What to do about an ‘old wound’: Iran, Israel and nuclear war

At a minimum, the new president's image of Israel should be taken as an indication that a nuclear weapons capable Iran must remain unacceptable to Israel and the US.

Hassan Rouhani Iran flag in background 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
Hassan Rouhani Iran flag in background 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
On August 2, just ahead of his inauguration, Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, called Israel an "old wound." The festering metaphor was deliberate, and may have referred to his predecessor's recurrent plea that Israel be made to disappear. While this reference to Israel by Rouhani may not signal any clear expansion of Iranian belligerence toward Israel, it should still be interpreted soberly in Jerusalem.
At a minimum, the new president's image of Israel should be taken as an indication that a nuclear weapons capable Iran must remain unacceptable to Israel and the US. Whether by design or miscalculation, a nuclear capable Iran would significantly increase the risk for a nuclear exchange in the Middle East.
For the participants, a nuclear war would have essentially the same effect as any other incurable disease.  Faced with such a terminal "pathology," the primary course for Israel’s survival should always lie in prevention. Israel, therefore, must fashion a coherent strategic doctrine that can suitably combine all essential elements of deterrence, preemption, war fighting, cyber-defense, and missile defense.
On several occasions, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared before the UN the existential danger to Israel from a nuclear capable Iran. Famously, he demonstrated that there are conspicuous "red lines" which cannot be crossed.  Recognizing this, Jerusalem’s political and military leaders are assuredly examining and updating diverse segments of Israel's still undeclared and largely-uncodified strategic doctrine. Still, fitting these assorted pieces together in a purposeful fashion, one that can ultimately prevent any Iranian nuclear aggression, must become the Jewish state's overriding policy concern.
This will require, among other things: (1) shaping an appropriately incremental end to the longstanding Israeli policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity (the “bomb in the basement”); (2) identifying an explicit “counter value” targeting doctrine (mutually assured destruction) for the perpetrator(s) of any nuclear attack on Israel, and (3) acknowledging, under very specific circumstances, a firm national commitment to consider certain residual preemption options.
Under international law, any such acknowledgment would represent an expressed national willingness to undertake anticipatory self-defense.
Although the new president of Iran may sometime ratchet-down the inflammatory nature of his words, the threat of an unconventional jihad against Israel will remain. Should Israel begin to remove the “bomb from the basement," its emerging nuclear strategy for survival will still need to be founded upon realistic scenarios of probable enemy aggression. These plausible scenarios should not exclude outright enemy irrationality. While difficult to imagine, an irrational nuclear adversary could at some point decide to initiate WMD-warfare against Israel, without any "normal" decisional regard for the expected retaliatory consequences.
In effect, this sort of Iranian adversary would resemble an individual jihadist suicide bomber writ large.
Although a seemingly discrete issue, the recently re-started Middle East Peace Process, cannot be assessed without considering the potential impact of a nuclear capable Iran. If, following active stewardship from Washington, and the 2012 UN recognition of the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a "Nonmember Observer State," a fully-sovereign "Palestine" were to emerge, this twenty-third Arab state could become a platform for terrorism and war against Israel. Under certain conceivable but generally ignored circumstances, corrosive synergies between Iranian nuclearization and Palestinian statehood could produce an unforeseen existential threat to Israel’s survival.
Israel remains under substantial international pressure to renounce its still-undeclared nuclear forces, and to join in a regional "nuclear-weapons-free zone." But should Iran and its pertinent allies come to believe that Israel had been sufficiently influenced by "nonproliferation" demands, an adversarial military strategy against Israel could progress from terror to mega-terror, to mega-war, and ultimately to annihilation. Considering this especially perilous scenario, no expression of Israeli denuclearization, however well-intentioned, should be forthcoming.
Lest anyone think that Israeli unilateral nuclear disarmament is out of the question, consider that some of that country's "leading" academic strategists continue to make precisely this self-destructive recommendation.
Today, with US President Barack Obama's explicit support, nuclear weapons are widely regarded as inherently destabilizing. However, in Israel’s case, recognizable possession of such weapons could sometime be all that might protect it from catastrophic war. This argument can be made from the standpoint of maintaining successful nuclear deterrence, providing that the deployment of these weapons would ensure sufficient survivability in all scenarios.
In its advisory opinion of 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…” continued the ICJ, even the actual use of nuclear weapons could be permissible.
Israel is not Iran. Israel makes no threats of aggressive war or genocide. It does not even acknowledge its alleged nuclear capabilities.
It follows that not all members of the Nuclear Club are automatically a security menace. Some may offer a distinct benefit to world peace. This observation is documented by the Cold War. Moreover, on its face, the small size of Israel precludes tolerance of any nuclear attack.
Israel’s nuclear weapons are not a part of the problem. In the Middle East, the only real problem of war and terror remains a continuously far-reaching Arab/Islamist commitment to "excise the Jewish cancer."  Faced with this literally genocidal threat, Israel needs to understand that the "Road Map" is little more than another enemy expedient.
With a “Two State” process now widely accepted, Israel must insist that one of the states be publically identified and acknowledged as the Jewish State of Israel. Realistically, however, the PLO/PA effectively cannot and will not do this. To date, only Israel has been pressured by the US and world public opinion to accept existential risks to its security and survival. Moreover, this pressure is being applied without any corollary risk-taking expected of the PLO/PA.
Israel must finally stop this asymmetrical process. Significantly, this would not be the same thing as simply refusing to negotiate. 
Neatly packaged in Washington, “The Road Map” does offer a nicely phrased stratagem of clichés, one deliberately designed to appear reasonable to the “international community.” But where will the "Map" lead? Cartographically, this smooth amalgam of platitudes can offer Israel little more than a path to incrementally self-inflicted infringements of its national security.
With openly declared nuclear weapons, and a corresponding nuclear strategy, Israel could deter a rational Iranian enemy’s unconventional attacks, as well as most large conventional aggressions.  In this development, Israel could also launch non-nuclear preemptive strikes against Iranian hard targets and associated counterforce capabilities, assets that could threaten Israel's survival. Without acknowledging the possession of certain nuclear weapons, such acts of anticipatory self-defense would likely represent the onset of a much wider war. This is because there would remain no convincing threat of an Israeli counter-retaliation.
In the nuanced world of strategy and tactics, some truths may be counter-intuitive. Selective public knowledge of Israel's alleged nuclear weapons capabilities could represent an indispensable impediment to any Iranian use of nuclear weapons in the region. Together with a coherent Israeli strategic doctrine, these weapons still offer the tiny country's first and last line of defense against nuclear aggression and nuclear war.
While Rouhani speaks of Israel as an "old wound," Israel can and should take further meaningful steps to avoid a potential Iranian nuclear attack. Israel must continue to develop, test, and deploy an Arrow-based missile interception capacity, to best match Iran's growing ballistic missile capabilities. Simultaneously, it must continue to prepare for certain still-possible preemptions, and to enhance the credibility of its recognizably hardened and dispersed nuclear deterrent.
The decision to bring the “bomb out of the basement” is not an easy one for Israel. However, the realities of not just a nuclear-capable Iran, but of other potential nuclear aspirants in the region, dictate a serious internal review of the long-standing policy of "deliberate ambiguity." Israel must also make it clear to any would-be nuclear aggressor that its multiple-level active defenses would always operate together with decisive nuclear retaliations. 
Iran and other prospective adversaries must be made to understand that Israel's Arrow-plus deployments will not in any way preclude or render less likely an Israeli nuclear reprisal. In this connection, Israeli planners must always bear in mind that even the very best systems of   ballistic missile defense will have "leakage," and that no such system can ever be depended upon for the "soft-point" protection of civilian populations.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) 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); and Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (DC Heath/Lexington, 1986). In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (2003). Dr. Beres is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue.
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 served as a White House Fellow in 1970, holds an advanced degree in international affairs from Harvard. He was also Distinguished Professor of Leadership at the US Naval Academy.