Reconsidering Israel’s Nuclear Posture

October 16, 2013

7 min read

Louis Rene Beres

A nuclear weapons capable Iran would represent an existential threat to Israel, but not to the United States.

“For By Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War”
Proverbs  24,6


Should there be no eleventh-hour preemption against Iran’s developing nuclear weapon infrastructures, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his security cabinet will have to focus intently on the country’s longstanding policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. This is because effective nuclear deterrence against an already-nuclear Iran may then require certain selective confirmations of Israel’s usable, secure, and penetration-capable retaliatory forces., More exactly, should Israel find itself faced with a nuclear weapons fait accompli in Iran, the precise and optimal levels of Israeli nuclear disclosure  needed to contain this threat would then have to be based upon careful systematic examination.

To begin, some differentiations are necessary. A nuclear weapons capable Iran would represent an existential threat to Israel, but not to the United States. Recently, UN/US sanctions, which have already impacted Iran in certain tangible economic terms, are prompting a preliminary or newly exploratory discourse between Washington and Tehran. In consequence, Israel will quickly need to decide whether it can now place any reasonably enlarged faith in diplomatic solutions to Iran’s undimmed pursuit of nuclear weapons.

In all likelihood,  nothing can actually stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, other than physically destroying it. The core problem involves substantially more than Tehran’s intermittently expressed desire to eradicate Israel. It is, rather, a more general issue of Iranian national power.

Naturally, whenever a state possesses nuclear weapons, the other major actors in world politics will raise objections to that state’s actions and policies more prudently. The ongoing case of North Korea is a prime example. Confronting a more or less similarly closed society in Iran, the U.S. may not yet be in a position to reliably verify the processes and objectives of that country’s complex nuclear  program. Ominously, however, the time required to undertake diplomatic discussions could also provide the time needed by Iran to finalize its nuclear weapons capability.

And, once again, we Americans need to take special note of Russia. In part, Russia supports Iran because President Putin’s perceived Islamic problems are with particular Sunni, and not Shiite, Muslims.  Significantly, also, Mr. Putin’s international credibility is relatively high after his seeming rescue of Barack Obama from the American president’s publicly stated “Red Line” on Syrian chemical weapons. At least for the moment, President Obama is likely regarded as the “weaker horse” in the fragmented Middle East.

Amid all these complex developments, Israel will somehow have to determine the precise extent to which it must refine its national security policies on preemption, deterrence, and active defense. A core element here must involve a close examination of “deliberate ambiguity,” or the so-called “bomb in the basement.” To date, this policy has allegedly made eminently good sense.  After all, friends and enemies of the Jewish state apparently recognize that Israel possesses considerable nuclear capabilities that are both (1) survivable; and (2) capable of penetrating enemy air defense, and ballistic missile defense systems.

To be sure, Israel’s nuclear arsenal is governed by a very sophisticated command and control system, as well as a carefully conceived targeting doctrine. So, why change things? A partial answer may be discoverable in today’s chaotic instability in the Middle East, an instability resulting from ragged remnants of the so-called “Arab Spring.”

We may first consider Egypt, a country  “at peace” with Israel since 1979,  but also, after the army’s forcible removal of President Morsi, a country in unceremonious flux. Even now, the  possibility of  increased Islamist or Jihadist influence that could create distinct risks for Israel’s security cannot be ruled out. Moreover, such hazardous developments could arise not only in Egypt, but additionally, in Syria, still embroiled in civil war, or even in Saudi Arabia. In the case of the Saudis, faced with a potential Shia nuclear adversary in Tehran, there could even develop a growing incentive to “turn nuclear” themselves.

Also especially significant for Israeli security is the refractory and possibly intersecting issue of Palestinian statehood. Among other things, because no Palestinian leader has ever recognized the Jewish state of  Israel, a Palestinian state could pose an increased threat to Israel. Under international law, every state has the right to arm and defend itself.  Palestinian statehood could create a more worrisome base of operations for launching lethal terrorist attacks against Israel citizens. This reality, combined with a steadily deteriorating correlation of forces in the region generally, only adds to Israel’s security concerns.

A Palestinian state, of course, would start out and remain non-nuclear. However, when viewed together with Israel’s other regional foes, this new and 23rd Arab state could still have the consequential effect of becoming a “force multiplier.” This synergistic effect could impair Israel’s already-minimal strategic depth, and render the Jewish State more vulnerable to a panoply of  both conventional and unconventional attacks.

In this connection, what should Israel do about its ambiguous nuclear posture, and its associated order of  battle?

The conventional wisdom in such matters routinely assumes that credible nuclear deterrence is somehow an automatic consequence of holding nuclear weapons.  With this particular “wisdom,”  removing Israel’s bomb from the “basement”  (ending “deliberate ambiguity”) would elicit new waves of global condemnation.  It would do this, moreover, without returning any commensurate benefits. Yet, history reveals that conventional wisdom is often unwise.

The strategic issues facing Israel are not simple or straightforward.  In the always arcane world of Israel’s nuclear deterrence, it can never be adequate that enemy states simply acknowledge the Jewish State’s nuclear status.  It is important, as well, that these states believe Israel to hold usable and survivable nuclear weapons, and to be willing to employ these weapons in certain clear and readily identifiable, geo-strategic circumstances.

Current security instabilities in the Middle East, and also impending Palestinian statehood, create sound reasons for Israel to re-examine continuance of its nuclear ambiguity. Israel’s nuclear doctrine and corollary weapons are vital to various scenarios that may require conventional preemptive action, or even nuclear retaliation. The literal definition of doctrine derives from the Latin doctrina, meaning teaching, learning, and instruction.  Doctrine can serve a state as a critical form of communication, to alert both its friends and foes not just that it holds nuclear weapons, but also that these weapons are protected, suitable for use, and supported by decision-makers who are presumably willing to actually use them in war.

Skeptics may disagree, arguing insistently that nuclear ambiguity has “worked” thus far. This policy, they would underscore, has succeeded in keeping the country’s most recalcitrant enemies from mounting any authentically existential aggressions.
Still, as the nineteenth-century Prussian strategic theorist, Karl von Clausewitz, observed in his classic essay, On War, there can come a military tipping point when “mass counts.” Israel is geographically very small.  Its enemies have always had an undeniable advantage in “mass.” It follows that Israel must always be sure to remain the “strong horse.”

An integral part of Israel’s multi-layered security system lies in maintaining effective ballistic missile defenses, primarily, the Arrow or “Hetz.” Yet, even the well-regarded and successfully-tested Arrow, now augmented by the newer and shorter-range operations of “Iron Dome,” could never achieve a sufficiently high or “leak proof” probability of intercept, a condition needed  to protect Israeli civilians from the threat of nuclear attack The bottom line is this: Israel cannot accept a nuclear weapons capable enemy that could threaten it’s extinction.

This core position supports Israel’s altering its traditional reliance on complete nuclear ambiguity.  A newly-nuclear Iran would need to be assured that Israel’s atomic weapons were (1) invulnerable, (2) penetration-capable, (3) usable as a last resort response to any existential state attack upon Israel. This policy imperative also applies to any state that might provide WMDs for use by such regional Islamist militants/terrorists as Hezbollah or Hamas.

While stating that  a nuclear weapons capable Iran is unacceptable, neither the U.S. or Israel has somehow managed to create sufficient credibility concerning military preemptive action.   For Israel, such protective action could be justified  under the codified and authoritative criteria of anticipatory self-defense under international law. Of course, any Iranian counter actions could have a very decisive impact on the entire Middle East, and on U.S. access to the Persian Gulf.  The basic reality, at this late date, is that a  nuclear  weapons-capable Iran may already lie beyond any cost-effective preemptive action, and is, for all practical purposes, a strategic fait accompli.

What about the prospect of an irrational Iranian adversary? An Israeli move from ambiguity to selective disclosure still might not help in the improbable but conceivable case of an irrational nuclear enemy. In this connection, it remains possible that certain elements of Iranian leadership could subscribe to certain end-times visions of a Shiite apocalypse.  By definition, such an enemy might not value continued national survival more highly than the theologically-mandated eradication of Israel.

Under this fearful scenario, one can assume, segments of the Iranian leadership might leave the country, and it would be the Iranian people who would be directly imperiled. Here, Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm.  Such a destabilizing prospect is improbable, but, again, it is not inconceivable

We have argued that removing the bomb from Israel’s basement could enhance Israel’s strategic deterrence, to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of the unambiguously severe and likely risks involved in striking first. This should also bring to mind the so-called Samson Option response (a variant of Mutually Assured Destruction), which could allow various enemy decision-makers to note and emphasize that Israel is prepared to do whatever is needed to survive.  In terms of apt Samson imagery from the biblical Book of Judges, Israelis may die, but this time, at least, they would not die alone.

Irrespective of its preferred level of ambiguity, Israel’s nuclear strategy must always remain correctly oriented toward survival, with deterrence its preferred option,  not nuclear war-fighting.  Exercising a Samson Option could make sense only in “last-resort,” or “near last-resort,” circumstances. If the Samson Option were to become part of a credible national nuclear deterrent, some degree of change to Israel’s deliberate ambiguity policy would be in order.

The really tough part of any such transformational process would lie in determining the proper timing for such action, a nuanced judgment informed by Israel’s complex security requirements. Plainly, the reaction/opposition of the international community to such policy change could be alarming and dangerously energized. Israel, therefore, will need to take careful note.

When it is time for Israel to selectively ease away from its nuclear ambiguity, a fully-survivable, hardened, and dispersed strategic second-strike force should be recognizable by friend and foe. In essence, such a robust strategic force should make any rational foe understand that the actual costs of any planned nuclear aggressions against Israel would inevitably result in the assured  destruction of their own cities.

Even an irrational leadership would not necessarily be “crazy,” or “mad.” An irrational Iranian leadership could still have assorted preference orderings and values that remain both consistent and transitive. These preferences might be contained by credible Israeli threats of deterrence, ones that could threaten the survival of certain deeply held enemy religious values or structures. The difficulty for Israel, inter alia, will be to ascertain the precise nature and impact of these particular enemy values.

In the end, such determinations will be primarily strategic, and not merely jurisprudential. From the discrete standpoint of international law, however, especially in view of Iran’s periodic genocidal threats against Israel, a preemption option could represent an entirely permissible expression of anticipatory self-defense. This purely legal judgment would need to be separate from any parallel or coincident assessments of operational success.

Growing instability in the Middle East now heightens the potential for expansive wars, either by deliberateness, or by miscalculation. From the critical perspective of maintaining credible deterrence against a still-nuclearizing Iran, Israel should immediately reexamine and modify, as necessary, its historically longstanding policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.  This is already a vitally important strategic imperative.

By PROF. LOUIS RENÉ BERES AND ADMIRAL LEON EDNEY, Published in The Jerusalem Post.

Leon “Bud” Edney, Admiral (US Navy/ret.), served as Vice Chief of Naval Operations; NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic; and Commander-in-Chief, US Atlantic Command. Admiral Edney, who holds an advanced degree from Harvard, was also Distinguished Professor of Leadership at the US Naval Academy.

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