What will Israel’s deterrence strategy be in the face of a nuclear Iran?
In his recently published book Dimona: Israel’s Nuclear Deterrence, Dan Sagir, a veteran Israeli journalist from Jerusalem, researched for the first time the effect of the state’s undeclared nuclear deterrence in the Arab-Israeli interstate conflict. The book (in Hebrew) investigates the nuclear dimension in the wars that broke out after 1967, both from Israel’s point of view and from the perspective of the Arab confrontational states.
A central discussion in the book addresses the influence of the Israeli nuclear program on the decision-making of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, from 1978 to 2003. Hussein’s plan to embark on a nuclear as well as chemical weapons program, which eventually culminated in the occupation of Iraq and overthrow of his regime, pushed neighboring Iran to start its own nuclear program out of the fear that the US would attempt to topple their regime as well.
In documents seized from the presidential palace in Baghdad by US military forces in 2003, there is much evidence of the profound influence that Israel’s nuclear weapons had on the Iraqi leader. For example, Sagir cites an Iraqi document that provided “a rare glimpse behind “Saddam’s thought processes – and Dimona’s place among them – from early in his career.”
“When the Arabs start the deployment, Israel is going to say, ‘We will hit you with the atomic bomb,’” Saddam said on June 3, 1978.
Sagir discusses the decision-making processes of Arab state leaders over the years and to what degree the abatement of the Mideast inter-state conflict is related to Israel’s nuclear capabilities. His conclusion is that the Israeli nukes did play a role in Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat’s decision to end the military conflict with Israel.
In his view, Sadat “realized that because of Israel’s nuclear deterrence, Egypt could not destroy Israel nor could he help the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel.” After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the threat from Arab states had abated. Israel, in many ways, resolved the inter-state conflict with the Arabs by the time Egypt and Israel signed its peace agreement, and nearly four and a half decades later the Abraham Accords were signed.
Israel's nuclear deterrence vs. nuclear Iran
Yet over the last two decades, the main strategic challenge facing Israel has been Iran, which is on the threshold of becoming a nuclear state.
Intelligence agencies in the United States and Israel estimate that Iran can achieve full nuclear capability within two years. Sagir maintains that it was “former president Donald Trump’s decision supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu” to “get out of the deal” to limit Iran’s nuclear proliferation, previously agreed between the United States and Iran by former president Barack Obama, which would have delayed any active progress by Iran to at least 2031. Exiting the agreement allowed Iran to move quickly to the finish line.
Sagir states that according to foreign publications, years ago Israel developed a “second strike capability” through its submarines in the Mediterranean. According to him, this capability offers the ultimate answer to a nuclear Iran. It will enable the creation of a mutual “balance of terror” in the region, similar to the situation between India and Pakistan on the Indian subcontinent.
He believes that Iran’s strategy of creating a chain of proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, has become a major conventional strategic challenge for Israel. Therefore, Israel’s deterrence messages toward Tehran will address in the coming years both the nuclear and conventional threats.
After Iran becomes a nuclear-weapon state (declared or undeclared), “would Israel need to abandon the animut (“opacity” in Hebrew) policy it has followed over the past decades”? Sagir asks and answers this question in his book at length. But the bottom line is that the decision on this issue should be made in accordance with international circumstances at the time, and in coordination with the US.
The book’s author contends that further discussions on Israel’s nuclear strategy are in order, despite the policy of opacity, and views his book as an initial platform for public discussion on the issue.
Sagir, 67, who was interviewed by The Jerusalem Report to discuss his book, wrote his doctoral dissertation at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Dimona’s influence on the regional conflict. His book is currently being submitted for publication in English in the UK and North America. ■
Farrell Meisel is a veteran executive international broadcaster and writer, who has developed and managed broadcast and international digital networks for over 45 years.