Watching the clock

Israel’s remaining strategic options against Iran.

Participants sit at a table during talks on Iran (photo credit: REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov)
Participants sit at a table during talks on Iran
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov)
In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
One wouldn’t think that a poem by T.S. Eliot could shed light on vital issues of nuclear strategy, but some- times we may learn unexpectedly by inference. For Israel, the still- impending nuclear dangers from Iran are rooted in chronology. In the fashion of Eliot’s Prufrock, their core urgency lurks in the inherently fickle judgments of time.
To act before it is too late, Israel’s leaders must ask the right question. They must inquire, therefore, as follows: What, exactly, do the decision-makers in Tehran value most? Is it Iran’s physical survival? Or, rather, is it the advancement of certain fixed and immutable religious goals? The correct answer to this core question is by no means obvious. It is also essential to Israel’s success in creating (if it turns out to be necessary) stable nuclear deterrence relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the absence of a correct answer, Israel could become subject, in the future, to an Iranian nuclear attack. That is reality; that is the clock-driven bottom line.
In the best of all possible worlds, Iran could still be prevented from becoming a nuclear weapons state. Operationally, how- ever, the current odds of undertaking a successful or cost-effective preemption against Iran, an act of “anticipatory self-defense” in terms of international law, are very low.
In all likelihood, Jerusalem will soon need to make appropriate preparations for long- term coexistence with a new nuclear adversary. As part of such more-or-less regrettable preparations, the chronically beleaguered Jewish state will need to continue with its already impressive developments in ballistic missile defense. Although Israel’s well-tested Arrow defense system could never be adequately efficient for “soft-point” or city defense, it could still play a major role in enhancing the nation’s indispensable nuclear deterrent.
By forcing any conceivable attacker to constantly recalculate the requirements of “assured destruction,” the Arrow system could make it increasingly unrewarding for any attacker to strike first. In other words, knowing that its capacity to assuredly destroy Israel’s nuclear retaliatory forces with a first-strike attack could be lessened by incremental deployments of the Arrow, Iran could decide that any such attack would necessarily be more costly than gainful. This relatively optimistic conclusion is premised on the antecedent assumption that Iran’s decisions will always be fully rational.
What if such an assumption should not be warranted? Irrationality is not the same as madness. Unlike a mad adversary, which would have no discernible order of prefer- ences, an irrational Iranian leadership might still maintain a distinct and entirely consis- tent hierarchy of wants.
Although such an Iranian leadership might not be successfully deterred by the more traditional threats of military destruction – because a canonical Shi’ite eschatol- ogy could enthusiastically welcome “end times” confrontations with “unbelievers” – it might still refrain from any attacks that would expectedly harm its principal reli- gious values. An Iranian concern for safe- guarding the “holy city” of Qom, for exam- ple, would be a good example.
It is also reasonable to expect that an irrational Iranian leadership would nonetheless value certain of its primary military institutions and could therefore still be deterred by certain compelling threats to these institutions. A pertinent example would be the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the power behind the Iranian dictatorship, the principal foe of the Iranian people and the current leadership’s main instrument of repression.
It could be productive for Jerusalem to hold at risk the IRGC’s physical facilities, its terrorist training camps, its navy of small attack boats, its missile program, the homes of its leaders and even its space program.
Most civilian targets would be almost cer- tainly be excluded from attack vulnerabili- ties, as would those particular military tar- gets that were not identifiably IRGC-related.
Such a calculated exclusion would not only be in Israel’s best overall strategic interests; it would also be necessary to ensure routine Israeli compliance with the law of war, an exemplary adherence to military rules that has long characterized the Israel Defense Forces.
Such ethical adherence is well-known to every soldier of Israel as “ tohar haneshek ” (purity of arms).
Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, a nuclear Iran could still be very dangerous to Israel if its leadership was able to meet the evident criteria of rationality. Miscalcula- tions, or errors in information, for example, could lead even a fully rational Iranian adversary to strike first. In these unstable cir- cumstances, moreover, the very best anti- missile defenses would still prove inade- quate for significant population protection.
AN ECCENTRIC argument can now be added.
If Iran were presumed to be rational, in the usual sense of valuing its national physical survival more highly than any other prefer- ence or combination of preferences, Jerusalem could then begin to consider certain benefits of pretended irrationality. Decades ago, Moshe Dayan warned: “Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother.” In this crude but effective metaphor, Dayan already understood that it can sometimes be rational for states to feign irrationality.
What if an Iranian adversary were pre- sumed to be irrational in the sense of not caring most of all about its own national survival? In this case, there would be no dis- cernible deterrence benefit to Israel in assuming a posture of pretended irrationali- ty. The more probable threat of a massive nuclear counterstrike by Israel would proba- bly be no more persuasive in Tehran than if Iran’s self-declared enemy was presumed to be totally rational.
“Do you know what it means to find yourself face to face with a madman?” inquires Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV. While this pithy theatrical query does have some relevance to Jerusalem’s security concerns with Iran, the mounting strategic chal- lenges from that country will be more apt to come from decision-makers who are not mad and who are still rational. Soon, there- fore, with this clarifying idea in mind, Israel will need to fashion a more focused and formal strategic doctrine, one from which essential policies and operations could always be suitably extrapolated.
This framework for decision would identi- fy and correlate all available strategic options (deterrence; preemption; active defense; strategic targeting; and nuclear war fighting) with critical national survival goals. It would also take very close account of possible interactions between these dis- crete, but sometimes intersecting, strategic options.
Calculating these interactions will present Israel with a computational task on the highest order of difficulty. In some cases, it may even develop that the anticipated “whole” of Iranian-inflicted harms could be greater than the technical sum of its discrete “parts.” Recognizing this task as a preemi- nently intellectual (rather than political) problem is the necessary first step for meet- ing Israel’s critical survival goals.
On some matters, Israel has no real choice.
Nuclear strategy is a game that sane and rational decision-makers must play. But, to compete effectively, any would-be victor must always first assess (1) the expected rationality of each opponent; and (2) the probable costs and benefits of pretending irrationality oneself.
These are complex, interpenetrating and glaringly imprecise forms of assessment.
They represent vital judgments that will require (a) corollary refinements in both intelligence and counter-intelligence; and (b) carefully calculated, selectively partial and nuanced movements away from long- standing national policies of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
Soon, for Israel, it will no longer be sensible to keep the “bomb in the basement.”
If Iran should manage to join the nuclear club, which now seems likely, how will its leaders proceed to rank their country’s most vital preferences? To answer this primary question should now become the overriding security policy obligation in Jerusalem.■ The writer is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war