Nuclear deterrence is a game that even sane, rational governments may have to
play, but there can be no assurance that enemies will always be rational. This
presents a grave security problem, because the entire logic of nuclear
deterrence rests squarely on the assumption that each state will always value
its continued survival more highly than anything else. It follows that even a
nuclear-weapons state able to destroy an aggressor after suffering an enemy
first-strike attack could still lose the game.
A nuclear Iran is pretty
much a fait accompli. For Israel, soon to be deprived of any remaining
costeffective preemption options, this means forging a strategy to coexist with
a nuclear Iran. This essential strategy of nuclear deterrence will call for
reduced ambiguity about its strategic forces; enhanced and partially disclosed
nuclear targeting options; substantial and partially disclosed programs for
active defenses; recognizable steps to ensure the survivability of its nuclear
retaliatory forces; and, to bring all these elements together, a comprehensive
In addition, because of the logical possibility of
enemy irrationality, Israel’s military planners must continue to identify
suitable ways of ensuring that even a nuclear “suicide state” can be deterred.
Such a perilous threat is very small, but it is not negligible. And although the
probability of having to face such an irrational enemy state is low, the
probable harm of any single deterrence failure could be intolerably
Israel needs to maintain and strengthen its plans for
ballistic-missile defense (the Arrow system), and also for Iron Dome, designed
to guard against shorter-range rocket attacks. Still, these systems – including
Magic Wand, which is still in the development phase – will inevitably have
“leakage.” Their principal benefit, therefore, must ultimately lie in enhanced
deterrence rather than in any added physical protection.
For example, a
newly-nuclear Iran, if still rational, would require steadily increasing numbers
of offensive missiles to achieve a sufficiently destructive first-strike
capability. Significantly, however, there could come a time when Iran will be
able to deploy far more than a small number of nuclear-tipped missiles. Should
that happen, Arrow, Iron Dome and, potentially, Magic Wand could cease their
critical contribution to Israeli nuclear deterrence.
What if the leaders
of a newly-nuclear Iran do not meet the expectations of rational behavior? What
if this leadership does not consistently value Iran’s national survival more
highly than any other preference?
In such unprecedented circumstances, Israel’s
leaders would need to look closely at two eccentric and more-or-less untried
deterrence strategies, possibly in tandem with one another. First, they would
have to understand that even an irrational Iranian leadership could have
distinct hierarchies of preferences. Their task would be to determine precisely
what these preferences might be (most likely, they would have to do with certain
religious goals), and how these preferences are apt to be ranked in
Second, Israel’s leaders would have to determine the likely
deterrence benefit of their own perceived irrationality. An irrational Iranian
enemy could be less likely to strike first if it felt Israel’s decision-makers
were also irrational.
Years ago, Gen. Moshe Dayan, then the minister of
defense, said: “Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother.”
Here, Dayan revealed an intuitive awareness of the possible benefits of feigned
There is an antecedent point. Before Israel’s leaders can
proceed with any usable plans for deterring an irrational nuclear adversary,
they must first be convinced that this adversary is in fact irrational, and not
merely pretending irrationality.
Because all specific Israeli deterrence
policies must be premised on the presumed rationality or irrationality of nuclear enemies, ascertaining precise
enemy preferences should become the very first phase of strategic planning. It
goes without saying that Israel’s usual military assets should be carefully
augmented by collaboration with its wider intelligence
Finally, as a newly-nuclear Iran could decide to share some of
its fissile material with assorted terrorist groups, Israel’s leaders may also
have to deal with irrational nuclear enemies at the sub-state level. This
prospect is likely much greater than that of irrationality at the national
level. At the same time, the harm suffered from nuclear terror would probably be
Soon, facing the prospect of a nuclear Iran, Israel
must select refined and workable options to deal with two separate but
interpenetrating levels of danger. Should Iranian leaders be judged to meet the
usual tests of rationality, Israel will have to focus especially on taking its
Bomb out of the “basement,” and on developing a retaliatory force that is
appropriately hardened and dispersed. This secondstrike nuclear force, counter
value, not counter-force targeted, should be recognizably ready to inflict
assured destruction against enemy cities.
Where Israel’s leaders
determine that they may have to deter an irrational enemy leadership, they will
also have to consider the possible strategic benefits of appearing to be a “mad
dog.” Together with any such consideration, both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv civilian
and military leaders will need to determine what exactly is valued most highly
by the country’s enemies, and then prepare to issue fully credible threats to
these enemy preferences.
Whether Iran’s leadership is rational or
irrational, Israel will need to continue with its expanding programs for
cyber-defense and cyber-war.
In the past, a nuclear Iran could still have
been prevented. But today, in the likely absence of any remaining options for
“anticipatory self-defense,” Israel’s best available choice will be to deter an
already nuclear Iran. Should it succeed in this indispensable objective, the
security benefits would accrue not only to Israel itself, but also to the United
States. Louis René Beres is professor of political science and international
law at Purdue University. He was chair of Project Daniel (Israel).Gen.
John T. Chain was commander-in-chief of the US Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC)
and director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff. He has also served as
chief of staff for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and as director
of the US State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs.