Decisions and Revisions: Israeli Nuclear Deterrence and War With Iran Commentary
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Decisions and Revisions: Israeli Nuclear Deterrence and War With Iran

“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

Though much has been published about both military and legal elements of Israeli nuclear deterrence, not much has been written about the specific ways in which these core elements could conceivably intersect. Moreover, such under-examined intersections have tended to consider these coinciding factors as merely additive rather than variously synergistic. As synergistic interactions necessarily produce a “whole” that is greater than the sum of its constituent “parts,” capable analysts should more assiduously ascribe to these challenging interactions the fully determinable complexity of relevant content.

This will be a challenging task, especially during and after the ongoing Gaza war with Iran-supported Hamas. To progress with this task, up-to-date assessments of Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture should focus on (a) pertinent weapons (both offensive and defensive); (b) weapon system infrastructures; and (c) corresponding issues of threat credibility. Though analysts and policy-planners have generally highlighted Israel’s presumptive missile and anti-missile capabilities and its expected willingness to launch under rapidly-changing circumstances, too little attention has been directed toward the world system’s structural balance-of-power.[1]

There is more. Enhanced attention to world system determinants would bring forward in tandem certain geo-strategic and jurisprudential foci. In turn, these foci would be more-or-less interdependent and overlapping. At times, therefore, they would be “force-multiplying,” a hard-to-decipher effect that could return analytic focus to possibly clarifying synergies.

As a counter-intuitive example, the efficacy of Israeli nuclear deterrence could sometimes be greater in a world system context that is anarchic or chaotic.[2] Still, an “intervening variable” here would be Israel’s apparent willingness to disclose a limited “Samson Option” and to move its nuclear deterrence posture from “deliberate ambiguity” to “selective disclosure.” Prima facie, these will not be matters to be explored by politicos, bureaucratic functionaries or the intellectually faint of heart.

For talented and educated investigators, serious questions will need to be raised and answered, sequentially and dialectically.[3] How should these analysts proceed? One singularly revealing expression of the current world’s balance-of-power[4] could be summarized under “Cold War II.” This is not because an always-implicit US-Russian rivalry is more critical than the core anarchic structure first bequeathed at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648,[5] but because such rivalry has already become “tripolar.” To be sure, China – with its tangible links to Pakistan, North Korea and Iran – is increasingly a major “player” in the palpably dissembling Middle East. Furthermore, to a greater or lesser extent, such links would involve “peremptory” considerations of authoritative international law.[6]

For planners of Israeli nuclear strategy, US-Russia-China antagonisms should be studied together with Israel’s weapon systems and its nuclear threat credibility. Inter alia, these system-defining antagonisms are already in constant flux and are simultaneously changing in both foreseeable and unforeseeable ways. One ominous example would be adversarial preparations for actual nuclear warfighting.[7]

There will be many significant details. Superpower antagonisms, tempered or buffered by international law, could become vital or determinative for Israeli nuclear deterrence. In part, these primary antagonisms could be impacted by a “biological variable,” that is, by disease pandemic. In principle, at least, asymmetrical levels of success in dealing with future pandemic outcomes could make one side or the other more or less aggressive.[8] Actual and accurate recognition of such asymmetries would represent part of a calculable “equation.”

Ultimately, a great deal will depend upon the precise manner in which this resurrected and now China-augmented polar rivalry could impact the equation and, derivatively, the critically underlying elements of Israel’s strategic posture.[9] This discoverable manner of impact could depend on Jerusalem’s multiple and overlapping national nuclear power alignments – with Russia, the United States, China or North Korea (which maintains close ties to Iran).

Antecedent to any such complex considerations, much will depend on (1) the expected rationality or non-rationality of each national nuclear power;[10] and (2) the expected interactions (synergies) between these nuclear adversaries and their respective alliance partners or clients. Regarding the first concern, Israel’s planners will need to bear continuously in mind the timeless wisdom of German philosopher Karl Jaspers’ Reason and Existence (1935): “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.”

Never “in reality without it.” This compelling assumption exhibits a rudimentary understanding for anyone engaged in strategic nuclear threat analyses. “Everything is very simple in war,” counsels Carl von Clausewitz in On War, “but even the simplest thing is difficult.” This generally useful insight remains persuasively valid not only during periods of active military conflict, but also in those unsteady periods of latent hostility (what Thomas Hobbes meant as a “state of war” in Leviathan) that obtain between still-possible or still-impending wars of aggression.[11]

Relevant analysts will also need to take more specific heed of future pandemic, a variable that could prove substantially determinative for a variety of reasons, including its potentially plausible effects upon decisional rationality. In this connection, such effects would need to be explored among friends as well as foes and would make each adversarial party (state, sub-state and “hybrid”) wary of the others’ “pretended irrationality.” In essence, this pandemic variable could make “normally” complex decisional calculations denser and more difficult to decipher.

The idea that considerations of operational difficulty may obtain “only” during a “cold war” had already been described by seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. In his classic text, Leviathan, this early political thinker (one widely read by the founding fathers of the United States, especially Thomas Jefferson) opines that a condition of war exists not only during periods of “actual fighting,” but whenever there exists “a known disposition thereto.” Today, such a “disposition” is instantly recognizable between Israel and Iran.

Even during the expansive pre-nuclear era in international law and world politics, a precarious logic of deterrence obtained within the global state of nature. Already, there had been operative an evidently fearful condition of raw competition, corrosive violence and seemingly perpetual anarchy. Despite considerable nuance from century to century, and even from year to year, this so-called “balance of power” has continued since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.

Long before the advent of nuclear weapons, the worst “state of war” (including ones without any “actual fighting”) would have been characterized by a “dreadful equality.” In this condition, world politics would take place within a broadly chaotic bellum omnium contra omnes, a bewildering structure wherein “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” In such blatantly “opaque” circumstances, of course, the potential sources of decision-making bewilderment would expectedly multiply.

In any such worst case configuration – one wherein nuclear proliferation would continue without any meaningfully correlative legal inhibitions – the lives of individual human beings and entire states would quickly become (per Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan) “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” For Israel, the shifting parameters of Cold War II and certain related issues of Iranian enemy rationality could soon have indeterminate or foreseeable effects upon its presumptive nuclear doctrine and strategy. This includes those diverse issues surrounding any needed policy choices between “nuclear ambiguity” and “nuclear disclosure.”[12]

For Israel, a state altogether lacking in strategic depth,[13] a state smaller than America’s Lake Michigan, the former posture has prevailed without serious challenge. A diminishingly useful stance, it is often referred to as Israel’s “bomb in the basement.”[14] At some point, modifications of this no-longer-viable stance could require certain coinciding Israeli resorts to “anticipatory self-defense.”[15]

Until today, in principle at least, Israel’s national nuclear doctrine and posture have remained determinedly ambiguous. At the same time, traditional ambiguity has already been breached at the highest possible level by two of Israel’s prime ministers, first, by Shimon Peres, on December 22, 1995, and then by Ehud Olmert on December 11, 2006. Peres, speaking to a group of Israeli newspaper and magazine editors, had affirmed publicly: “…give me peace, and we’ll give up the atom. That’s the whole story.” When Olmert later offered similarly general but revelatory remarks, they were widely (but perhaps wrongly) interpreted as “slips of the tongue.”

Today, as Moscow and Washington are once again becoming bitter adversaries – in part because of their different positions and involvements throughout the Middle East; in part because of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine – a basic doctrinal question should be raised in Jerusalem:

Is comprehensive nuclear secrecy in the survival interests of the Jewish State?[16]

To respond “cost-effectively” to this question, Israel should start from the assumption that in any such many-sided strategic matters, “truth” could be expansively counter-intuitive. A full answer to the query should be grounded in tangible expectations and exigencies of formal strategic doctrine. Whatever else Jerusalem may have in mind concerning such policy-shaping doctrine, it’s response ought never be just a series of incremental decisions or unreflective “seat-of-the-pants” policies. Israel could never have any need for positions that are casually invented or re-invented from one security crisis to the next.

In essence, fashioning Israeli doctrine ought never to consist of disjointed or narrowly ad hoc calculations. Any purposeful loosening of Israeli nuclear ambiguity would need to be subtle, nuanced and indirect. Contrary to the oft-parodied views of such prospective disclosure that may be found in popular news stories, on the web or on television, this loosening would not have to take the provocative form of any openly forthright or otherwise official Israeli policy pronouncements. Instead, it could be allowed to “leak” or “spill out” on its own, thereby making a crucial security point without precipitating an immediate crisis or irremediable misfortune.

Among other things, formal Israeli doctrine would represent the working framework from which a more gainfully pragmatic security posture of selective nuclear disclosure could be extrapolated. In all military institutions and traditions, such doctrine should describe the tactical or operational manner in which designated national forces could fight in variously plausible combat situations; the prescribed “order of battle;” and all manner of corollary or contingent operations. Appropriately, the literal definition of “doctrine” derives from Middle English, from the Latin doctrina, which means teaching, learning and instruction.

There is more. The central importance of codified Israeli military doctrine lies not only in the particular way it could animate, unify and optimize national military forces, but also in the expectedly efficient manner it could transmit desired “messages” to enemy state Iran, enemy sub-state proxies[17] or state-sub-state “hybrids.[18] Understood in terms of Israel’s strategic nuclear policy, any indiscriminate, across-the-board ambiguity could prove net-injurious to the country’s national security. Though plausibly counter-intuitive, this understanding is likely because any truly effective Israeli deterrence and defense could call for a military doctrine that is at least partially recognizable by Iran and by such sub-state terrorist foes as Hamas or Hezbollah.

In any routine military planning, having available options for strategic surprise could prove helpful (if not actually prerequisite) to successful combat operations. But successful nuclear deterrence is another matter entirely. In order to persuade would-be adversaries not to strike first – in these circumstances a manifestly complex effort of dissuasion – projecting too much secrecy could on occasion prove manifestly counter-productive.

In the matter of Israel and potentially existential enemy Iran, any tangible military success must lie in credible deterrence, not in tangible war-fighting.[19] Examined in terms of ancient Chinese military thought offered by Sun-Tzu in The Art of War, “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” With this worthy dictum in mind, there are times for Israel when successful nuclear deterrence policies could require the deliberate “loosening” of information that had formerly been tightly held. Such information would concern Israel’s capabilities, its intentions or both of these core qualities together.

Sometimes, strategic truth must be counterintuitive. There are, after all, foreseeable circumstances wherein ordinary secrecy could be too much secrecy, and thereby undermine Israel’s national security. We may recall, in this connection, a popular Cold War I-era movie in which Dr. Strangelove, an “eccentric” strategic advisor to the American president (and name of the film itself) discovers, to his horror, that the existence of America’s “doomsday machine” had not been made known in advance to the Soviets:

“The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost,” complains Dr. Strangelove, “if you keep it a secret.”

To have been suitably deterred, the film instructs, and not too subtly, the Soviets ought to have first been given sufficiently prior warnings of the “doomsday machine.” This device had been designed to ensure the perceived automaticity of America’s nuclear retaliatory response. Remembering the commonly-held strategic posture then known as MAD, this response would have been instantly recognizable to the Kremlin as “massive” and “assuredly destructive.”

It follows from all this and from the more general expectations of the laws of war that Israel’s nuclear weapons should remain oriented to deterrence ex ante, not war fighting or revenge ex post. As designated instruments of a law-based system of deterrence, nuclear weapons can succeed only in their protracted non-use. Once they have been employed for any tangible “battle,” deterrence, by definition, will have failed.[20] Also worth noting, once such weapons are actually used, any traditional meanings of “victory,” especially if both sides are already nuclear, would instantly become moot.[21]

Cold War I is over, and Israel’s emerging deterrence relationship to a prospectively nuclear Iran is not reasonably analogous or directly comparable to the historic American-Soviet “balance-of-terror.”[22] Still, there are crucial elements of Cold War II superpower antagonisms that will necessarily and substantially impact Israel’s nuclear strategic choices concerning Iran. This means, inter alia, that Israel should never construct its nuclear strategic doctrine and policy apart from close assessments of US-Russia-China relations.[23]

There are certain Cold War I deterrence lessons to be learned and adapted by Israel during Cold War II. Any unmodified continuance of total nuclear ambiguity concerning Israel’s (a) strategic targeting doctrine; (b) secure basing modes; and/or (c) capacity to penetrate a designated enemy’s active air defenses, could cause a steadily-nuclearizing Iran to underestimate Israel’s retaliatory capacity or resolve. In this connection, Israel should understand that (1) even an Iranian enemy not yet authentically nuclear (i.e., not yet able to combine rockets or missiles with chain-reaction nuclear explosives) could threaten massive attacks against large cities; and (2) even an Iranian enemy still limited in nuclear ordnance to radiation dispersal weapons could be deterred by Israeli nuclear threats. These Israeli threats would likely benefit from (3) visibly antecedent shifts from deliberate nuclear ambiguity to selective nuclear disclosure; and (4) more-or-less coinciding revelations about a “Samson Option.” This residual option, it would have to be made plain, is oriented toward enhanced nuclear deterrence and not to any apocalyptic outcomes drawn from the Biblical Book of Judges.

The Samson Option’s sole function would be to help Israel “live,” not to let it “die with the Philistines.”

There is more. As a subsidiary but still-urgent nuclear concern, Israeli planners will need to assess the capability and intentions of Pakistan, an already-nuclear Islamic state and one that has already declared a “nuclear war fighting” concept of national nuclear deterrence. Returning to the formative lexicon of Cold War I, this non-Arab Islamic state has undertaken a formal shift from “mutual assured destruction” to “nuclear utilization theory.” In the specialized discourse and parlance of all orthodox nuclear strategic theory, this represents an overt shift from MAD (mutual assured destruction) to NUT (nuclear utilization theory).[24]

Any such shift, by definition, could have profound legal consequences concerning the presumed likelihood of a nuclear conflict (probability) and the presumed injuriousness of such a conflict (disutility).

Examined during Cold War II, assorted uncertainties surrounding the presumed components of Israel’s nuclear arsenal could lead enemy states like Iran to reach incorrect conclusions. In part, this is because Israel’s willingness to make good on any threatened nuclear retaliation could then be seen as inversely related to weapon system destructiveness. Ironically, if Israel’s nuclear weapons were sometime believed to be too-destructive, or too-apocalyptic,[25] they might not credibly deter. In these readily foreseeable cases, such beliefs would underscore basic expectations of humanitarian international law or the law of armed conflict. Again, there would obtain variously continuous intersections between matters of strategy and matters of law.

In the future, any continuing Israeli policy of complete nuclear ambiguity could cause an already nuclear enemy state to overestimate the first-strike vulnerability of Israel’s nuclear forces. In part, this overestimation could be the result of a too-complete silence concerning measures of protection that had been deployed to safeguard Israeli nuclear weapons. Such silence, in turn, could be the product of Israel’s perceived alignments with the United States by any relevant regional foe.

A related problem could represent the product of certain Israeli doctrinal obfuscations regarding the country’s defense potential, a silence that could be mistakenly taken by certain enemy states as an indication of inadequate Israeli Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). To be maximally useful, certain strengths and capabilities of active defense (interrelated and multi-layered) would need to be revealed, perhaps in previously unimaginable revelations of actual operational detail.

To best understand the utility and legal content of Israeli strategic nuclear doctrine and posture, analysts should first clarify for themselves the core foundations of Israeli nuclear deterrence. These foundations concern prospective attackers’ perceptions of Israel’s nuclear capability and Jerusalem’s willingness to actually use this capability. Any selective telegraphing of Israel’s strategic nuclear doctrine could potentially enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture. It would accomplish this enhancement by heightening enemy state perceptions of Israel’s capable nuclear forces and by its announced willingness to use these forces in reprisal for certain designated first-strike and/or retaliatory attacks.

To deter an enemy attack, or a post-preemption retaliation against Israel,[26] Jerusalem must always prevent a rational aggressor, by threat of an unacceptably damaging retaliation or counter-retaliation, from deciding to strike. Here, Israel’s national security would be sought by convincing the potential rational attacker (irrational state enemies could pose an altogether different and possibly insurmountable problem) that the costs of any considered attack will always exceed the expected benefits. Assuming that Israel’s principal state enemy Iran: (1) values self-preservation most highly; and (2) chooses rationally between all alternative options, Tehran will refrain from any attack on an Israel that is believed willing and able to deliver an unacceptably destructive response. It is in circumstances of this sort that Israeli nuclear weapons and doctrine would benefit from selective kinds of disclosure,

Iran could also be deterred by the plausible prospect of a more limited Israeli attack, one that would be directed only at the Islamic Republic’s national leaders. In the usual parlance adopted by military and intelligence communities, this particular prospect would refer to more-or-less credible threats of “regime targeting.” Whether credible or incredible, such threats could prove severely problematic in legal terms.[27]

Two factors must combine to communicate such potentially essential belief. First, in terms of capability, there are two critical components: payload and delivery system. It must be successfully communicated to any calculating Iranian attacker that Israel’s firepower and its available means of delivering that firepower are invariably capable of inflicting unacceptable levels of destruction. This means that Israel’s retaliatory or counter-retaliatory forces must always appear sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first-strikes and sufficiently elusive to penetrate the prospective attacker’s active and civil defenses.

It may or may not need to be communicated to a potential attacker like Iran that such firepower and delivery vehicles are in any way superior. Deterrence, Israel’s planners should continuously bear in mind, is never about “victory.” The capacity to deter may or may not be as great as the capacity to “win.”[28] In the Israel-Iran matters at hand, “winning” is never a reasonable goal.

In this connection, Israeli planners could think about North Korea and the United States. In this problematic dyad of international adversaries, the Americans are clearly superior to North Korea in all usual expressions of battle-readiness, but the North Koreans could still bring formidable harms to US armed forces and even to American civilian populations. Moreover, this is to say nothing about parallel or corollary damages that could be visited upon US allies in South Korea or Japan by Kim Jung Un.

With Israel’s strategic nuclear forces and doctrine kept locked in the “basement,” enemy state Iran could sometime conclude, rightly or wrongly, that a first-strike attack or post-preemption reprisal would be cost-effective. But if relevant Israeli doctrine were made more obvious to Iran – obvious in that Israel’s nuclear assets seemingly met both payload and delivery system objectives – Israel’s nuclear forces could much better serve their indispensable security functions.

The second factor of nuclear doctrine for Israel concerns willingness. How may Israel convince any potential Iranian attacker that it possesses the resolve to deliver an appropriately destructive retaliation and/or counter retaliation? Again, the answer to this question lies largely in doctrine, that is, in Israel’s demonstrated strength of commitment to actually carry out such an attack and in the “usable” nuclear ordnance that would be made available to its armed forces.

Here, too, continued ambiguity over nuclear doctrine could wrongfully create the impression of an unwilling Israel. Conversely, any doctrinal movement toward some as-yet-undetermined level of disclosure could meaningfully heighten the impression that Israel was in fact willing to follow-through on its now explicit nuclear threats.

There are determinably persuasive connections between any incrementally more “open” or disclosed Israeli strategic nuclear doctrine and Iranian perceptions of Israeli nuclear deterrence. One such connection centers on the expected relationship between prospectively greater openness and the perceived vulnerability of Israeli strategic nuclear forces to preemptive destruction. Another such connection concerns the relation between greater openness and the perceived capacity of Israel’s nuclear forces to reliably penetrate the Islamic Republic’s active defenses.

To be deterred by Israel, a newly-nuclear Iran[29] or any other newly-nuclear adversary would need to believe that at least a critical number of Israel’s retaliatory forces could successfully survive enemy first-strikes and that these forces could not be stopped from hitting pre-designated targets in Iran or elsewhere. Regarding the “presumed survivability” component of such adversarial belief, continued or enhanced sea-basing (submarines) by Israel could prove a clarifying case in point.

Carefully articulated, an expanding doctrinal openness or partial nuclear disclosure would represent a rational option for Israel, at least to the extent that front-line enemy states such as Iran were made appropriately aware of Israel’s comprehensive nuclear capabilities. The presumed operational benefits of any such expanding doctrinal openness would accrue from certain deliberate flows of information about assorted matters of dispersion, multiplication and hardening of strategic nuclear weapon systems and certain other technical features of these systems. Most important, doctrinally controlled and orderly flows of information could serve to remove any lingering enemy state doubts about Israel’s strategic nuclear force capabilities and intentions. Left unchallenged, such doubts could literally and lethally undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence and, correspondingly, certain war-avoiding expectations of international law.

A key problem in refining Israeli strategic nuclear policy on deliberate ambiguity issues has to do with what Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz famously calls “friction.” No military doctrine can ever fully anticipate the actual pace of combat activity, or, as a corollary, the precise reactions of individual human commanders under fire. It follows that Israel’s nuclear doctrine must be encouraged to combine adequate tactical flexibility with a selective doctrinal openness. To understand exactly how such seemingly contradictory objectives can be reconciled in Jerusalem now presents a primary intellectual challenge to Israel’s national command authority.[30]

In the end, Israeli planners must think about paths to nuclear war that include the risks of inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. Though risks of a deliberate nuclear war involving Israel and Iran would be small, the Jewish State could still be vulnerable to a conflict occasioned by a mechanical/electrical/computer malfunction and/or by assorted decisional errors (i.e., miscalculation).

To properly assess the different but intersecting risks between a deliberate nuclear war and an inadvertent or accidental nuclear war should immediately be regarded as overriding in Jerusalem. These risks, including corollary legal implications, could exist independently of one another and/or could be impacted in various ways by Cold War II alignments. Israel, like the much larger United States, will continuously need to prepare for bewildering scenarios of cyber-attack and cyber-war. Such scenarios will now need to be considered together with the unpredictably destabilizing advent of “digital mercenaries.”

One more core conceptual distinction warrants prominent mention. This references the difference between inadvertent and accidental nuclear war. By definition, any accidental nuclear war would need to be inadvertent. Conversely, however, an inadvertent nuclear war would not necessarily be accidental. False warnings, for example, which could be generated by various types of technical malfunction or sparked by third-party hacking/digital mercenary interference (which might or might not have something to do with the dynamics of Cold War II) would not be included under the causes of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. Instead, they would represent cautionary narratives of an accidental nuclear war.

Most critical among the plausible causes of any inadvertent nuclear war would be errors in calculation by one. both or several sides. The most blatant example would involve misjudgments of either enemy intent or enemy capacity that would emerge and propagate as any particular crisis would escalate. Such consequential misjudgments could stem from an understandably amplified desire by one or several parties to achieve “escalation dominance.” During any major crisis between Israel and Iran, it would be the common desire for “escalation dominance” that could prove unmanageable and intolerable.

There are applicable nuances. In such a projected crisis condition, all sides, acting rationally, would strive for calculable advantage without too-severely risking total or near-total destruction. Still, there would likely be “opportunities” for misunderstanding and miscalculation. And where the adversaries would no longer be rational, all once-reassuring deterrence “bets” would be “off.”

Other causes of an inadvertent nuclear war involving Israel and Iran could include flawed interpretations of computer-generated nuclear attack warnings; an unequal willingness between adversaries to risk catastrophic war; overconfidence in deterrence and/or defense capabilities on one or both sides (including Israel); Iranian regime changes; outright revolution or coup d’état in Iran and poorly-conceived pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority among Iranian foes.

Markedly serious problems of overconfidence could be aggravated by successful tests of a nation’s missile defense operations, whether by Israel or by Iran. These problems could also be encouraged by too-optimistic assessments of Cold War II alliance guarantees. An example might be an intra-crisis judgment in Jerusalem that Washington would continuously stand firmly behind Israel’s every crisis move. Reciprocally, Iran could mistake the seriousness and commitment of its own preferred Cold War II guarantor, whether Russian or North Korean. Interestingly, North Korea continues to maintain close ties with both Tehran and Damascus, and could conceivably act as a still pre-nuclear Iran’s nuclear surrogate during intense crises with Israel.

There is more. A potential source of inadvertent nuclear war during Cold War II could be the “backfire” effect from certain strategies of “pretended irrationality. A rational Iranian enemy of Israel that had managed to convince Jerusalem of its own decisional irrationality could spark an otherwise avoidable Israeli military preemption. Conversely, an Iranian leadership that had begun to take seriously any hint of decisional irrationality in Jerusalem could sometime be frightened into striking first.

Regarding this second scenario, it should also be remembered that many years back, General Moshe Dayan, then Israel’s Minister of Defense, argued that “Israel must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.”

To be sure, though analytic and science-based, Israeli thinkers and planners are facing a specific adversarial “nightmare.” According to the etymologists, the root is niht mare or niht maere, the demon of the night. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary says this corresponds to Nordic mythology – which regarded nightmares as the product of demons. This would make it a play on, or a translation of, the Greek ephialtes or the Latin incubus. In all such interpretations of nightmare, the non-rational idea of demonic origin is central.

But the demons of nuclear strategy and nuclear war would take a very different form. For the most part, their mien is not expressly frightful, but (though often bombastic) “rational.” If Iran’s leaders are thought to be sinister, it is not that quality that should be most strategically or legally worrisome to Israel. While the state of nations has always been in the “state of nature,”[31] at least since the seventeenth century and the historic Peace of Westphalia (1648), current conditions of nuclear capacity and worldwide anarchy portend a unique amalgam of law-violating circumstances.

Among other things, the reasons behind such dire portents lie in the indispensability of rational decision-making to operationally viable nuclear deterrence and in the subtly interpenetrating fact that rational decision-making could sometime become subject to corrosive modifications or complete disappearance. Though not readily predictable, such impacts upon Iranian enemy rationality could be derived from the ever-changing dynamics of Cold War II. A future example of what is being described here would be any strategic nuclear decisions in Tehran that are based in whole or in part upon that enemy state’s subjective interpretations of Cold War II.

With still largely unpredictable enlargements of Cold War II, Israeli decision-makers should systematically prepare for progressively complex scenarios. To manage these challenging scenarios, they will first have to prepare for literally unprecedented levels of world-systemic upheaval and transformation, and, correspondingly, for seemingly unfathomable levels of decisional complexity. In some cases, these decision-maker calculations could have to acknowledge varying levels of Iranian irrationality.

For Israel, a country smaller than America’s Lake Michigan, ultimate survival will require durable “victories” of “mind over mind.”[32] These analytic victories, in turn, will depend upon prior Israeli capacities to more fully understand the many-sided elements of Cold War II. In principle, at least, such prior capacities could lead Israel to consider certain ambitious preemption options. Final decisions regarding these always-residual options would be properly based upon (a) expectations of enemy rationality or irrationality; (b) expected likelihood of enemy first-strikes; (c) expected costs or disutilities of enemy first-strikes; (d) expected schedule of enemy nuclear (or biological) weapons deployments; (e) expected efficiencies of enemy active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiencies of Israel’s active defenses over time; (g) expected efficiencies of Israeli hard-target counterforce operations over time; (h) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (i) expected US, Russian, Chinese and world community reactions to Israeli preemptions.[33]

At some point, what will be required of Israel is a determined national willingness to face the bewildering complexities of world politics with more than a perfunctory nod to Cold War II[34] or its subsidiary impacts. Looking ahead to increasingly diffuse elements of international relations and international law, this continuously growing expression of superpower tri-polarity (US, Russia, China) will help define the systemic context within which Israel’s evolving nuclear strategy could assume its optimal forms.

In shaping this all-important strategy, Israel should strive to consider many things, but should also understand all such singular factors as constituent parts of one much larger perspective. In these global life or death matters, Israel may actually have an unforeseen opportunity. This is the opportunity to approach any future disease pandemic as a potential source of expanded international cooperation,[35] and not just another regrettable focal point of belligerent nationalism. Though any such suggestion could be greeted initially with derision, nothing could eventually prove more realistic.[36] In law, its finally time to confirm that all states are in the “boat” together.

For the moment, especially vis-à-vis Iran, Israel’s ultimate “ace-in-the-hole” is nuclear deterrence, a still-untested capacity to achieve “escalation dominance” without slipping into an uncontrollable conventional or nuclear war. At the same time, any such strategic achievement should be accomplished in conformance with relevant international law. For Israel, in the best of all possible worlds,[37] strategy and law would “go forward” together, in tandem, but such an optimal convergence ought never to be assumed or taken for granted. Accordingly, in Jerusalem, the country’s leaders should never forget that (1) time-urgency is crucial to all national security preparations; (2) strategic and legal factors could sometimes intersect synergistically; and (3) security enhancement and security decline could happen “in a minute.


[1] Traditionally, visions of an improved world system were based on replacing the “balance of power” with some promising form of world government authority. In this connection, notes Sigmund Freud: “Wars will only be prevented with certainty if mankind unites in setting up a central authority to which the right of giving judgment upon all shall be handed over. There are clearly two separate requirements involved in this: the creation of a supreme agency and its endowment with the necessary power. One without the other would be useless.” (See: Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, cited in Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis, University of Denver, Monograph Series in World Affairs, Vol. 10 (1973-73), p, 27.) Albert Einstein held similar views. See, for example: Otto Nathan et al. eds., Einstein on Peace (New York: Schoken Books, 1960).

[2] On the difference s between anarchy and chaos, by this author, see: Louis René Beres:

[3] Taken from Plato’s lexicon of philosophical investigation, dialectic has its root in the Greek verb meaning “to converse,” where the objective of any such conversation is to discover “what each thing actually is.” (Republic.) Speaking through Socrates, it is evident that Plato regards dialectic as the highest or supreme form of knowledge.

[4] Historically, the idea of a balance of power – an idea of which the nuclear-age balance of terror is a current variant – has never really been more than a facile metaphor. In fact, it has never had anything to do with ascertaining any true equilibrium. As such a balance is always a matter of individual and more-or-less subjective perceptions, adversary states can never be sufficiently confident that identifiable strategic circumstances are “balanced” in their favor. In consequence, each side perpetually fears that it will be left behind, and the continual search for balance produces ever wider patterns of insecurity and disequilibrium.

[5] See Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. This “Westphalian” anarchy stands in stark contrast to the legal assumption of solidarity between all states in the presumably common struggle against aggression and terrorism. Such a peremptory expectation (known formally in international law as a jus cogens assumption), is already mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 C.E.); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli Ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey, tr., Clarendon Press, 1925 (1690); and Emmerich De Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[6] According to Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties: “…a peremptory norm of general international law is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of states as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” See: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Done at Vienna, May 23, 1969. Entered into force, Jan. 27, 1980. U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 39/27 at 289 (1969), 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, reprinted in 8 I.L.M. 679 (1969).

[7] Conspicuous preparations for nuclear war fighting could be conceived not as distinct alternatives to nuclear deterrence, but as essential and even integral components of nuclear deterrence. Earlier, Colin Gray, reasoning about U.S.-Soviet nuclear relations, argued that a vital connection exists between “likely net prowess in war and the quality of pre-war deterrent effect.” (See: Colin Gray, National Style in Strategy: The American Example,” INTERNATIONAL SECURITY, 6, No. 2, fall 1981, p. 35.) Elsewhere, in a published debate with this writer, Gray said essentially the same thing: “Fortunately, there is every reason to believe that probable high proficiency in war-waging yields optimum deterrent effect.” (See Gray, “Presidential Directive 59: Flawed but Useful,” PARAMETERS, 11, No. 1, March 1981, p. 34. Gray was responding directly to Professor Louis René Beres, “Presidential Directive 59: A Critical Assessment,” PARAMETERS, March 1981, pp. 19 – 28.).

[8] Reciprocally, almost by definition, it could have an opposite effect upon the adversarial state or terror group.

[9] One core issue here would concern Israeli reliance upon a steadily weakening US for “extended deterrence.” Going forward, Israel could sometime find itself lined up more closely on certain issues with Moscow than with Washington. See, on such ironic but conceivable prospects: Louis René Beres, “Staying Strong: Enhancing Israel’s Essential Strategic Options,” Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, June 13, 2014.

[10] Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different and overlapping forms. These forms include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[11] For the specific crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (xxix), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31), 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631 (1975), reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).

[12] See, by this writer, Louis René Beres, at INSS Tel-Aviv:

[13] A great deal has been written on pertinent questions of “strategic depth.” The heart of this issue was addressed as early as June 29, 1967, when a U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum specified that returning Israel to pre-1967 boundaries would drastically increase its vulnerability. The then Chairman of the JCS, General Earl Wheeler, concluded that for minimal deterrence and defense, Israel must retain Sharm el Sheikh and Wadi El Girali in the Sinai; the entire Gaza Strip; the high ground and plateaus of the mountains in Judea and Samaria; and the Golan Heights, east of Quneitra.

[14] The writer, Professor Louis René Beres, is author of one of the earliest books on this theme, Security of Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington Books; 1986).

[15]This permissible option can be found not in the conventional law (art. 51 of the UN Charter supports only post-attack expressions of individual or collective self-defense), but in customary international law. The precise origins of anticipatory self-defense in such customary law lie in the Caroline, a case that concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally justified certain militarily defensive actions. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require an antecedent attack. Here, the jurisprudential framework permitted a military response to a threat so long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” See: Beth M. Polebaum, “National Self-defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,” 59 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 187, 190-91 (1984) (noting that the Caroline case had transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a legal doctrine). Still earlier, see: Hugo Grotius, Of the Causes of War, and First of Self-Defense, and Defense of Our Property, reprinted in 2 Classics of International Law, 168-75 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1925) (1625); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations, reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1916) (1758). Also, Samuel Pufendorf, The Two Books on the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, 32 (Frank Gardner Moore., tr., 1927 (1682).

[16] The actual security benefits to Israel of any explicit reductions in nuclear secrecy would remain dependent, more or less, upon Clausewitzian “friction.” This refers to the inherently unpredictable effects of errors in knowledge and information concerning intra-Israel (IDF/MOD) strategic uncertainties; on Israeli and Iranian under-estimations or over-estimations of relative power position; and on the unalterably vast and largely irremediable differences between theories of deterrence, and enemy intent “as it actually is.” See: Carl von Clausewitz, “Uber das Leben und den Charakter von Scharnhorst,” Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, 1 (1832); cited in Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper No. 52, October, 1996, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Washington, D.C. p. 9.

[17] Explicit applications of the law of war to insurgent combatants’ dates to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. As more than codified treaties and conventions must comprise the law of war, the obligations of jus in bello (justice in war) are part of “the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations” (from Art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice) and thereby bind all categories of belligerents. (See Statute of the International Court of Justice, art. 38, June 29, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. 993). Further, Hague Convention IV of 1907 declares that even in the absence of a precisely published set of guidelines regarding “unforeseen cases,” the operative pre-conventional sources of humanitarian international law obtain and still govern all belligerency. The related Martens Clause is included in the Preamble of the 1899 Hague Conventions, International Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War by Land, July 29, 1899, 187 Consol. T.S. 429, 430.

[18]See Ehud Eilam, The best current example here for Israel is the Iran –Israel hybrid.

[19] This was a major conclusion of this author’s Project Daniel Report (2003) to then Prime Minister Sharon. It was titled Israel’s Strategic Future.

[20] There could also be attendant and possibly unprecedented crimes of war. Moreover, criminal responsibility of leaders under international law is not limited to direct personal action or limited by official position. On this peremptory principle of “command responsibility,” or respondeat superior, see: In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1 (1945); The High Command Case (The Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb), 12 Law Reports of Trials Of War Criminals 1 (United Nations War Crimes Commission Comp., 1949); see Parks, Command Responsibility For War Crimes, 62 MIL.L. REV. 1 (1973); O’Brien, The Law Of War, Command Responsibility And Vietnam, 60 GEO. L.J. 605 (1972); U.S. Dept. Of The Army, Army Subject Schedule No. 27 – 1 (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Convention No. IV of 1907), 10 (1970). The direct individual responsibility of leaders is also unambiguous in view of the London Agreement, which denies defendants the protection of the act of state defense. See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS, Aug. 8, 1945, 59 Stat. 1544, E.A.S. No. 472, 82 U.N.T.S. 279, art. 7.

[21] On “victory” in a nuclear war, see, by this author: See also:

[22] Recalling the Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman, Cicero, in The Letters to His Friends: “For what can be done against force, without force?” During the nuclear age, the traditional term, “balance of power” has sometimes been replaced with a more technologically appropriate “balance of terror.” For the conceptual origins of this historic replacement, se Albert Wohlstetter, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 37, No.2., January 1959, pp. 211-234.

[23] In this connection, Jerusalem must always ensure that it does not enter into any legal agreements that might threaten its overall physical survival. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, wrote about this core obligation as generic for all nations. Writing in his Opinion on the French Treaties (April 28, 1793), Jefferson opined: “The nation itself, bound necessarily to whatever it’s preservation and safety require, cannot enter into engagements contrary to its indispensable obligations.” See: Merrill D. Peterson, The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello Monograph Series, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1993, p. 115.

[24] Several of this author’s earlier books deal expressly with the pertinent distinctions. See, for example, by Louis René Beres: The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis; Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics; Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order; Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy; Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy; and Israel’s Nuclear Strategy and US National Security (Tel Aviv), a 2016 monograph co-authored by Professor Beres and General (USA/ret.) Barry McCaffrey.

[25] The underlying idea here of some palpable apocalypse seems to have been born in ancient Iran (Persia), specifically, with the Manichaeism of the Zoroastrians. Interestingly, at least one of these documents, The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, found in a Qumran cave, is a comprehensive description of Jewish military tactics and regulations at the end of the Second Commonwealth. In essence, the “Sons of Light” were expected to prevail in battle against the “Sons of Darkness” before the “end of days,” and the later fight at Masada was widely interpreted as an apocalyptic struggle between a saintly few and the wicked many.

[26] Regarding preemption, the obvious Israeli precedents for any such defensive moves would be Operation Opera directed against the Osiraq (Iraqi) nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981, and, later (though lesser known) Operation Orchard against Syria on September 6, 2007. In April 2011, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that he bombed Syrian site in the Deir ez-Zoe region of Syria had indeed been a developing nuclear reactor. In this writer’s judgment, both preemptions were lawful assertions of Israel’s “Begin Doctrine.”

[27] Such legal difficulties could bring up the authoritative “Nuremberg Principles.” In this connection, the principles of international law recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the judgment of the Tribunal were affirmed by the U.N. General Assembly as AFFIRMATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED BY THE CHARTER OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL. Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, Dec. 11, 1946. U.N.G.A. Res. 95 (I), U.N. Doc. A/236 (1946), at 1144. This AFFIRMATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED BY THE CHARTER OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL (1946) was followed by General Assembly Resolution 177 (II), adopted November 21, 1947, directing the U.N. International Law Commission to “(a) Formulate the principles of international law recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the judgment of the Tribunal, and (b) Prepare a draft code of offenses against the peace and security of mankind….” (See U.N. Doc. A/519, p. 112). The principles formulated are known as the PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED IN THE CHARTER AND JUDGMENT OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL. Report of the International Law Commission, 2nd session, 1950, U.N. G.A.O.R. 5th session, Supp. No. 12, A/1316, p. 11.

[28] See by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Jurist:

[29]Regarding Iran, see Louis René Beres and John T. Chain (General/USAF/ret.), “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran”? The Atlantic, August, 2012; and also: Professor Louis René Beres and General Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[30] “It must not be forgotten,” writes French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in “The New Spirit and the Poets” (1917), “that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.”

[31] Says Thomas Hobbes: “But though there had never been any time wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against another, yet in all times, Kings and Persons of Sovereign Authority, because of their Independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators, having their weapons pointing and their eyes fixed on one another…(Leviathan).

[32] For this term I am indebted to F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (1957)

[33] For early scholarly commentary by this author on anticipatory self-defense under international law, with special reference to Israel, see: Louis René Beres and (COL./IDF/Res.) Yoash Tsiddon Chatto, “Reconsidering Israel’s Destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq Nuclear Reactor,” TEMPLE INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 9., No. 2., 1995, pp. 437 – 449; Louis René Beres, “Preserving the Third Temple: Israel’s Right of Anticipatory Self-Defense Under International Law,” VANDERBILT JOURNAL OF TRANSNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 26, No. 1., April 1993, pp. 111- 148; Louis René Beres, “After the Gulf War: Israel, Preemption and Anticipatory Self-Defense,” HOUSTON JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 13, No. 2., Spring 1991, pp. 259 – 280; Louis René Beres, “Striking `First:’ Israel’s Post-Gulf War Options Under International Law,” LOYOLA OF LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 14, Nov. 1991, No. 1., pp. 1 – 24; Louis René Beres, “Israel and Anticipatory Self-Defense,” ARIZONA JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW, Vol. 8, 1991, pp. 89 – 99; and Louis René Beres, “After the SCUD Attacks: Israel, `Palestine,’ and Anticipatory Self-Defense,” EMORY INTERNATIONAL LAW REVIEW, Vol. 6, No. 1., Spring 1992, pp. 71 – 104. For an examination of assassination as a permissible form of anticipatory self-defense by Israel, see, Louis René Beres, “On Assassination as Anticipatory Self-Defense: The Case of Israel,” HOFSTRA LAW REVIEW, Vol. 20, No. 2., Winter 1991, pp. 321 – 340. For more general assessments of assassination as anticipatory self-defense under international law by this author, see: Louis René Beres, “The Permissibility of State-Sponsored Assassination During Peace and War,” TEMPLE INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1991, pp. 231 – 249; and Louis René Beres, “Victims and Executioners: Atrocity, Assassination and International Law,” CAMBRIDGE REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, Winter/Spring, 1993.

[34] A long-studied passage in Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning explains that earlier Scholastics were like spiders, weaving webs out of their own heads without any consideration of surrounding facts. While these webs were inherently admirable on account of their workmanship and “fineness of thread,” they were nonetheless lacking in any true explanatory substance. (I, iv., 5). Presently, in explaining Israel’s nuclear doctrine amid historical structural anarchy, it is important to construct dialectical arguments upon well-reasoned analytic foundations, and not on any diaphanous constructions of modern-day Scholastics.

[35] See, by this writer, Louis René Beres:

[36] Or “more law-enforcing,” one might add here. Says Emmerich de Vattel, in his classic The Law of Nations (1758),”The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of Nations, is that each Nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.” The statement is not intended by the 18th century Swiss jurist to b e a sign of naive idealism or charitable disposition, but rather as a pragmatic path to maximizing a commendable general interest.

[37] An expression drawn originally from the character of Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He is the author of many books and monographs on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview,1979); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press,1980); Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1983); and Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1986). His twelfth and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016; 2nd ed., 2018). In December 2016, a monograph was published at Tel Aviv University, with a special postscript by retired USA General Barry McCaffrey) titled: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy and America’s National Security  Dr. Beres was born in Zürich at the end of World War II.

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