, Israeli planners should immediately prepare themselves to deal with a large variety of overlapping explanatory factors.


Looking ahead, it is inconceivable that the competitive dynamics of nuclear deterrence will simply fade away. In our anarchic or “self-help” world legal system, Israel must continuously prepare to prevail in multiple and interrelated struggles for “escalation dominance.” Over time, no matter how carefully, responsibly and comprehensively such preparations are carried out, any world legal system based on incessant power struggle and untestable risk-taking will fail catastrophically.

For the moment, however, Israel’s task must be to navigate carefully amid potentially existential dangers from Iran. Even before Iran becomes a genuine nuclear power, these dangers could include a nuclear war. In essence, this is because the mutual adversarial search for “escalation dominance” could cause Iran to use radiation-dispersal weapons and/or cause Israel to use its nuclear weapons in residually desperate circumstances.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books, monographs, and scholarly articles dealing with various aspects of military nuclear strategy. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). Over recent years, he has published extensively on nuclear warfare issues in Israel National News; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Atlantic; Israel Defense; The New York Times; The Jerusalem Post; International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); The War Room (US Army War College); Air-Space Power Journal (USAF); Modern Diplomacy; Small Wars Journal); Modern War Institute (West Point); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (Pentagon) and Oxford University Press. His twelfth book, published in 2016 (2nd ed., 2018) by Rowman & Littlefield, is titled: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy.’s-Nuclear-Strategy A monograph on this subject was published with a special post-script by retired USA General Barry R. McCaffrey at Tel Aviv University in December 2016: Some of Some of Professor Beres' earlier writings on US nuclear decision-making were co-authored with US General John T. Chain (USAF/ret.) and US Admiral Leon "Bud" Edney (USN/ret). General Chain was CINCSAC, Commander-in-Chief, US Strategic Air Command. Admiral Edney served as SACLANT, Supreme NATO Allied Commander, Atlantic.

Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich at the end of World War II, At Princeton, he studied German literature and German philosophy along with nuclear strategy and international law.