Israel knows that the Iranian president’s exterminatory threat is real. In law, this threat signifies the intent to commit genocide. Israel also recognizes that the pre-emptive destruction of Iran’s growing nuclear infrastructures would involve serious operational and international difficulties. For interception, Israel has deployed elements of the tested Arrow system of ballistic missile defense, but even the Arrow would have “leakage.” A single incoming nuclear missile that manages to penetrate Arrow could promptly kill 25,000-50,000 civilians, and even more if we include long-term fatalities. Iran could also share its nuclear assets with terror groups that would use cars and ships rather than missiles as delivery vehicles. These enemies might seek nuclear targets in New York or Chicago as well as Israel.
Iran now augments its declared intent with a corresponding capacity. Left to violate binding treaty rules with impunity, Tehran might be undeterred by threats of Israeli and/or American retaliation. Such a failure of nuclear deterrence could be the result of a presumed lack of threat credibility or even of willful Iranian indifference. Iran could even become the suicide bomber in macrocosm, a nuclear-armed state willing to “die” as a “martyr.”
Iran’s illegal nuclearization has already started a perilous domino effect in the region. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have announced possible plans to develop nuclear capability “for peaceful purposes.” Strategic stability in a proliferating Middle East could never resemble earlier U.S.-Soviet deterrence dynamics. Even the key assumption of rationality might be unwarranted.
A nuclear Iran could therefore lead to a nuclear war in the Middle East. Israel will need to choose wisely between “assured destruction” and “nuclear war-fighting.” These are alternative strategies in which one side primarily targets its strategic weapons on the other side’s populations and infrastructures or on that enemy state’s weapons systems and supporting military assets. Israel could also opt for a “mixed” strategy, but any targeting policy that might encourage nuclear war- fighting would be more costly than gainful.
Israel should opt for nuclear deterrence based upon assured destruction. A counterforce targeting doctrine would be less persuasive as a nuclear deterrent, especially to leaders who might sacrifice their armies as “martyrs.” And if Israel were to opt for nuclear deterrence based upon counterforce capabilities, its pertinent enemies could feel especially threatened. This could heighten the prospect of nuclear aggression against Israel and of subsequent nuclear war.
Israel’s decisions on strategic targeting will depend, in part, on: (1) enemy inclinations to strike first; and (2) enemy inclinations to strike all at once. Should Israel assume that an enemy state in the process of “going nuclear” is apt to strike first and to strike with all of its nuclear weapons right away, Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads — used in retaliation — would hit only empty launchers. In such circumstances, Israel’s only application of counterforce doctrine would be to strike first itself — an option that Israel clearly and completely rejects. For intrawar deterrence, a counter-value strategy would prove more appropriate to prompt war termination.
Should Israeli planners assume that an enemy country “going nuclear” is apt to strike first and in stages, Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads could have damage-limiting benefits. Here, counterforce operations could appear to serve both an Israeli non-nuclear preemption or an Israeli retaliatory strike. But the assumption about enemy self-limitation is itself implausible.
Thoughtful steps are needed to prevent a regional nuclear war. These will require awareness of how a nuclear war might start in the Middle East, and an informed Israeli identification of the best available strategic doctrine. To protect itself against a still-nuclearizing and recalcitrant Iran, Israel’s best course may well be a prompt and law-enforcing conventional pre-emption.
Without pre-emption, if Iran goes nuclear, Israel could feel compelled to end its policy of nuclear ambiguity. Taking the “bomb out of the basement” could allow Israel to enhance its strategic deterrent, but Jerusalem could still never be quite certain of enemy rationality.
Every state has the right to defend against aggression, especially where attacks would involve mass-destruction weapons. Now facing the risk of genocidal war from Iran, Israel would not itself consider the first use of nuclear weapons. But should Iranian nuclear weapons ever be unleashed against Israel’s cities, either directly or via terrorist proxies, Tehran should understand fully that Israel would respond with at least proportionate destructiveness.
Louis Rene Beres is professor of political science at Purdue University and an author specializing in international law and nuclear policy. Isaac Ben-Israel, a retired major general with the Israeli military, is professor of security studies at Tel Aviv University and chairman of the Israel Space Agency.
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