On January 16, 2003, the “Project Daniel” Group advised then- Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons.
This report, which
contained substantial legal and strategic recommendations, urged the prime
minister to suitably enhance Israel’s deterrence and defense postures; to
consider a prompt end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity (if Iran should be
permitted to become nuclear); and to appropriately refine pertinent preemption
options. It also concluded that Israel should not expect stable coexistence with
a nuclear Iran and that active national defense should be increased and
Israel’s active defense strategy involves
mutually reinforcing the Arrow, Iron Dome, and, in the future, Magic Wand
systems. To adequately protect against a potential WMD attack from Iran,
however, these advanced elements of ballistic missile defense are not enough.
They must be complemented by improved Israeli nuclear deterrence and a capacity
for viable conventional first strikes against selected Iranian military and
Under no circumstances, advised Project Daniel,
should Israel assume that a safe and durable “balance of terror” could ever be
created with Tehran.
Generally, in strategic thinking, deterrence logic
must be based on an assumption of enemy rationality. This assumption might not
always be warranted in the case of Iran. Any purported analogy between Iran and
the US deterrence relationship with the former Soviet Union would be facile, or
If Iran’s current leadership could somehow meet the
core test of rationality, always valuing national survival over other
preferences or combinations of preferences, there could still remain intolerable
security risks to Israel. In part, these risks would be associated with Tehran’s
expectedly problematic command and control of any future nuclear capabilities.
For example, even a determinedly rational Iranian leadership could base critical
nuclear decisions upon erroneous information, assorted computer errors, or
fragile predelegations of launch authority.
The related vulnerability of
command and control to violent regime overthrow in Tehran must also be taken
into account by decision makers in Jerusalem. Ironically, there can be no
assurances that any new or “improved” regime in Iran would necessarily pose a
diminished security threat to Israel.
IF ISRAEL’S active defense systems
were presumed to be 100 percent effective, even an irrational Iranian adversary
armed with nuclear or biological weapons could be kept at bay without defensive
first strikes or any threats of retaliation. But no ballistic missile defense
system can ever be “leak proof.”
Terrorist proxies in ships or trucks,
not missiles, could deliver Iranian nuclear attacks upon Israel. In such
low-tech, but distinctly high consequence assaults, there would be no security
benefit to Israel from its deployed anti-missile defenses.
never depend entirely upon its anti-ballistic missiles to defend against future
WMD attacks from Iran any more than it can rely entirely on nuclear deterrence.
This does not mean that active defense is a less than vital part of Israel’s
larger security apparatus.
It is vital, but it is not
Every state has a right under international law to act
preemptively when facing potentially existential aggression.
Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice even extends such lawful
authority to the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in certain residual or
last-resort circumstances. For now, however, any purposeful Israeli resort to
“anticipatory self-defense” would surely be non-nuclear.
is quite likely that the operational window for any such cost-effective
conventional tactic has already closed and that Israel would decline any
remaining nuclear preemption option, albeit lawful. For now it seems that any
Israeli “preemption” would necessarily be far more limited, perhaps involving
the targeted killing of selected enemy scientists or military figures and
substantially expanded cyber-warfare.
If Iran should be allowed to become
nuclear, in plain contravention of its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations,
Israel would immediately need to enhance the credibility of its (presumed)
nuclear deterrent. This robust second-strike strategic force, hardened,
multiplied and dispersed, would have to be fashioned, observably, to inflict a
decisive retaliatory blow against selected enemy cities. In military terms, this
means for Israel a more openly counter value-targeted nuclear
Significantly, the dangers of a nuclear Iran could directly impact
While it might still be several years before any Iranian missiles
could strike American territory, the US could still become as vulnerable as
Israel to certain nuclear-armed terrorist surrogates.
In this connection,
any American plan for a “rogue state” anti-ballistic missile shield, for us, and
for our NATO allies, would have precisely the same limited protection benefits
as Israel’s already-deployed active defense systems.
As long as Iran
proudly announces its literally genocidal intentions toward Israel, while
simultaneously and illegally developing nuclear weapons and infrastructures,
Jerusalem has no reasonable choice but to protect itself with the best means
Under longstanding international law, every government’s most
basic and incontestable obligation is the assurance of protection to its
citizens.The writer is professor of international law at Purdue
University. He is the author of many major books, articles and monographs on
nuclear strategy and nuclear war. This piece originally appeared on the
Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies website.