Facing Iran on its Own

In core matters of war and peace, timing is everything. For Israel, now cheerlessly confirmed in its long-held view that U.S.-led diplomacy with Iran was misconceived, future strategic options should be determined with great care. In essence, this means that the beleaguered mini-state’s nuclear policies, going forward, should be extrapolated from carefully fashioned doctrine, and not assembledad hoc, or “on the fly,” in assorted and more-or-less discrete reactions to periodic crises.

More precisely, should Israel decide to decline any residual preemption options, and prepare instead for aptly reliable and protracted dissuasion of its nearly-nuclear Iranian adversary, several corresponding decisions would be necessary. These closely-intersecting judgments would concern a still-expanding role for multilayered ballistic missile defense,[1] and also, a well-reasoned and incremental discontinuance of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.[2]

In this connection, among other things, Jerusalem will need to convince Tehran that Israel’s nuclear forces are (1) substantially secure from all enemy first-strike attacks,[3] and (2) entirely capable of penetrating all enemy active defenses.[4]

To succeed with any policy of long-term deterrence, a nearly-nuclear Iran would first need to be convinced that Israel’s nuclear weapons were actually usable. In turn, this complex task of strategic persuasion would require some consciously nuanced efforts to remove “the bomb” from Israel’s “basement.” One specific reason for undertaking any such conspicuous removal would be to assure Iranian decision-makers that Israeli nuclear weapons were not only abundantly “real,” but also amenable to variable situational calibrations.

The strategic rationale of such assurance would be to convince Iran that Israel stands ready to confront widely-different degrees of plausible enemy threat.

In the “good old days” of the original U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War  (we may now be on the brink of “Cold War II”), such tangibly measured strategiccalculations had been granted their own specific name. Then, the proper term was “escalation dominance.” Early on, therefore, it had been understood, by both superpowers, that adequate security from nuclear attack must always include not only mutually-reinforcing or “synergistic” protections against “bolt-from-the-blue” missile attacks, but also the avoidance of unwitting or uncontrolled escalations. Such unpredictably rapid jumps in coercive intensity, it had already been noted, could too-quickly propel certain determined adversaries from “normally” conventional engagements to atomic war.

Occasionally, especially in many-sided strategic calculations, truth can be counter-intuitive. On this point, regarding needed Israeli preparations for safety from a nearly-nuclear Iran,[5] there exists an obvious, but still generally overlooked, irony. It is that in all foreseeable circumstances of nuclear deterrence, the credibility of pertinent Israeli threats could sometimes vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. This suggests, at a minimum, that one distinctly compelling reason for moving deliberately from nuclear ambiguity to certain limited forms of nuclear disclosure would be to communicate the following vital message to Iran: Israel’s retaliatory nuclear weapons are not too destructive for actual operational use.

Soon, Israel’s decision-makers will need to proceed more self-consciously and explicitly on rendering another important judgment. This closely-related decision would concern making an essentially fundamental strategic choice between “assured destruction” and “nuclear war fighting” postures. To draw upon appropriate military parlance, assured destruction strategies are those postures generally referred to as “counter-value” or “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) strategies.

Nuclear war fighting strategies, on the other hand, are more typically synonymous with “counterforce .”

In principle, counter-value and counterforce strategies represent seemingly alternative theories of deterrence, differential nuclear postures in which a state chooses to primarily target its strategic nuclear weapons on either its presumed enemy’s “soft” civilian populations and supporting infrastructures, or on that same enemy’s “hard” military assets. Although presumptively in prima facie violation of humanitarian international law, or the law of armed conflict (because counter-value doctrine would apparently disregard, by definition, the binding legal obligations of “distinction”), it is still reasonable to recall another relevant argument: Favoring counter-value targeting doctrines could more persuasively reduce the probability of a nuclear war.

Significantly, this means that any Israeli commitment to assured destruction strategies could ultimately prove less corrosive, and more humane.

It is also plausible that a geographically vulnerable state lacking Clausewitzian “mass,[6] and contemplating “counter-value versus counterforce” targeting issues, would opt for some sort or other of “mixed” strategy. In any event, whichever nuclear deterrence strategy Israel might actually decide to choose, what would only matter is what Iran itself would perceive as real. Always, in matters of nuclear strategy, the only decisional reality is perceived reality.

In choosing between two core nuclear targeting alternatives, Israel could decide to opt for nuclear deterrence based primarily upon assured destruction strategies. Reciprocally, however, looking at the negative consequences column, Jerusalem could thereby invite an enlarged risk of “losing” any nuclear war that might sometime arise. For the most part, this is true because counter-value-targeted nuclear weapons are not designed to efficiently destroy military targets.

If, on the other hand, Israel were to opt for nuclear deterrence based primarily upon counterforce capabilities, Iran could then feel especially threatened, a potentially precarious condition that could subsequently heighten the prospect of an enemy first-strike, and thereby, of an eventual nuclear exchange.

In these particular matters, assorted “intervening variables” must also be considered. Israel’s strategic decisions on counter-value versus counterforce doctrines should depend, at least in part, on certain priorinvestigations of: (1) enemy state inclinations to strike first; and (2) enemy state inclinations to strike all-at-once, or in stages.

Should Israeli strategic planners assume that an already-nuclear Iran is apt to strike first, and to strike in an unlimited fashion (that is, to fire all or most of its nuclear weapons, right away), Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads, used in retaliation, could hit only empty silos/launchers. Anticipating such manifestly unfavorable circumstances, Israel’s only reasonable application of counterforce doctrine would then be to strike first itself.

Nonetheless, any idea of an Israeli nuclear preemption, even if technically “rational” and legal, would likely be dismissed out-of-hand in Jerusalem.

Concerning specific jurisprudential issues of law and nuclear weapons use, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, in a landmark 1996 Advisory Opinion, ruled that nuclear weapons could sometimes be used permissibly, but only in those largely residual circumstances where the “very survival of a state would be at stake.”

If, as now seems most likely, Israel were to reject all conceivable preemption options, there would be no compelling reason for Jerusalem to opt for a counterforce strategy vis-à-vis Iran. Rather, from the discernibly critical standpoint of persuasive intra-war deterrence, a counter-value strategy would likely prove more appropriate.

With this in mind, The Project Daniel Group, in 2004, had urged Israel to “focus its (second-strike) resources on counter-value warheads….”[7] This earlier suggestion still makes perfect sense today.

Should Israeli planners assume that an already-nuclear Iran is apt to strike first, but, for whatever reason, to strike “only” in a limited fashion, holding some measure of nuclear firepower in reserve for anticipated follow-on strikes, Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads might display damage-limiting benefits. Moreover, such counterforce targeting preparations could serve an Israeli conventional preemption, either as a compelling counter-retaliatory threat, or, should Israel decide not to preempt, as a threatened Israeli retaliation.

For example, should a conventional Israeli defensive first-strike be intentionally limited, perhaps because it would have been coupled together with a calculated quid-pro-quo of no further destruction, in exchange for an enemy cessation of hostilities, recognizable counterforce targeting preparations could serve to reinforce an Israeli counter-retaliatory strike.

Here, Israel’s attempt at intra-war deterrence could fail, thus occasioning the need for additional follow-on damage limiting strikes.

Israeli preparations for nuclear war-fighting should never be interpreted as a distinct alternative to nuclear deterrence. Instead, such preparations should always be considered as essential and integral components of Israeli nuclear deterrence.[8] The overriding purpose of Israel’s nuclear forces, whether still ambiguous, or newly disclosed, must consistently be deterrence, not any actual military engagement. In principle, of course, nuclear war-fighting scenarios are not ipso facto out-of-the-question, but they should always be rejected by Israel where still possible.

Si vis pacem, para bellum atomicum. “If you want peace, prepare for atomic war.”

In the still-valid counsel of Project Daniel: “The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.” Or, conceptualized in the historically antecedent language of Sun-Tzu, the ancient Chinese military thinker, Israel should be guided by the following sound maxim: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is always the true pinnacle of excellence.”[9]

Yet, even at this late date, there are existentially menacing circumstances that could sometime turn a rational Israeli prime minister toward preemption. These are prospectively catastrophic circumstances wherein sustained and stable nuclear deterrence with Iran is expected to be highly improbable, or even inconceivable.

If Israeli leadership should have corollary doubts about Iranian decisional rationality, it could still make strategic sense to launch certain appropriately defensive first strike attacks. This calculation would obtain, moreover, even if the expected retaliatory and public relations consequences for Israel would expectedly be overwhelming.

There are two final and closely-related observations.

First, even if it could be assumed, by Israel, that Iranian leaders will always seek to act rationally, this would ignore the accuracy of information used to make rational decisions. Rationality, in all strategic calculations, refers only to the intention of maximizing preferences. It says nothing about whether or not the information used is correct or incorrect.

This means that perfectly rational Iranian leaders could sometime make errors in calculation that would lead them to launch an aggressive war against Israel.[10]

Second, Iranian leaders could sometime be irrational, but this would not mean that they were also mad or “crazy.” Rather, in all pertinent matters, an irrational national decision is “merely” one which does not place the very highest value upon national survival. For a relevant example, Iranian decision-makers could sometime choose to act upon a preference-ordering that values destruction of the Jewish State and the corollary fulfillment of presumed religious expectations more highly than the Shiite republic’s physical existence.

In principle, at least, faced with just such an irrational adversary, Israel might still manage to forge a successful plan for deterrence. Here, however, Jerusalem would first need to base its discernibly calculable threats upon those particular and identifiable religious institutions or infrastructures held most sacred in Tehran.

When the ancient Greek leader, Pericles, delivered his famous Funeral Oration, with its ritualistic praise of Athenian civilization – a speech we know today by way of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War – his perspective was openly strategic. Long before military calculations had ever needed to include nuclear weapons, and about a half-century after the Persian (Iranian) defeat of Greece at Thermopylae by Xerxes, Pericles had already understood the vital connections between enemy power and self-inflicted error. “What I fear more than the  strategies of our enemies,” Pericles had presciently warned, “is our own mistakes.”

There is a important lesson here for Israel: Looking beyond the just-completed nuclear agreement with Iran, do not forget that the cumulative harms ensuing from this significant diplomatic failure will ultimately depend upon Israel’s own selected responses.[11] To best ensure the most suitable responses, Jerusalem should first be certain to fashion a theoretically-refined[12] and appropriately flexible strategic doctrine.


[1] See, on this role: Louis René Beres and (Major-General/IDF/Res.) Isaac Ben-Israel, “Think Anticipatory Self-Defense,” The Jerusalem Post, October 22, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “The Limits of Deterrence,”Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” Washington Times, June 10, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack,” Washington Times, January 27, 2009; and Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “Defending Israel from Iranian Nuclear Attack,” The Jewish Press, March 13, 2013. See, also: Louis René Beres and (General/USAF/Ret.) John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran,” The Atlantic, August 9, 2012; Professor Beres and General Chain, “Living With Iran,” BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Israel, May 2014; and Louis René Beres and (Lt. General/USAF/Ret.) Thomas McInerney, “Obama’s Inconceivable, Undesirable, Nuclear-Free Dream,” US News & World Report, August 29, 2013.

[2] See, on such discontinuance: Louis René Beres, “Like Two Scorpions in a Bottle: Could Israel and a Nuclear Iran Coexist in the Middle East,” The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 8., No. 1, 2014, pp. 23-32; Louis RenéBeres, “Facing Myriad Enemies: Core Elements of Israeli Nuclear Deterrence,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. XX, Issue 1., Fall/Winter 2013, pp. 17-30; Louis René Beres, “Lessons for Israel from Ancient Chinese Military Thought: Facing Iranian Nuclearization with Sun-Tzu,” Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, 2013; Louis René Beres, “Striking Hezbollah-Bound Weapons in Syria: Israel’s Actions Under International Law,” Harvard National Security Journal, 2013; and Louis René Beres, “Looking Ahead: Revising Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity in the Middle East,” Herzliya Conference, 2013, March 2013; IDC/Herzliya.

[3] Recently, improved security for Israeli nuclear forces has been associated with enhanced sea-basing options. See, on these options: Louis René Beres and (Admiral/USN/ret.) Leon “Bud” Edney, “Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine-Basing,” The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014; and Professor Beres and Admiral Edney, “A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel,” Washington Times, September 5, 2014.

[4] See Professor Beres and Admiral Edney, “What Now For Israel: What are the Jewish State’s security options after the Iran Nuclear Agreement?”, US News & World Report, July 14, 2015.

[5] On July 23, 2014, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, called openly for the annihilation of Israel. See: Y. Mansharof, E. Kharrazi, Y. Lahat, and A. Savyon, “Quds Day in Iran: Calls for Annihilation of Israel and Arming the West Bank,” MEMRI, July 25, 2014, Inquiry and Analysis Series Report, No. 1107. In its July 2015 agreement with Iran, the U.S. included no contingent requirement that Iran first reject such expressly genocidal intentions. Jurisprudentially, it is significant that precisely such a requirement is deducible from the authoritative 1948Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In other words, by not insisting upon such a requirement, the U.S. was acting in violation of its own antecedent treaty obligations.

[6] See Karl von Clausewitz, On War.

[7] See: Israel’s Strategic Future: Project Daniel, The Project Daniel Group, Louis René Beres, Chair, Ariel Center for Policy Research, ACPR Policy Paper No. 155, Israel, May 2004, 64 pp.

[8] Herman Kahn’s instructive comment many years back stipulates: “It is incorrect and unproductive to categorically accuse those who subscribe to war-fighting concepts either of wanting to fight a nuclear war, or of having less interest in deterrence.” See Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 43.

[9] In heeding this ancient counsel, Israeli decision-makers will always have to bear in mind the totality of the Iranian threat, that is, the direct perils of a nuclear missile attack, and also the indirect risks issuing from assorted Iranian surrogates. Most plainly, Iranian surrogate power resides in the Shiite militia, Hezbollah, which now operates out of Syria, as well as Lebanon; in the government and its derivative militias in Iraq; in Shiite Houthi rebels, now expanding their control across Yemen; and even in Sunni Hamas, which sometimes represents specifically Iranian preferences and expectations in Palestinian Gaza. Significantly, the cumulative impact of Iranian-posed direct and indirect threats to Israel is plausibly greater than the simple sum of its parts –  in other words, this injurious impact is authentically synergistic.

[10] For pertinent law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, and U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and Charter of the United Nations, Art. 51., Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force, for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat., 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans, 1153, 1976, and Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[11] In this connection, Israel must conspicuously augment its comprehensive deterrence posture with expanding active defenses. At the same time, however, the country’s leaders must bear in mind that any such augmentation ought not to override its obligations to be proactive or audacious. “Defensive warfare,” wrote Clausewitz, “does not consist of waiting idly for things to happen. We must wait only if it brings us visible and decisive advantages.” In a further observation that could have been composed in a direct warning to modern Israel about a nuclearizing Iran, the Prussian military thinker went on insightfully: “That calm before the storm, when the aggressor is gathering new forces for a great blow, is most dangerous for the defender.”

[12] “Theories are nets,” said the German poet, Novalis, “and only those who cast, will catch.”

First published in Israel National News


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