After Obama's diplomatic initiative: Israel, Iran and nuclear War

Mr. Netanyahu is anything but naive. Naturally, he knows that Israel can never depend upon President Obama's diplomatic "good offices," no matter how open and well-intentioned they might first appear.

The Arak reactor, 190 kilometers southwest of Tehran 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
The Arak reactor, 190 kilometers southwest of Tehran 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
US President Barack Obama recently opened a new diplomatic front with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Significantly, the key focus of this possible reconciliation between two historic adversaries concerns Iran's ongoing nuclear program. For his part, Mr. Rouhani is adamant that his country does not seek nuclear weapons. As an immediate quid pro quo for this seemingly conciliatory posture, Iran expects a prompt American relaxation of sanctions.
President Obama, of course, wants verifiable assurances that Rouhani's actual nuclear policies will be fully consistent with his remarkable promises.
Is this a reasonable, or a premature American expectation? Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu plainly expects no tangible changes from Tehran. On the contrary, as we learned from both his late September White House visit with President Obama, and from his just-delivered UN General Assembly speech in New York on October 1, Netanyahu remains convinced that Iran has no discernible intention to roll-back its nuclear weapons program. According to Jerusalem, Iranian plans for uranium enrichment, however inconspicuous, are still being maintained at levels consistent only with the planned manufacture of nuclear arms. Also worrisome, is Iran's steady work on a heavy-water reactor that could supply enough weapons-grade plutonium for several nuclear bombs each year.
Mr. Netanyahu is anything but naive. Naturally, he knows that Israel can never depend upon President Obama's diplomatic "good offices," no matter how open and well-intentioned they might first appear. He also understands that Israel's ultimate security will continue to rest upon the perceived adequacy of his beleaguered country's appropriate military preparations.
In the Middle East, a nuclear war would resemble any other incurable disease. The only real hope for this "pathology" must lie in prevention. More precisely, Israel requires a coherent and comprehensive strategic doctrine, one that can suitably combine all essential elements of deterrence, war fighting, and defense.
Now, more than ever, Israel’s only hope for long-term survival will depend upon a well-reasoned nuclear strategy, a platform from which a broad spectrum of particular operations and tactics could be suitably extracted.
Whatever diplomatic agreements might ultimately be hammered out between Washington and Tehran, any incremental nuclear advancement in Iran would still carry serious and possibly unprecedented risks for Israel. Recognizing this, Jerusalem’s political and military leadership is already examining and updating intersecting segments of its presently undeclared and largely un-codified strategic doctrine. Incontestably, fitting these diverse pieces together in a fashion that could reliably prevent enemy nuclear aggression is now Israel's core policy concern.
Irrespective of any new great power diplomacy, Israel's still-emerging nuclear strategy of survival must continue to be founded upon realistic assumptions of probable enemy aggression. With special regard to Iran, these assumptions must include even outright enemy irrationality. After all, an irrational nuclear adversary could decide to initiate WMD-warfare against Israel, without any regard for the expected retaliatory consequences. Although the appearance of any Iranian "suicide-bomber in macrocosm" is highly improbable, it is not inconceivable.
While generally unacknowledged, there is also a related issue of Palestinian statehood. If, following still-strong American support, a twenty-third Arab sovereignty were declared in the not-too-distant future - a declaration following upon an earlier UN elevation of the Palestinian Authority to the status of a "non-member observer state" - “Palestine” could then become an optimal platform for future war and terrorism against Israel. Here, the more-or-less simultaneous appearance of Palestine with unhindered Iranian nuclearization could represent an especially corrosive "synergy" for Israel. In more narrowly military parlance, this synergy could have the injurious effect of representing an anti-Israel "force multiplier."
What if Israel were also expected, perhaps even by Washington, to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1968) as a non-nuclear member state? Once an Iranian enemy state and its sub-state allies believed that Israel had been bent sufficiently to vocal denuclearization demands, military strategy against Israel could quickly progress from terror to mega-terror, from war to mega-war, and from attrition to annihilation. In this respect, any cooperative expression of Israeli compliance with Washington's well-intentioned demands could represent the last nail in Israel's coffin.
Lest anyone think that Israeli unilateral nuclear disarmament is preposterous, consider that certain of that country's "leading" academic strategists continue to make this recommendation. Naturally, this particular sentiment is also strongly shared and endorsed by Barack Obama.
Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to imagine nuclear weapons as anything other than inherently evil. Yet, there are clearly some circumstances wherein a state's possession of such weapons could be all that protects it from catastrophic war or genocide. Israel is already the most obvious case in point.
In its Advisory Opinion on 8 July 1996, The International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled: “The Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense….” Where “…the very survival of a State would be at stake…” said the ICJ, even the actual use of nuclear weapons could be permissible.
Israel is not Iran. Israel has issued no threats of aggressive war or genocide; it has not even acknowledged its extant nuclear capabilities. Not all members of the Nuclear Club are a menace of instability. Some may offer a distinct benefit to world peace. This point should already be apparent to anyone who can remember the Cold War.
Should it ever be deprived of its nuclear forces, Israel could become immediately vulnerable to overwhelming attacks from certain enemy states, most likely, a now-nuclear Iran. Although such an existential vulnerability might be prevented, in principle, by instituting parallel forms of chemical/biological weapons disarmament among these enemy states, such parallel steps would never actually take place. In essence, any Israeli steps toward WMD disarmament would almost certainly be unreciprocated.
With nuclear weapons and a corollary nuclear strategy, Israel could deter a rational enemy’s unconventional attacks, as well as most large conventional aggressions. With such weapons, Israel could also launch certain non-nuclear preemptive strikes against enemy state hard targets that would threaten Israel's annihilation. Without these weapons, any such acts of anticipatory self-defense would likely represent the onset of a much wider war. This is because there would remain no compelling threat of an Israeli counter-retaliation.
Israel's alleged nuclear weapons represent an indispensable impediment to any area use of nuclear weapons. Together with a more coherent Israeli strategic doctrine, these weapons are actually the entire region’s first line of defense against nuclear war. Integral to this needed doctrine will be certain carefully calculated steps away from Israel's longstanding policy of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity" (the so-called "bomb in the basement"), and toward some very selective forms of "nuclear disclosure."
The purpose of this prescribed policy shift would not be to confirm the obvious, that is, that Israel merely has "the bomb." Rather, it would be to ensure that Iran will consistently recognize Israeli nuclear weapons as distinctly usable, invulnerable, and capable of penetrating its own active defenses. To be sure, in order to maintain a purposeful nuclear deterrent, Israel must also be able to convince Iran that it has the persistent willingness to fire certain of its nuclear weapons in prompt retaliation for any Iranian nuclear first-strike aggressions.
Whatever rapprochement might soon develop between Washington and Tehran, nothing should prevent Jerusalem from implementing these changes, and from maintaining and further strengthening its independent nuclear deterrent.------------LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue, he was Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003).