A Provident Posture for Israel: Facing Nuclear Iran as an Intellectual Problem
Prof. Louis René Beres
“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” Sun-Tzu, The Art of War
Mitigating Trump-Policy Mistakes
This common problem is discoverable in science, engineering, and philosophy.
At best, this strategy would have to be regarded as a self-limiting option.
At worst, it could precipitate its own catastrophic consequences.
The Primacy of Intellect in National Nuclear Strategy
What next? At this point, prudence dictates that Jerusalem back away from its traditional posture that Iran never be allowed to “go nuclear,” and replace this no longer feasible position with suitably intellectual preparations for comprehensive nuclear deterrence. The traditional Israeli stance was more impressively “hard-nosed” and seemingly steadfast, of course, but maintaining any such stance today would be crude, provocative and infeasible.
The rudiments of Israeli nuclear deterrence are easy to identify. By forcing an Iranian attacker to calculate and recalculate the complex requirements of “assured destruction,” Israeli technologies could make it markedly unrewarding for Tehran to ever strike first. Knowing that its capacity to “assuredly destroy” Israel’s nuclear retaliatory forces with a first-strike attack could be steadily eroded by incremental Israeli deployments of BMD, Iran would likely conclude that any such attack would prove costlier than gainful. Any such relatively optimistic conclusion would be premised on the antecedent assumption that Iran’s decisions must always be rational.
There are further relevant particulars. It is reasonable to expect that even an irrational Iranian leadership would hold in unwaveringly “high esteem” its own primary military institutions. Ipso facto, this leadership would remain subject to Israeli deterrence created by various compelling Israeli threats to these institutions.
Rationality and Irrationality
Iran needn’t be irrational to represent a lethal danger to Israel. A nuclear Iran could still be perilous to Israel if its leadership were able to meet all usual criteria of decisional rationality. Miscalculations or errors in information could sometime lead a fully rational Iranian adversary to consider striking first. In these worrisome circumstances, even the best anti-missile defenses could be inadequate in providing adequate population or “soft-point” protections.
Among other things, if Iran were presumed to be rational in the usual sense of valuing its national physical survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences, Jerusalem could then consider certain more-or-less plausible benefits of pretended irrationality. Years ago, Israeli General Moshe Dayan warned prophetically: “Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother.” In this crude but potentially insightful metaphor, Dayan acknowledged that it can sometimes be entirely rational for beleaguered states to pretend irrationality.
What if an Iranian adversary were presumed to be irrational in the sense of not caring most a bout its own national survival? In this aberrant but still conceivable case, there could be no discernible deterrence benefit to Israel in assuming a posture of pretended irrationality. Here, by definition, the more probable threat of a massive nuclear counterstrike by Israel would be no more persuasive to Tehran than if Iran’s self-declared enemy were presumed to be rational.
“Do you know what it means to find yourself face to face with a madman?” inquires Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV. While this pithy theatrical query does have some residual relevance to Israel’s mounting security concerns with Iran, the grave strategic challenges issuing from that country will more likely come from decision-makers who are rational and who are not mad. Soon, with this clarifying idea suitably in mind, Israel will need to fashion a more carefully focused and formal strategic doctrine, one from which aptly nuanced policies and operations could be expertly drawn and reliably fashioned.
In broadest possible decisional terms, Israel has no real choice. Nuclear strategy is a “game” that sane and rational decision-makers must play. But in order to compete effectively, any would-be adversary must first assess (1) the expected rationality of each opponent; and (2) the probable costs and benefits of pretending irrationality.
Taking the Bomb out of the “Basement”
More than likely, Israel’s longstanding “red lines” posture notwithstanding, Iran will manage to join the “nuclear club.” At that point, how will Tehran’s key leadership figures proceed to rank order their country’s critical security preferences? To answer this question – and very precisely this question – should immediately become a primary policy obligation in Jerusalem.
Exploiting Regional Sunni-Shiite Geopolitics
“Next door” to Afghanistan, in Pakistan, an already nuclear Islamic state in protracted nuclear standoff with India has expressly tilted toward “usable” Theater Nuclear Weapons (TNW). Since Pakistan first announced its test of the 60-kilometer Nasr ballistic missile back in 2011, that country’s emphasis on TNW appears intended to most effectively deter a catastrophic conventional war with India. By threatening, at least implicitly, to use relatively low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons in retaliation for major Indian conventional attacks, Pakistan seemingly hopes to simultaneously appearmore credible and less provocative to Delhi. Over time, though unintended, this calculated strategy to protect itself from any Indian nuclear strikes (whether as aggressions or reprisals) could elicit various Israeli imitations or replications. For the time being, however, it is plausible that Israel has not adopted any openly “warfighting” or “counterforce” nuclear strategy.
“In war,” says Clausewitz, “everything is simple, but the simplest thing is still difficult.”Until today, in principle at least, Israel’s national nuclear doctrine and posture have remained determinedly ambiguous. Simultaneously, traditional ambiguity was effectively breached at the highest possible level by two of Israel’s former prime ministers, Shimon Peres, on December 22, 1995 and again by Ehud Olmert on December 11, 2006. Peres, speaking to a group of Israeli newspaper and magazine editors, affirmed publicly: “…give me peace, and we’ll give up the atom. That’s the whole story.”When Olmert later offered similarly general but also revelatory remarks, they were widely (but perhaps wrongly) interpreted as “slips of the tongue.”
Today, a basic question should once again be raised and examined in Jerusalem: Is comprehensive nuclear secrecy in the verifiably best survival interests of Israel?
The central importance of any codified military doctrine lies not only in the particular ways it can animate, unify and optimize national forces, but also in the efficient manner it can transmit variously desired “messages” to enemy states, sub-state enemy proxies or state-sub-state enemy “hybrids.” Understood in terms of Israel’s strategic nuclear policy, any indiscriminate, across-the-board ambiguity could prove net-injurious to the country’s national security rather than net-gainful. Though possibly counter-intuitive, this is likely because any truly effective deterrence posture could sometimes call for military doctrine that is at least partially recognizable by certain adversary states and by certain sub-state insurgent/terrorist group foes.
Moving Beyond Too-Much Secrecy and Excessive “Friction”
There is more. In any routine military planning, having available options for strategic surprise could prove helpful (if not fully prerequisite) to successful combat operations. But successful deterrence is another matter entirely. In order to persuade would-be adversaries not to strike first – in these circumstances a manifestly complex effort of dissuasion – projecting too much secrecy could prove counter-productive.
Carefully articulated, expanding doctrinal openness, or partial nuclear disclosure could represent a distinctly rational option for Israel, at least to the extent that pertinent enemy states were made appropriately aware of Israel’s nuclear capabilities. The presumed operational benefits of any such expanding doctrinal openness would accrue from certain deliberate flows of information about assorted matters of dispersion, multiplication and hardening of its strategic nuclear weapon systems, and about certain other technical features of these systems. Most important, doctrinally controlled and orderly flows of information could serve to remove any lingering enemy state doubts about Israel’s strategic nuclear force capabilities and also its plausible intentions.
Left unchallenged, such doubts could literally and lethally undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence.
A key problem in purposefully refining Israeli strategic nuclear policy on deliberate ambiguity issues has to do with what the Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz, famously calls “friction.” No military doctrine can ever fully anticipate the actual pace of combat activity, or, as a corollary, the precise reactions of individual human commanders under fire. It follows that Israel’s nuclear doctrine must somehow be encouraged to combine adequate tactical flexibility with a selective doctrinal openness. To understand exactly how such seemingly contradictory objectives can be reconciled in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv now presents a distinctly primary intellectual challenge to Israel’s national command authority.
Preventing Inadvertent and Accidental Nuclear War
In the end, Israeli planners must think about plausible paths to a nuclear war that include relevant risks of inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. It is entirely possible (even plausible) that risks of any deliberate nuclear war involving Israel would be very small, but that the Jewish State might still be more-or-less vulnerable to such a war occasioned by a mechanical/electrical/computer malfunction on one side or another and/or by assorted decisional errors in related reasoning (miscalculation).
To properly assess the different but intersecting risks between a deliberate nuclear war and an inadvertent or accidental nuclear war must be regarded in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv as an absolutely overriding obligation. These risks could exist independently of one another, and could be impacted in various ways by Cold War II alignments. Moreover, Israel – like the larger United States – must increasingly prepare to deal with issues of cyber-attack and cyber-war; issues now to be considered together with the unpredictably destabilizing advent of “digital mercenaries.”
There is one more core conceptual distinction that warrants mention at this concluding point of our assessment. This distinction references the difference between inadvertent and accidental nuclear war. By definition, any accidental nuclear war would need to be inadvertent. Conversely, however, an inadvertent nuclear war would not necessarily be accidental. False warnings, for example, which could be generated by various types of technical malfunction or sparked by third-party hacking/digital mercenary interference would not be included under causes of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war.
Instead, they would represent cautionary narratives of an accidental nuclear war.
Most critical among the causes of any inadvertent nuclear war would be errors in calculation by one or both (or several) sides. The most blatant example would involve misjudgments of either enemy intent or enemy capacity that would emerge and propagate as any particular crisis would escalate. Such consequential misjudgments could stem from an understandably amplified desire by one or several parties to achieve “escalation dominance.”
Always, in any such projected crisis condition, all rational sides would likely strive for escalation dominance without too severely risking total or near-total destruction. Where one or several adversaries would not actually be rational, all of the usual deterrence “bets” would be “off.” Where one or several sides would not be identified as rational by Israel, Jerusalem could then need to input various unorthodox sorts of security options, including some that could derive in whole or in part from prevailing alignments.
Still other causes of an inadvertent nuclear war involving Israel could include flawed interpretations of computer-generated nuclear attack warnings; an unequal willingness among adversaries to risk catastrophic war; overconfidence in deterrence and/or defense capabilities on one or several sides (including Israel); adversarial regime changes; outright revolution or coup d’état among adversaries and poorly-conceived pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority among apparent foes.
Markedly serious problems of overconfidence could be aggravated by successful tests of a nation’s missile defense operations, whether by Israel itself or by any of its relevant adversaries. These problems could also be encouraged by too-optimistic assessments of alliance guarantees. An example might be an intra-crisis judgment in Jerusalem that Washington stands firmly behind its every move during an ongoing crisis, up to and including certain forms of reprisal that are more reasonably imagined than genuine.
Because a prospective nuclear threat from Iran might not be from a “bolt-from-the-blue” attack, but originate instead from a series of interrelated escalations, Israeli nuclear deterrence ought always to be viewed as part of afar wider spectrum of strategic dissuasion. In this connection, Israel’s military planners willhave to inquire whether nuclear deterrence could ever be meaningfully persuasive in cases of conventional military or large-scale terrorist threats. Although the plausibility/credibility of any Israeli threats of nuclear retaliation or counter-retaliation would be greatest where the aggression itself was identifiably nuclear, there could still be circumstances wherein a massive non-nuclear aggression would warrant a limited nuclear response. In these improbable but still conceivable circumstances, Israel would need to clarify all such inherently problematic reasoning “in advance.”
Significantly, as any such situations would be unprecedented or sui generis, nothing prospectively remedial could be calculated by Israel with genuine measures of decisional confidence.
In sum, though reluctantly, Israel will sometime have to accept a nuclear Iran as fait accompli, and then plan to suitably blunt corresponding or correlative security risks via refined deterrence. To accomplish this indispensable objective, Jerusalem will first need to back away from its traditionally successful preemption tactics and implement credible deterrence policies vis-à-vis Tehran at all levels of prospective conflict. These would range from major terrorist assault to country nuclear attack. Ipso facto, focusing exclusively on more explicitly immediate nuclear threats would ignore a core axiom of contemporary strategic planning: A “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack is not the only way in which Israel could become vulnerable to a nuclear war.
Left unreciprocated or unmanaged, even “only” a conventional military attack on Israel (including major terror attack) could conceivably escalate in increments to full-scale atomic conflict.
Whether or not the parties to the 14 July 2015 JCPOA are actually able to renegotiate or reinvigorate the original agreement on terms more favorable to Israel, expert diplomacy could usefully complement Jerusalem’s multi-faceted deterrence posture. Here, however, the Trump-era “Abraham Accords” should be considered as conspicuously minor augmentations. In the final analysis, let this analysis be clear, Iran will not be deterred from steady nuclearization by any US-contrived coalition of Sunni Arab foes cooperating with Israel.
Always, sensible defense policy requires vigorous antecedent thought.“Subjugating” Iran’s potentially nuclear assets “without fighting” does indeed represent Jerusalem’s only prudent and persuasive strategic option, but this sought-after subjugation must first be recognized as an inherently intellectual task. For Israel, as for any other beleaguered state on planet earth, political measures that are conceptualized and initiated by an allied country’s openly anti-intellectual leaders are likely without any tangible advantage. In the case of recent Trump-negotiated pacts for the Middle East, they could even be destined to fail.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy