Tehran, Vienna and Israel's nuclear strategy

Getty Images

"And Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all." — Thomas Hobbes, "Leviathan" (1651)

For the most part, analyses of the July 2015 P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) agreement in Vienna on the Iran nuclear program have focused upon Iranian compliance. Ironically, any such emphasis remains essentially beside the point, both legally and strategically. Even more worrisome, it ignores what will assuredly become a far more important result of the Iran nuclear agreement.

ADVERTISEMENT
This overlooked and possibly unforeseen result is the Vienna pact's potentially critical impact upon Israel's "ambiguous" nuclear strategy.

By themselves, "covenants" (here, diplomatic agreements) can never adequately safeguard Israel, at least in strategic matters of openly existential consequence. Nuclear strategy, however, must become increasingly central to the tiny country's core orientations toward national security and survival. After all, once Tehran begins to more conspicuously operationalize a menacing posture of offensive missile options — now, after Vienna, almost inevitable — the Jewish State's expanded vulnerability will need to be correspondingly countered and reversed.

There is more. Although rarely mentioned, the efficacy of any obligatory Israeli countermeasures to still-ongoing Iranian nuclearization will have security implications for the United States. This is because, prima facie, a more secure Israeli ally in the Middle East would enhance America's security interests in the volatile region.

Some pertinent examples of the Vienna agreement's impact on overall regional stability can already be identified. For one, a nearly nuclear Iran will likely accelerate reciprocal nuclear ambitions in Saudi Arabia, and thereby, initiate a more-or-less expanding nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Very quickly, too, such destabilizing area developments could intersect, in both seen and unseen ways, and with both sub-state militarization, and corollary terrorist aggressions.

Noteworthy, too, is that any countervailing Saudi (Sunni) nuclear capacity will have been made possible by Pakistan, a non-Arab and non-Persian Islamic country, which is itself unstable, and which last year adopted a more tactical or "nuclear-war fighting" concept of nuclear deterrence. This expressly enlarged emphasis upon theater nuclear forces was intended primarily to enhance Islamabad's deterrence credibility vis-a-vis Delhi. Also meaningful, however, is that any such emphasis is likely contrary to deterrence strategies now being fashioned in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

In more narrowly specific military parlance, Pakistan is "going for counterforce," while Israel — although considerably less open about any such nuclear matters — is presumptively "going for counter-value."

It gets even more complicated. Looking ahead, various complex intersections of Saudi and Iranian interests could be most probable (and most concerning) where they would occur among the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Hezbollah or various al Qaeda surrogate elements. To render such plausible geostrategic intersections even more ominous, and perhaps more "opaque," they could further be affected by an already emergent "Cold War II." Oddly, for at least several reasons, Riyadh is now extending certain collaborative overtures to Moscow, taking some genuinely novel steps toward cementing a unique but also unpredictable sort of alignment with the "other" superpower.

Of necessity, Israeli countermeasures, inter alia, will need to be similarly complex, and could even involve an expectedly suitable assortment of interpenetrating or "synergistic" remedies. Among other remedies, this doctrinally based configuration of what military professionals would call "force multipliers" could include: (1) a calculated and controlled end to "deliberate nuclear ambiguity"; (2) recognizable enhancements of counter-value nuclear targeting doctrine; (3) incrementally greater deployments of ballistic-missile defenses; and (4) a progressively greater reliance on selective sea-basing of national nuclear forces. It could also mean taking appropriately new steps to challenge a predictable barrage of substantially shrill "nonproliferation" demands from the United Nations and the wider "international community."

For Israel, any significant compliance with allegedly legal demands for denuclearization could prove injurious, or even catastrophic. Indeed, even if all involved enemy states were to remain non-nuclear themselves, these longstanding adversaries, and also their terrorist proxies, could still find themselves in a palpably improved position to overwhelm Israel.

There is more. Sunni ISIS (or its various local surrogates), periodically launching rockets into southern Israel from the Egyptian Sinai, could sometime gain access to weapons-usable nuclear materials in Syria. More than likely, such materials will have originated with the Israeli-destroyed Al Kibar reactor back in 2007. Of course, if Israel had never undertaken "Operation Orchard," Syrian terror groups now fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad might now have access to certain already-assembled Syrian nuclear weapons.

It is easy to understand Israel's Arab enemies' and Iran's insistence upon a non-nuclear Israel. Should these Sunni and Shiite adversaries all be verifiably willing to remain non-nuclear after the P5+1 agreement, their cumulative conventional, chemical and biological capabilities could still bring intolerable harms to Israel. In other words, without what first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had earlier conceived as a "great equalizer," Israel would then need to face an immutably refractory principle of warfare: ultimately, "mass counts."

Israel has virtually no mass.

There is more. In law, as well as in strategy, war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. Even today, both Palestinian and Iranian maps expose utterly unhidden plans for a faith-driven genocide against "the Jews." Religiously, these contemplated crimes against humanity — or "incitement to genocide," in the more derivative language of the 1948 Genocide Convention — stem from the unambiguous eschatologies of "sacred" violence.

With its own nuclear weapons, even if still "deliberately ambiguous," Israel could reasonably expect to deter a rational enemy's unconventional attacks, and also most large conventional ones. Further, while holding such weapons, Israel could still launch certain cost-effective non-nuclear preemptive strikes against an enemy state's hard (military) targets. Without nuclear weapons, any such conventional expressions of anticipatory self-defense would likely represent the onset of a much wider war.

The strategic rationale for this under-explored nuclear argument is easy to explain. In essence, without a recognizable nuclear backup in its deterrence posture, there might no longer exist sufficiently compelling threats of an Israeli counter-retaliation. It follows, although contrary to the current U.S. president's expressed preferences for global nuclear disarmament ( for a "world free of nuclear weapons"), that Israel's nuclear arsenal actually represents a valuable impediment to regional nuclear war.

In themselves, nuclear weapons are neither good nor evil. In some circumstances, after all, they could serve as indispensable implements of stable military deterrence. Moreover, there does exist, under settled international law, a "peremptory" national right to employ or even fire nuclear weapons in order to survive. This expressly residual right is codified at the 1996 Advisory Opinion on Nuclear Weapons, an authoritative opinion handed down by the U.N.'s International Court of Justice.

Plainly, following Vienna's de facto legitimization of Iranian nuclearization, Israel has much more to fear from Tehran. In this connection, if Iran's religious leadership should ever choose to abandon the usual premises of rational behavior in world politics — that is, the ordinary primacy of national survival — Jerusalem's exclusively defensive nuclear deterrence posture could fail. Nonetheless, even if Iran could sometime become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm, Israel's only rational strategy, moving forward, must remain a reciprocal enhancement of its vital nuclear deterrent.

There is more. Even if Israel's nuclear planners could reasonably assume that all enemy leaderships were expectedly rational, this would say nothing about the accuracy of information used in all of their actual calculations. In matters of military strategy, rationality refers only to the intention of maximizing certain expressed values or preferences — most importantly, national survival. It does not suggest anything about whether the information actually being used by an enemy is correct or incorrect.

It follows, among many other things, that fully rational enemy leaderships could still make assorted errors in calculation leading them toward conventional war, or, in the future, a nuclear war, with Israel. Less generally, there are several associated command and control issues that could sometime impel a perfectly rational adversary or alliance of adversaries to undertake intolerably risky nuclear behaviors. These issues include: (1) uncontrollable consequences of certain pre-delegations of launch authority; (2) presumptive deterrence-enhancing measures called "launch-on-warning" (alternatively, called "launch-upon-confirmed-attack"); and/or (3) recalling Pakistani instability, a coup d'etat.

For Israel, nuclear strategy is not a discretionary option. It is, rather, a "game" that it simply has to play. Whether a particular contest is undertaken against rational or irrational enemies — and against nation-state, or terrorist sub-state foes — Jerusalem/Tel Aviv will need to take into close account Carl von Clausewitz's original (19-century) concerns about the "fog of war" and "friction." Above all, this will mean anticipating consequentially vast differences between "intentions in war," and war "as it actually is." Undoubtedly, Israeli planners must acknowledge, these differences are apt to become even greater wherever nuclear weapons might be involved.

Covenants will not save Israel from Iranian progress on nuclear weapons. Instead, following Sun-Tzu, Israel will need to focus more intently and persuasively on sustainable nuclear deterrence. Long before anyone could even have imagined unlocking military secrets of the atom, the ancient Chinese military thinker had already opined, in "The Art of War": "Subjugating the enemy's army without actual fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence."

Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli defense matters. Later this year, his 12th book, "Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy," will be published by Rowman and Littlefield. During the premiership of Ariel Sharon, Beres was chair of Project Daniel (2003-2004). He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.

More in International

Under cover of nuclear deal, Iran foments regional instability

Read more »