Nuclear plant in Busheir
Nuclear plant in BusheirReuters

At some point, Israel’s current war with Iranian proxy Hamas will likely evolve into a direct and protracted war with Iran. Whether or not this happens while Iran is “pre-nuclear,” such conflict could nonetheless “become nuclear.” In part, this is because any Israeli-Iranian competition in strategic risk-taking – a mutual search for “escalation dominance” – could compel Israel to cross the nuclear conflict threshold. Though this crossing would initiate an asymmetrical or one-sided nuclear conflict, it would still represent a genuine nuclear war.

There are clarifying scenarios. To begin, even a pre-nuclear Iran could mount “quasi-nuclear” attacks on Israel with radiation dispersal weapons and/or conventional rocket attacks on the Dimona nuclear reactor. In these worrisome narratives, both unprecedented, Israel could find itself having to escalate to low-yield or tactical nuclear weapons in order to “win.” In a worst-case scenario, North Korea would confront Israel as Iran’s already-nuclear surrogate. Such a scenario ought never to be dismissed out of hand.

What would happen next? What should Israel do now? Most urgently, Jerusalem needs to initiate a prompt or incremental process of “selective nuclear disclosure” (that is, put an end to “deliberate nuclear ambiguity,” aka the “bomb in the basement”), and clarify its assumed “Samson Option.” Whatever the particulars, the overriding point of this presumptively last-resort Israeli option would not be to “die with the Philistines” (per Samson in the biblical Book of Judges), but rather to enhance the credibility of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.

What do we know about the historical background for rendering such unique strategic calculations? Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, world politics have been anarchic. This means that every nation-state’s security – but especially beleaguered states such as Israel[1] - must rely on the complex and unpredictable dynamics of military threat. To best ensure a credible deterrence posture, Israel should always display an evident willingness to acquire “escalation dominance,” but also avoid drifting inadvertently or uncontrollably into a nuclear war.

In our increasingly unsteady nuclear age, this two-fold obligation – escalation dominance and nuclear war avoidance - could produce either an intentional or unintentional nuclear conflict. Regarding unintentional nuclear war, it could be an irremediable mistake for Israeli planners and policy-makers to assume that mega-conflict between adversarial states would always reflect rational decision-making processes. Moreover, even a rational Iranian adversary could produce unwanted or intolerable outcomes. For Israel, the ultimate survival problem might not be Iranian irrationality or madness, but the cumulatively injurious dynamic of rational Iranian calculation.

Are the odds of an Israel-Iran nuclear conflict meaningfully calculable? The only scientifically correct answer here is “no,” because valid probability judgments in logic and mathematics must always be based upon the determinable frequency of past events: How many times has an Israel-Iran nuclear war happened before? The obvious absence of any relevant past event makes accurate probability assessments impossible.

There is more. Even if assumptions of Iranian rationality were reasonable and well-founded, there would 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 national decision-making miscalculation. In this last causal circumstance, erroneous calculations could be committed by Iran, Israel or both parties.

There is additional nuance. In the especially-ominous third scenario, two-party miscalculation, damaging synergies could arise that would prove difficult or impossible for Israel to manage. By definition, the “whole” outcome of any such synergistic interaction would be greater than the sum of its “parts.” Furthermore, such “force-multiplying” interactions could surface all at once, as a “bolt from the blue,” or in seemingly fathomable increments.

Since 1945, the historic “balance of power” has largely been transformed into a steadily-accelerating “balance of terror.” To an unforeseeable extent, the geo-strategic search for “escalation dominance” by Israel and Iran – a search magnified by the divergent security expectations of a still-ongoing Gaza War - could enlarge the risks of an inadvertent nuclear war. This conclusion remains plausible even if Iran were to remain non–nuclear.

Seemingly out-of-control escalations, after all, could prod Israel to cross the nuclear combat threshold. Most portentously, the likelihood of such unprecedented escalation has been enlarged by US President Joe Biden’s recent embargo on weapons needed by Israel to fight against Hamas criminality. This is because a strengthened Hamas means a strengthened Iran and a greater Iranian willingness to war against Israel directly. The ill-conceived Biden embargo heightens the risk of nuclear weapons use in the region, even while Iran still remains non-nuclear.

There are vital particulars. The risks of any direct Israel-Iran war would include nuclear war by accident and nuclear war by decisional miscalculation. In this fearful scenario, the “solution” for Israel could never be to “wish-away” the search for “escalation dominance,” but rather to manage all prospectively nuclear crises at their lowest possible levels. Wherever feasible, to be sure, it would be best to avoid such existential crises altogether and to maintain reliable “circuit breakers” against strategic hacking and technical malfunction. Realistically, however, to achieve authentically durable nuclear war avoidance in the Middle East, a more promising strategic posture will be required.

The Iranian existential threat to Israel does not exist in vacuo. Israel faces other potential foes and enemy alliances. Pakistan is a nuclear Islamic state with tangible ties to China. Pakistan, like Israel, is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korea has already shared advanced ballistic missile technologies with Russia’s Vladimir Putin (North Korean missile fragments were discovered in Ukraine), and could sometime do the same for Iran. “Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in On War, “but the simplest thing is very difficult.”

Going forward, Israel should comprehensively consider whether there could be an auspicious place for nuclear threats against its still pre-nuclear Iranian adversary. The “answers” will depend significantly on Israel’s prior transformations of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” into postures of “selective nuclear disclosure.” Though all such considerations would concern matters that are sui generis or without historical precedent, Israel has absolutely no sensible alternatives to such logic-based investigations.

Various subsidiary questions will arise. What is the probabilistic difference between a deliberate nuclear war and one that would be unintentional? This distinction could prove indispensable to reducing the tangible likelihood of an Israel-Iran nuclear conflict.

More refined thoughts should dawn. Capable Israeli strategists will have to devise optimal strategies for calculating and averting nuclear war with Iran. This task’s difficulty will vary, among other things, according to

(1) presumed Iranian intentions;

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

(3) presumed plausibility of Iranian miscalculations.

Any particular instance of accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent. However, not every case of an inadvertent nuclear war would be the result of an accident. On all such terminological matters, underlying conceptual distinctions will have to be kept continuously in mind by dedicated Israeli strategists.

“Escalation dominance” should never be approached by Israeli security planners and policy-makers as a narrowly tactical problem. Instead, informed by in-depth historical understandings and refined analytic capacities, these individuals should prepare themselves for a self-expanding variety of deeply intersecting, even synergistic explanations.

Summing up, the competitive dynamics of nuclear deterrence will never just fade away. In our anarchic or “self-help” world legal system, Israel must continuously prepare to prevail in variously multiplying and interrelated struggles for “escalation dominance.” Over time, no matter how carefully, responsibly and comprehensively such preparations are actually carried out, a world system based on incessant power struggle and unprecedented risk-taking will fail. Regarding the specific security matter here at hand - the growing prospect of an Israel-Iran nuclear war - such failure would be catastrophic.

Nonetheless, Israel’s immediate task should be to “stay alive,” to navigate analytically and systematically amid potentially irreversible harms. Above all, these harms could include a nuclear war with Iran even before that terror-mentoring state becomes an independent nuclear power. Among other possibilities, 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 to avoid irrevocable defeat.

These three catastrophic scenarios have now been rendered more likely by US President Joe Biden’s embargo on terror-fighting weapons to Israel.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and 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; Jewish Website; The New York Times; Israel National News; The Jerusalem Post; The Hill and other sites. . Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich at the end of World War II,

[1] Israel, it needs to be kept in mind, is less than half the size of America’s Lake Michigan.