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Preventing Nuclear War in the Middle East: Science, System and “Vision”

Nuclear War In The Middle East

By Prof. Louis Rene Beres

A scientist, whether theorist or experimenter, puts forward statements, or systems of statements, and tests them step by step.”-Karl R. Popper -The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959)

For the moment, informed global concerns about nuclear war avoidance center on superpower crises over Ukraine. Though such existential concerns are understandable and well-founded, there are coinciding nuclear threats in other parts of the world. More precisely, because world politics must always be evaluated as a system,  whatever happens in Ukraine regarding nuclear warfare matters could sometime spill over into the Middle East.

               Irremediably, the specific shape or form of any such “spillover” would be difficult to decipher.

               Now, a very basic query must be raised: What are the essential parameters of relevant strategic planning? Whether or not analysts care to admit it, a nuclear war in the Middle East is conceivable and more-or-less plausible. Nothing can be said about tangible probabilities because a nuclear war – any nuclear war – would represent a unique event. By definition, any nuclear conflict would be sui generis. In science and mathematics, true probabilities must be based upon the isolable frequency of pertinent past events.


               Quo Vadis? By definition, no other subject of national security concern could possibly justify comparably serious examinations. This means, inter alia, that Israel’s most capable strategic thinkers and scholars are immediately responsible for ensuring that virtually every imaginable nuclear war scenario will be suitably delineated and explored.[3] It suggests further that Israel’s strategic analyses be consistently and expressly theoretical.

               Recalling philosopher of science Karl Popper’s oft-quoted line (borrowed from the classic German poet, Novalis), “Theory is a net. Only those who cast, can catch.”

               A core question needs to be raised at the outset: How might Israel find itself caught up in a nuclear war? Under what identifiable circumstances could Israel discover itself involved with actual nuclear weapons use?

               Presently, as Israel remains the only regional nuclear power, such concerns could appear baseless. Nonetheless, always changing “order-of-battle” considerations could change suddenly and unexpectedly, most ominously in regard to Iran. Even in the continuing absence of a regional nuclear adversary, a beleaguered Israel could find itself having to rely upon nuclear deterrence against sub-nuclear (i.e., biological and/or massive conventional) threats. Acknowledging such a potentially existential reliance, the prospect of atomic weapons firing ought never be excluded or ruled out ipso facto.

               What next? To answer its most basic nuclear security questions, Jerusalem’s strategic planners will need to adhere closely to variously well-established canons of systematic inquiry, logical analysis and dialectical reasoning. Accordingly, there are four intersecting narratives that best “cover the bases” of Israel’s obligatory nuclear preparedness: Nuclear RetaliationNuclear Counter RetaliationNuclear Preemption; and Nuclear War fighting.  In sufficient detail, here is what these four comprehensive scenarios could reveal to that country’s capable leaders and scholars:

(1)          Nuclear Retaliation

               Should an enemy state or alliance of enemy states ever launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel, Jerusalem would respond, assuredly, and to whatever extent judged possible/cost-effective, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. If enemy first-strikes were to involve certain other forms of unconventional weapons, notably high-lethality biological weapons, Israel might still launch a nuclear reprisal. This particular response would likely depend, in significant measure, on Jerusalem’s calculated expectations of follow-on aggression and its associated assessments of comparative damage-limitation.

               If Israel were to absorb “only” a massive conventional attack, a nuclear retaliation could not automatically be ruled out, especially if: (a) the state aggressor(s) were perceived to hold nuclear and/or other unconventional weapons in reserve; and/or (b) Israel’s leaders believed that exclusively non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent annihilation of the state. A nuclear retaliation by Israel could be ruled out ipso facto only where enemy state aggressions were conventional, “typical” (that is, sub-existential or consistent with previous historic instances of enemy attack in degree and intent), and hard-target directed (that is, directed solely toward Israeli weapons and military infrastructures, not at “soft” civilian populations).

(2)          Nuclear Counter retaliation

               Should Israel feel compelled to preempt enemy state aggression with conventional weapons, the target state(s)’ response would largely determine Jerusalem’s subsequent moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would expectedly turn to nuclear counter-retaliation. If this retaliation were to involve other weapons of mass destruction, Israel might then feel pressed to take an appropriate escalatory initiative. Any such initiative would necessarily reflect the presumed need for what is formally described in strategic parlance as “escalation dominance.”

                There is more. All pertinent decisions would depend upon Jerusalem’s early judgments of enemy state intent and on its accompanying calculations of essential damage-limitation. Should the enemy state response to Israel’s preemption be limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is unlikely that Israel would move on to any nuclear counter retaliations. If, however, the enemy conventional retaliation were “all-out” and plainly directed toward Israeli civilian populations – not just at Israeli military targets – an Israeli nuclear counter retaliation could not be excluded.

               It would appear that such a unique counter-retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state’s conventional retaliation were entirely proportionate to Israel’s preemption, confined exclusively to Israeli military targets, circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity” (a limit routinely codified in the law of armed conflict) and accompanied by various explicit and verifiable assurances of non-escalatory intent.

(3)          Nuclear Preemption

               It is prima facie implausible (perhaps generally even inconceivable) that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Although circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would be perfectly rational, it is unlikely that Israel would ever allow itself to reach such “all or nothing” security circumstances. Unless the relevant nuclear weapons were employed in a fashion still consistent with the authoritative laws of war, this form of preemption would represent a flagrantly serious violation of binding (codified and customary) international rules.

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               Even if such consistency were possible, the psychological/political impact on the world community would be negative and far-reaching. In essence, this means that an Israeli nuclear preemption could be expected only where (a) Israel’s state enemies had acquired nuclear and/or other weapons of mass destruction judged capable of annihilating the Jewish State; (b) these enemies had made it clear that their military intentions paralleled their capabilities; (c) these enemies were believed ready to begin an active “countdown to launch;” and (d) Jerusalem believed that Israeli non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve needed minimum levels of damage-limitation – that is, levels consistent with physical preservation of the state and nation.

               It is arguable, at least in principle, that an Israeli non-nuclear preemption could sometime represent the best way to reduce the risks of a regional nuclear war.  Such an argument would flow logically from the assumption that if Israel waits too long for Iran to strike first, that enemy (once it had crossed the nuclear weapons threshold) could launch its own nuclear attacks. Even if Iran should strike first with conventional weapons only, Israel might calculate no rational damage-limiting alternatives to launching a nuclear retaliation.

               To the extent that this narrative is taken as a reasonable scenario, the cost-effectiveness/legality of certain Israeli non-nuclear preemptions could be enhanced.  Arguably, in these actions, Jerusalem’s preemptive commitment to “anticipatory self-defense” would be entirely law-enforcing.  No such defense could be mustered on behalf of any Israeli nuclear preemption, an unprecedented attack that would (in virtually all conceivable circumstances) be in stark violation of authoritative international law.  A possible exception could obtain only if Israel’s resort to a nuclear preemption were compelled by plausible expectations of national disappearance (see, in this connection, the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice).

               Should Israel feel compelled to resort to actual nuclear war-fighting at some point after (1) enemy reprisals for Israel’s conventional preemption cause the state to escalate to nuclear weapons, or (2) enemy chemical/biological/conventional first-strikes cause Israel to escalate to nuclear weapons, the country would confront substantial problems under international law.  Should an enemy state launch nuclear first-strikes against Israel (not presently a possibility unless Pakistan is counted as an enemy state), Jerusalem’s retaliatory use of nuclear weapons would be less problematic jurisprudentially. At the same time, matters of law in such dire circumstances would become utterly moot.

(4)          Nuclear War fighting

               Should nuclear weapons be introduced into an actual conflict between Israel and its enemies, either by Israel or a particular foe, nuclear war fighting, at one level or another, would ensue. This would be true so long as: (a) enemy first-strikes against Israel would not destroy Jerusalem’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Jerusalem’s nuclear counter retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy adversarial second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy nuclear counter retaliatory capability.

               It follows that in order to satisfy its essential survival requirements, Israel should take immediate, recognizable and reliable steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).

               In all cases, Israel’s nuclear strategy and forces must remain oriented toward deterrence, never to actual war fighting. With this in mind, in all likelihood, Jerusalem has already taken suitable steps to reject tactical or relatively low-yield “battlefield” nuclear weapons and any operational plans for counter-force targeting. For Israel, always and without exception, nuclear weapons can make sense only for deterrence ex ante; not revenge ex post.

               The four above scenarios should remind Israeli planners and policy-makers of the overriding need for coherent nuclear theory and strategy. Among other things, this need postulates a counter-value targeted nuclear retaliatory force that is recognizably secure from enemy first-strikes and presumptively capable of penetrating any enemy state’s active defenses. To best meet this imperative security expectation, the IDF would be well-advised to continue with its sea-basing (submarines) of designated portions of its nuclear deterrent force. To satisfy the equally important requirements of “penetration-capability,” Tel-Aviv will have to stay conspicuously well ahead of all foreseeable enemy air defense refinements.

               There is more. Sooner rather than later, Jerusalem will need to consider a partial and possibly sequenced end to its historic policy of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.” By selectively beginning to remove the “bomb” from Israel’s “basement,” national planners would be better positioned to enhance the credibility of their country’s nuclear deterrence posture. However counter-intuitive, the mere possession of nuclear forces could never automatically bestow credible nuclear deterrence upon Israel or on any other nation-state.

               Always, something more would be necessary.

               In Israel’s strategic nuclear planning, would-be aggressors, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, should be systematically encouraged to believe that Jerusalem has the required will to launch measured nuclear forces in retaliation and that these forces are sufficiently invulnerable to any-contemplated first-strike attacks. Additionally, these enemies must be made to expect that Israel’s designated nuclear forces could reliably penetrate all already-deployed ballistic-missile defenses and air defenses.

                Israel, it follows from all this, could benefit substantially from releasing at least certain broad outlines of its strategic configurations, capacities and doctrines. Without a prior and well-fashioned strategic doctrine, no such release could make sufficiently persuasive deterrent sense.

                Such intentionally released information could support the perceived utility and security of Israel’s nuclear retaliatory forces. Disclosed solely to enhance Israeli nuclear deterrence, it would center purposefully upon the targeting, hardening, dispersionmultiplicationbasing, and yield of selected national ordnance. Under certain conditions, the credibility of Israeli nuclear deterrence could vary inversely with the perceived destructiveness of its pertinent weapons. These should never be treated as issues of “common sense.”            

                Among other fundamental concerns, Israel will need to prepare differently for an expectedly rational nuclear adversary than for an expectedly irrational one.  In such variously nuanced and unprecedented circumstances, national decision-makers in Jerusalem would need to distinguish precisely and meaningfully between genuine enemy irrationality, pretended or feigned enemy irrationality and authentic enemy madness. In actual military practice, operationalizing such subtle distinctions could present staggeringly complex intellectual challenges and would need to take account of whether pertinent principal adversaries were (1) fully or partially sovereign states; (2) sub-national terrorist groups; or (3) “hybrid” enemies comprised of both state and sub-state foes.

               Whatever nuances will be encountered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the only rational way for Israel to effectively meet all these growing challenges will be to stay well ahead of its adversaries through the indispensable power of erudition and scholarship. Long ago, in classical Greece and Macedonia, the linked arts of war and deterrence were already described by military planners as challenges of “mind over mind,” not merely crude contests of “mind over matter.” For Israel, such ancient descriptions remain even more valid today.

               Before Israel can successfully satisfy its most primary security and survival obligations,                the country’s capable scholars must assume increasing intellectual responsibility for meeting the relevant challenges of “mind.” Most importantly, this means carrying on a coherent strategic “conversation” that goes significantly beyond usual day-to-day political commentaries or narrowly partisan observations. In the final analysis, Israel’s security situation must never be allowed to become a result of narrow political bickering between competing parties or interests. Instead, it should be allowed to emerge as the lifesaving outcome of optimally disciplined and dispassionate strategic scholarship.

               There is one additional observation, a crucial one that brings the reader back to current superpower disagreements over Ukraine. Though present concern is that these disagreements could impact the prospect of a nuclear conflict in the Middle East (because world politics must always be assessed as a system, there are also variously urgent reciprocal concerns. To wit, a nuclear crisis or nuclear war in the Middle East could affect the likelihood of nuclear crisis or nuclear war between the United States and Russia over Ukraine.

               Of necessity, the basis of this bold assertion is deductive argument rather than empirical generalization. Such a reasoned basis is by no means useless, deceptive or inferior. It represents the only logically acceptable basis for offering estimations of any such unique (sui generis) strategic circumstances.

               Going forward, the prevention of a nuclear war in the Middle East should always be founded upon science-based scholarship and law, not on transient political factors. As a practical matter, observers are unlikely to see any propitious end to “Westphalian” international relations soon, but planners and policy-makers must still acknowledge that the “dreadful equality” of Thomas Hobbes’ “State of Nature” among individuals is also starting to characterize the relationship of certain states in world politics. More to the point, with the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons, some of the “weakest” states could become able to “kill the strongest.”

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               Among other things, this hitherto ignored outcome would mean that a particular state’s tangible “superiority” in nuclear weapons might not necessarily produce any proportionate increments of national security or safety.

               “Realistically,” to sum up these matters concerning nuclear war avoidance in the Middle East, analysts ought to not soon expect any fundamental transformations of Realpolitik in the region. In the short term, at least, Israel’s planners and policy makers should continue to do whatever is needed and lawful to maintain the country’s critical deterrence and defense postures. At the same time, and preferably in some sorts of institutionalized cooperation with potentially nuclear adversary Iran, Jerusalem should begin to think beyond the “Westphalian” system of self-help power politics altogether.  Though hard to take seriously regarding issues of international relations, the comprehensive wisdom of Federico Fellini does reasonably apply to variously complex matters of nuclear war avoidance:                 “The visionary,” warned the Italian film director succinctly but broadly, “is the only realist.”

Louis Rene Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear.

You may find here his latest law review article Israeli Nuclear Deterrence And International Law: Calculating Effects Of Power Politics And Pandemics.

This article was first published on Moderndi Dlomacy



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