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

Special to Israel National News

An end to the Israel-Hamas Gaza War could ultimately involve a threat or operational use of nuclear weapons. More precisely, after this conflict, even a pre-nuclear Iran could elicit an Israeli nuclear warning or a “proportionate” nuclear retaliation. By its law-violating support of Palestinian terror group Hamas – an organization that is “evil in itself “or malum in se) - Iran could sometime place itself in direct military confrontation with Israel. This prospect would undoubtedly accelerate competitive risk taking in the corresponding Israel-Iran search for “escalation dominance.”

Any such search would be viscerally frenzied and mutually injurious.

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

What should Israel do now?

Most urgently, it is high time for Israel to begin an incremental process of selective nuclear disclosure (an end to “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” or the “bomb in the basement”) and simultaneously clarify 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 Israel’s nuclear deterrent.

What is the historical background of these necessary calculations? Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, world politics have been anarchic. In essence, this means that every nation-state’s security – but especially beleaguered states such as Israel - must rely on the unpredictable dynamics of military threat. To best ensure a credible deterrence posture, Israel must always display evident willingness to acquire “escalation dominance.” This means gaining conspicuous superiority in strategic risk-taking.


In our unsteady nuclear age, this obligation could produce either a deliberate or inadvertent nuclear war. In regard to an inadvertent (unintentional) nuclear war, it could be an irremediable mistake for Israeli planners and policy-makers to assume that a mega-conflict between adversarial states must always reflect rational decision-making. And even rational adversaries could produce unwanted or intolerable outcomes. For Israel, therefore, the pertinent survival problem might 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. Looking ahead, Israel needs exceptionally capable strategic thinkers, not just tacticians.

Are the odds of an Israel-Iran 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 actually happened before? Though plainly a good thing, the absence of a “relevant past event” (a nuclear war) also makes accurate probability judgments impossible.

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

In the especially ominous third scenario, damaging synergies could arise that would prove difficult or impossible to manage or reverse. The “whole” outcome in any 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 largely been transformed into a “balance of terror.”

To an unforeseeable extent, the geo-strategic search for “escalation dominance” by Israel and Iran – a search magnified by security expectations of the ongoing Gaza War - could enlarge the risks of an inadvertent nuclear war. This conclusion holds even if Iran were to remain non–nuclear because seemingly out-of-control escalations could at some point prod Israel to cross the nuclear combat threshold.

There is more. The oft-underestimated risks of a direct Israel-Iran war could include nuclear war by accident and/or by decisional miscalculation. In this increasingly realistic 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 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. But for durable nuclear war avoidance in the Middle East, a more promisingly long-term strategy will be required.

The Iranian threat to Israel – in part a derivative consequence of Iran’s links to Hamas and Hezbollah – does not exist in vacuo. Israel faces other potential foes and alliances. Pakistan is an already-nuclear Islamic state with 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.”

Israel should comprehensively consider whether there could ever be an auspicious place for nuclear threats against its still non-nuclear adversary in Tehran. The “answers” here could depend significantly on Israel’s prior transformations of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” into more timely postures of “deliberate nuclear disclosure.” Though all such considerations would concern matters that are sui generis or without historical precedent, Israel has no sensible alternative to logic-based investigations.

Subsidiary questions arise.

What is the probabilistic difference between a deliberate or intentional nuclear war and one that would be unintentional? Though rarely discussed by laypersons, this primary distinction is indispensable to reducing 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 task’s difficulty will vary, among other things, according to (1) presumed Iranian intention; (2) presumed plausibility of an accident or Iranian hacking intrusion; and/or (3) presumed plausibility of Iranian miscalculation.

Words always 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 underlying conceptual distinctions will have to be kept prudently in mind by Israeli strategic thinkers.

Certain 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. Instead, informed by in-depth historical understandings and refined analytic capacities, Israeli planners must immediately prepare themselves for a large variety of possible explanations.

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 unprecedented risk-taking will fail.

Nonetheless, Israel’s immediate task should be to navigate carefully amid potentially existential harms. As we have just seen, these harms could conceivably include a nuclear war with Iran before that terror state becomes a nuclear power. This is because a mutual Israel-Iran search for “escalation dominance” could sometime cause the Islamic Republic to

(1) activate radiation-dispersal weapons;

(2) strike Israel’s Dimona reactor with conventional rockets; and/or

(3) compel the Jewish State to use its nuclear weapons in expectedly dire circumstances.

Louis René Beres was born in Zurich at the end of WWII and educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). Hed is the author of many books, monographs, and scholarly articles dealing with military nuclear strategy. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). Over recent years, he has published on nuclear warfare issues in 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; Israel National News; 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.