Israel Can Curb a Nuclear Iran
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including "Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics" (The University of Chicago Press, 1980); "Mimicking Sisyphus: America's Countervailing Nuclear Strategy" (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1983); "Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy" (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1986); and "Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat" (Westview, 1987). In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel.
Israeli Shavit missile. Credit: ISA/Wiki Commons.
When, back in March of this year, he was interviewed on CBS's 60 Minutes, Meir Dagan, former chief of Israel's Mossad, stated: "The regime in Iran is a very rational one." Moments later, hedging a bit, Dagan admitted that it was "not exactly our rational." He then proceeded to hedge even further, indicating that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was "not exactly rational based on Western thinking."
What, exactly, was Meir Dagan saying? Reduced to its bare essentials, his statement claimed only that Iran's leadership displays some form of "logical thinking." Nothing more.
To be sure, there was literally nothing in his remarks to suggest that the regime in Tehran would consistently value collective survival as its highest goal.
Such an omission was plainly significant. This is because the rationale of strategic deterrence must always rest upon a uniformly presumed preeminence of national self-preservation. By definition, where such a presumption is absent, there can be no traditional deterrence.
Ideally, therefore, Iran would still be prevented from becoming a nuclear weapons state. After all, if we can accept Dagan's personal and somewhat eccentric assessment of enemy rationality, that country's prospective nuclear force commanders could ultimately choose to value certain preferences more highly than Iran's survival as a state. Such a scenario of failed nuclear threat dynamics is improbable, but it is not inconceivable.
Already, it is widely and authoritatively acknowledged that a nuclear Iran is a fait accompli. For several generally-discussed operational reasons, the remaining prospect of any viable and cost-effective preemption by Israel is exceedingly small. In consequence and also in compensation, there must now be heightened Israeli preparations for effective anti-missile defense, especially the Arrow and Iron Dome interceptors.
Less obviously, perhaps, there must take place, in stark contradiction to the traditionally prevailing notion that "irrational" adversaries cannot be deterred, the thoughtful and systematic implementation of new forms of deterrence.
What, exactly, does this mean? Irrationality is not the same as madness. Unlike a "crazy" or "mad" adversary, which would have no discernible order of preferences, an irrational Iranian leadership might still maintain a distinct and consistent hierarchy of wants. The pinnacle or very top of this hierarchy would almost certainly be represented by abundantly clear and widely held religious values.
Although such an Iranian leadership might not be successfully deterred by the more usual threats of military destruction -- because a canonical Shiite eschatology could genuinely welcome "end times" confrontations with "unbelievers" -- it might still refrain from any attacks that could elicit credible harms to its most basic religious values. An overriding Iranian concern for safeguarding the holy city of Qom, for example, comes immediately to mind.
It is also plausible that an Iranian leadership would simultaneously value certain of its prime military institutions, and could also be deterred by compelling and possibly coincident threats to these institutions. A pertinent consideration would be the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the power behind the Iranian dictatorship, the principal foe of the Iranian people, and the current leadership's main instrument of repression. Here, it could be purposeful for Jerusalem to hold at risk the Guard's physical facilities, its terrorist training camps, its navy of small attack boats, its missile program, the homes of its leaders, and even its space program.
Most civilian targets would be deliberately excluded from attack vulnerabilities, as would those particular military targets that were not identifiably Guard-related. Such a calculated exclusion would not only be in Israel's best overall strategic interests. It would also be necessary to ensure proper Israeli compliance with the law of war.
A nuclear Iran could be dangerous to Israel even if its leadership were entirely rational. Miscalculations, or errors in information, could still lead a perfectly rational Iranian adversary to strike first. In these unstable circumstances, the very best anti-missile defenses would prove thoroughly inadequate.
All active defenses require a near-100 percent reliability of intercept to be useful for any "soft-point" protection of cities. Naturally, as purely a matter of physics, such an extraordinary degree of reliability could never be expected. In such defensive systems, there would inevitably be intolerable "leakage."
If Iran were presumed to be rational, in the usual sense of valuing its national physical survival more highly than any other preference, of combination of preferences, Jerusalem could then begin to consider certain benefits of pretended irrationality. Years ago, Israeli General Moshe Dayan, had warned: "Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother." In this crude but effective metaphor, Dayan had already understood that, sometimes at least, it can be distinctly rational to feign irrationality.
An element of just such counter-intuitive reasoning may have been exhibited by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, during his handling of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Many years ago, when I was co-chairing a panel at the Naval Academy with Admiral Arleigh Burke, the former chief of naval operations repeated to me privately what had earlier been published by Ted Sorensen, JFK's biographer. Kennedy, confirmed Burke, had believed that his actions, a "quarantine" of Cuba, would entail potentially "even odds" of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
What if an Iranian adversary were presumed to be irrational in the sense of not caring most of all about its own national survival? In this case, there could be no discernible deterrence benefit to Israel in assuming a posture of pretended irrationality. Here, the more probable threat of a massive nuclear counterstrike by Israel would likely be no more persuasive in Tehran than if Iran's "Zionist" enemy were presumed to be totally 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 Jerusalem's current security concerns with Iran, the mounting strategic challenges from that country will be more apt to come from decision-makers who are not mad, and who are still more-or-less rational. Soon, with this particular idea in mind, an idea plainly accepted by Meir Dagan, Israel will need to fashion a more focused strategic doctrine from which essential policies and operations could be efficiently extrapolated.
This coherent framework for decision would identify and correlate all available strategic options (deterrence; preemption; active defense; strategic targeting; and nuclear war fighting) with critical national survival goals. It would also take very close account of possible interactions between these discrete but conceivably intersecting strategic options.
Purposefully calculating these interactions, or "synergies," will present Israel with a computational task on the very highest order of intellectual difficulty. In some cases, it may develop that the anticipated "whole" of Iranian-inflicted harms could be even greater than the technical sum of its discrete "parts."
Nuclear strategy is a "game" that sane and rational decision-makers must play, but to compete effectively, a would-be victor must always first assess 1) the expected rationality of each opponent; and 2) the probable costs and benefits of pretending irrationality oneself. These are undoubtedly complex, interpenetrating, and glaringly imprecise forms of assessment, critical judgments that will require a) corollary refinements in both intelligence and counter-intelligence; and b) carefully calculated, selectively partial, nuanced, and incremental movements away from longstanding policies of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
The moment it was determined that so-called "red lines" had failed to stop Iranian nuclearization, Israel would need to implement certain selected and partial nuclear disclosures.
For Israel, and perhaps tangentially for the United States, making these complex decisions correctly must be judged of altogether overriding importance.
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