“For by Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War.”
As a matter of logic, an Israel-Iran nuclear exchange is presently out of the question. Though energetically pursuing a military nuclear capability, the Shiite Republic still has a formidable way to go before it can claim any credible status as an operational nuclear power. From Israel’s standpoint, prudent survival preparations should now take variously multiple and overlapping forms. In this connection, Israel likely understands that nothing short of a massive non-nuclear preemption could summarily stop Tehran’s nuclearization (a nuclear preemption is essentially inconceivable), but that even if such a defensive first-strike were to meet the authoritative tests of “anticipatory self-defense” under international law, it’s overall results would be catastrophic.
What next for Jerusalem? Always, Israeli strategists should examine the country’s available security options as an intellectual rather than political task. This is an overriding and invariant imperative.
There is more. This cautionary conclusion about planning is compelling, inter alia, because any tactically successful conventional preemption against Iranian weapons and infrastructures would come at more-or-less unacceptable costs. Already, in 2003, when this writer’s Project Daniel Group presented an early report on Iranian nuclearization to then-Israeli PM Ariel Sharon, prospective Iranian targets were more directly threatening to Israel than was Iraq’s nuclear Osiraq reactor on June 7, 1981.
To the limited extent that they could be estimated, the plausible risks of an Israel-Iran nuclear war would ultimately depend upon whether such a conflict was ‘intentional’, ‘unintentional’, or ‘accidental’. Apart from applying this critical three-part distinction to their analysis, there could be no good reason to expect any usefully systematic strategic assessments emerging from Tel Aviv (MOD/IDF). Once applied, however, Israeli planners should understand that their complex subject is entirely without useful precedent.
This uniqueness represents a quality of critical predictive importance. The peremptory rules of logic and mathematics preclude any meaningful assignments of probability in matters that are unprecedented or sui generis. To come up with meaningful estimations of probability, these predictions would first have to be based upon the determinable frequency of relevant past events. Prima facie, there have been no such events; unassailably, there have been no nuclear wars.
Still, it is essential that competent Israeli strategic analysts do their best to examine all current and future nuclear risks from Iran. To some ascertainable extent, it may be sensible for them to study what is currently happening between Washington and Pyongyang as a “model” for calculating Israel’s long-term nuclear perils. Looking back, in examining the more-or-less overheated rhetoric that had emerged from US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean President Kim Jung-Un, neither leader was paying sufficiently close attention to the grave risks of an unintentional or accidental nuclear war.
This means, among other things, that both Trump and Kim seemed to assume the other leader’s decisional rationality and the primacy of decisional intention. If no such mutual assumption had existed, it would have made no sense for either president to deliberately strike existential retaliatory fear in the heart of the other. What are the lessons here for Israel vis-à-vis Iran? Should Israel similarly assume a fully rational adversary in Iran? To be sure, any such assumption would be more or less reassuring in Jerusalem, but would it also be correct?
During his dissembling tenure, Donald J. Trump, then US president, openly praised feigned irrationality as a tangible US security strategy. But such a preference could never be “actionable” without incurring assorted dangers, for America or for Israel. Although neither Israel nor Iran might actually want a war, either or both “players” could still commit catastrophic errors during competitive searches for ‘escalation dominance.’ The only predictable element here would be the scenario’s inherent unpredictability.
There is more. An unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war between Israel and Iran could take place not only as the result of misunderstandings or miscalculations between fully rational leaders, but also as the unintended consequence of mechanical, electrical, or computer malfunctions. This includes hacking interference, and should bring to mind a corollary distinction between unintentional/inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. Though all accidental nuclear war must be unintentional, not every unintentional nuclear war would be generated by accident. An unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could sometime be the result of misjudgments (both fundamental and seemingly trivial) about enemy intentions.
“In war,” says Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously in his classic On War, “everything is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” In fashioning a successful ‘endgame’ to any future nuclear confrontation with Iran, it would be vital for Israel’s leaders to understand that this sort of crisis is about much more than maximizing any ‘correlation of forces’ or missile-interception capabilities. It will be about imaginative intuition and variously antecedent notions of dialectical thinking.
There are many complex details. As a nuclear war has never been fought, what will be needed in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv is more broadly intellectual guidance than Israel could ever reasonably expect from even its most senior military officers. In essence, ipso facto, there are no recognizable experts on fighting a nuclear war, not in Jerusalem, not in Tehran, not anywhere. It was not by accident that the first capable theoreticians of nuclear war and nuclear deterrence in the 1950s were academic mathematicians, physicists and political scientists.
There remains one last point about any still-estimable risks of an Israel-Iran nuclear war. From the standpoint of Jerusalem, the only truly successful outcome could be a crisis or confrontation that ends with a reduction of Iranian nuclear war fighting capabilities and intentions. It would represent a serious mistake for Israel to settle for bloated boasts of “victory” that are based only upon a one-time avoidance of nuclear war. Israel ought never to be taking existential risks with Tehran if the best anticipated outcome could only be status quo ante bellum.
Providing for Israeli national security vis-à-vis a still-nuclearizing Iran ought never to become a seat-of-the-pants ‘game’ – that is, the sort of visceral stance taken earlier by US President Donald J. Trump opposite North Korea. Without any suitably long-term, systematic and deeply-thoughtful plan in place for avoiding atomic war with this determined adversary, a nuclear conflict that is deliberate, unintentional or accidental could ensue. At every stage of its continuously corrosive competition with Tehran, Israel should avoid losing sight of the only rational use for its presumptive nuclear weapons and doctrine. That residual use, a product of abundantly ‘wise counsel,’ concerns stable nuclear deterrence.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016). In 2003, Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel in Israel (regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons, prepared especially for PM Ariel Sharon). He has published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Jerusalem Post; Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA (Israel); INSS (Israel); JURIST; Air-Space Operations Review (USAF); The Atlantic; Yale Global; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard); Oxford University Press Yearbook on International Law & Jurisprudence; World Politics (Princeton); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); The Strategy Bridge; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); Horasis (Zürich) and The New York Times.
Suggested citation: Louis Rene Beres, Figuring the Odds of an Israel-Iran Nuclear War: A Complex Task for Logic, Mathematics and Law, JURIST – Academic Commentary, April 13, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/04/Louis-Beres-Israel-Iran-nuclear-war/.
This article was prepared for publication by Rebekah Malkin, Co-Managing Commentary Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to she/they/them at email@example.com