How should Israel respond if it can't stop Iran producing nuclear weapons?

Former deputy national security council chief Chuck Freilich believes in planning for the worst.

A ballistic missile is launched and tested in an undisclosed location, Iran, March 9, 2016.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A ballistic missile is launched and tested in an undisclosed location, Iran, March 9, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Though he strongly hopes that a variety of economic, diplomatic and as a last resort, military measures, can stop Iran from going fully nuclear, former deputy national security council chief Chuck Freilich also believes in planning for the worst.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Freilich updated some long-term ideas he had laid out in his recent book, Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change, regarding Israeli nuclear policy, in the worst-case scenario where Iran does some day obtain nuclear weapons.
Freilich does not confirm nor deny the existence of an Israeli nuclear weapons program and his comments are based on foreign sources reporting that it has between 80 to a couple hundred nuclear weapons and maintains a “nuclear ambiguity” policy.
Mostly, Freilich supports that policy – in which Israel does not formally declare its nuclear power, but leaks have provided its adversaries with enough information to deter them from certain levels of warfare.
Bolton: U.S."s highest priority is Iran never getting nuclear weapons, August 20, 2018 (GPO)
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“If it’s just Iran, I would stay with the current policy. There would be no need for any change of significance [regarding ambiguity.] Israel’s own deterrent capability should be more than enough. If we are talking about a multi-nuclear Middle East, then I don’t think there is any good solution,” he said.
He continued, “That is a nightmare scenario. But then I would want a security guarantee from the US. This won’t help much, but that’s about what there is. I would also give greater attention to the prospects for long-term regional disarmament, but I don’t think that is realistic for a long time.”
Breaking down his response, Freilich was pressed about why, in the event that Iran obtained a nuclear weapon, Israel would not need or want to formally declare its nuclear power to heighten its deterrence.
He said, “the entire world is already convinced Israel has a nuclear capability, correct or not. And not just any nuclear capability, but an advanced and large one, a triad of capabilities. This has been the case for decades. What are the advantages to ending ambiguity? Does it increase Israel’s deterrence? Probably not.”
The former deputy national security council chief said that there might be “marginal gains, but the downsides remain strong. As long as we are talking about ‘just’ Iran and a bilateral nuclear standoff, Israel’s deterrence should be sufficient” without needing to formally declare its nuclear capabilities. Part of his view relates to his belief that though the Iranians are a theocracy and pursue “extreme objectives,” including wanting to destroy Israel, he views them as very calculated, rationale and patient – not risking self-annihilation for a quick fix.
Freilich said he hoped the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, however imperfect, might stop Iran from going nuclear and now said he hopes, though not thoroughly convinced, that the Trump administration’s pressure campaign will stop it.
But if Iran does go nuclear, he fears a “cascading effect” of other countries, especially Sunni rivals of Iran in the region, working to develop nuclear weapons.
In the event that multiple countries in the Middle East develop nuclear weapons, Freilich would advocate for getting new security guarantees from the US.
Asked what form those guarantees should take, he acknowledged, “It is a big issue, there is lots of opposition to it currently in Israel and little enthusiasm, if any, in the US.”
He explained that Israeli opposition relates to fears of losing “the freedom to maneuver and that the price for a guarantee at minimum would be to divulge [Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal] and might even be to dismantle” aspects.
Dismissing that opposition, he said, “We coordinate with the US anyway on anything important and I don’t think the US would make demands about divulging or dismantling – they would know that would be a nonstarter.”
Elaborating, he said no guarantee was needed for standard fighting with Hezbollah or Hamas, and it would be reserved for existential threats. He did not have a strong opinion about how much of the guarantee was public, or that it needed to be a formal defense treaty, as long as there was a clear public showing of the US’s new security commitment to Israel.
There is another important idea Freilich writes about in his book, attributing to former Israel Atomic Energy Commission chairman Gideon Frank, in the context of how to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and how to make the Iran nuclear deal hold the Islamic Republic from developing one. This was written months before Trump pulled the US out of the deal.
Freilich explains that a new international suppliers’ norm could be promoted to make the sale of nuclear reactors contingent on the buyer’s legal commitment to refrain from building an independent nuclear fuel cycle. Furthermore, they would need to purchase all fuel from the reactor’s supplier for the lifetime of its operation.
Reactor sales would include the supply of fresh fuel and spent fuel removal, and any country insisting on having a fuel cycle (such as Iran today) would not be eligible to buy them.
He said that this kind of a norm would only require the five existing supplier countries to sign off: the US, France, Russia, South Korea and Japan.
Noting these countries “share some commitment to nonproliferation,” he adds that the proposed norm reflects economic realities – Iran’s enrichment program is unnecessary and uneconomical.
Interestingly, he notes that Iran’s supplier, Russia, actually prefers a build-own-operate contract which imposes even greater restrictions than the suggested norm.
The primary obstacle “would appear to be a potential fear on the part of the commercial manufacturers that they would lose out if they impose the norm, but others do not,” he said.
But getting all five countries on-board at once would solve that.
He admitted that in the current state of more conflict than cooperation between world powers, selling, especially Russia, on any kind of multilateral deal to limit its options might be extremely hard, even if it may theoretically support the underlying ideas.
Mostly, Freilich said he still hopes all of the above nightmare scenarios can be averted by greater international cooperation than Trump has fostered, and as a last resort, he supports Israel’s right to strike Iran’s nuclear program.