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Existential conflict: Dialectics of an Israel-Iran nuclear war

In a nightmare scenario, Israel would fail to prevent a nuclear Iran, and Iran would become the first to fire its nuclear weapons.

Israeli F-35 fighter jets fly in formation (Israel Defense Forces)

by Prof. Louis Rene Beres

For the moment, as Iran remains “pre-nuclear,” an Israel-Iran nuclear exchange is out of the question. Nonetheless, if Israel is able to maintain its asymmetrical nuclear advantage, a one-sided nuclear war would still be possible. Circumstances could sometime arise in which Israel felt compelled to launch parts of its “ambiguous” nuclear arsenal against Iran. The most plausible rationale of any such launch would be to (1) prevent Iranian “escalation dominance;” and (2) keep Iran from “becoming nuclear.”

In offering suitable explanations, recent history will show that during April 2024, Israel and Iran engaged in a brief but direct interstate conflict. Looking ahead, it would be reasonable to expect additional rounds of direct warfare between these two bitter adversaries. Conflict durations could be much longer and more protracted. It follows that Israel would be under expanding pressures to dominate escalation during periods of hyper-warfare with Iran and that such potentially existential pressures could precipitate an Israeli resort to nuclear weapons use.

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What should Israel seek in such unprecedented but increasingly likely encounters? Above all else, Israel’s strategic objective vis-à-vis Iran should be nuclear war avoidance. In a near worst-case scenario, Israel could calculate that nothing short of massive non-nuclear preemption would halt Tehran’s ongoing nuclearization.

An Israeli nuclear preemption is inconceivable. But even if Israel’s determination to launch a non-nuclear preemption were analytically correct and law-enforcing, its tangible results could still be catastrophic.

What should now be done by Jerusalem? How should principal Israeli decision-makers balance these dissuasive results against all calculable risks and benefits?

A best answer should be drawn from conceptual and theoretical fundamentals. Israeli strategists should always examine their country’s available security options as an intellectual rather than political task.

There will be pertinent details, both conspicuous and inconspicuous. Any tactically successful conventional preemption against Iranian weapons and infrastructures could come at more-or-less unacceptable costs. In 2003-2004, when this writer’s Project Daniel Group presented an early report on Iranian nuclearization to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, prospective Iranian targets were already more directly threatening to Israel than Iraq’s nuclear Osiraq reactor had been on June 7, 1981. That was the date of Israel’s law-based preemption, an operation code-named “Opera.”

To the extent that they could be estimated accurately, the risks of an Israel-Iran nuclear war would ultimately depend on whether the conflict was intentional, unintentional, or accidental. Apart from applying this critical three-part distinction, there would be no good reason to expect optimally useful strategic assessments from Tel Aviv (MOD/IDF).

Once applied, however, Israeli planners should fully understand that their complex subject lacks clarifying precedents and that this absence would present an insurmountable prediction problem.

Israeli strategists and war planners will also be obliged to remember the timeless warnings of Prussian thinker Karl von Clausewitz on the role of “friction.” At its core, friction represents “the difference between war on paper and war as it actually is.”

Peremptory rules of logic and mathematics preclude any meaningful assignments of probability in unprecedented or sui generis matters. To come up with any logically-meaningful estimations of probability, these predictions would have to be based upon the determinable frequency of relevant past events. As there have been no occasions of an interstate nuclear exchange, there could be no relevant past events.

Competent Israeli strategic analysts must examine all current and future nuclear risks from Iran. Such a comprehensive examination should take special note of Iran’s radiation dispersal weapons and its potential capacity to attack Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor with non-nuclear missiles. Also worth emphasizing is that North Korea, bolstered by Russia and China, has been a clamorous ally of Iran, and could sometime allow its national nuclear forces to serve as Iranian proxies during a protracted war with Israel.

If any Israeli planners should assume that a “Trump II” presidency could help in such unpredictable scenarios, they ought first to recall Mr. Trump’s ambiguous summarizing message after the Singapore Summit: “We [Trump and Kim] fell in love.”

Following their Singapore meeting, Trump and Kim each seemed to assume the other’s decisional rationality and also the mutual primacy of decisional intent. If such an assumption had not existed, it would have made no logical sense for either president to strike existential retaliatory fear in the other. But what are the derivative lessons of “Singapore” for Israel vis-à-vis Iran? Should Israel also assume a fully rational adversary in Iran? Though any such assumption would be more or less reassuring in Jerusalem’s decision-making circles, it could also be incorrect.

On several occasions during his presidential tenure, Donald Trump praised pretended irrationality as a potentially promising US nuclear strategy. But such a strategic preference could never be purposeful for Israel. This is the case despite Moshe Dayan’s much earlier musing about Israel and its enemies: “Israel must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.”

Though neither Israel nor Iran might prefer conditions of a steadily escalating war, either or both “players” could still commit catastrophic errors during their obligatory searches for “escalation dominance.” If Jerusalem and Tehran undertake competitive risk-taking in extremis, Israel’s only reliable “ace in the hole” will be its continuing nuclear monopoly.

An unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war between Israel and Iran could take place not only as the result of misunderstandings or miscalculations between rational leaders, but also as the unintended consequence of mechanical, electrical, or computer malfunction. This includes hacking interference and should bring to mind corollary distinctions between unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war.

Though all accidental nuclear war would be unintentional, not every unintentional nuclear war would be caused by accident. An unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could sometime be the result of certain misjudgments about enemy intentions.

“In war,” says Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously in On War, “everything is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Fashioning a successful “endgame” to any impending future nuclear confrontation with Iran, Israel’s leaders will need to understand that a crisis in extremis is inevitably about more than maximizing any “correlation of forces” or “missile-interception” capabilities. It will be about variously antecedent Israeli triumphs of “mind over mind.”

As a nuclear war has never been fought, what will be needed in Jerusalem is more broadly intellectual guidance than Israel could ever reasonably expect from even its most senior and capable military officers.

The reason is simple

There are no plausible experts on fighting an unprecedented kind of war, not in Jerusalem, not in Tehran, not anywhere. It was not by happenstance that the first serious theoreticians of nuclear war and nuclear deterrence in the 1950s were academic mathematicians, physicists and political scientists. Having to deal with matters that lacked usable historic or empirical data, these thinkers were forced to rely essentially on deductive logic, deriving their essential strategic theories from meticulously assembled abstractions.

There remains one final point about still-estimable risks of an Israel-Iran nuclear war. From the standpoint of Jerusalem, the only truly successful outcome would be a crisis or confrontation that ends with a reduction of Iranian nuclear war fighting intentions and capabilities. It would represent a serious mistake for Israel to settle for any bloated boasts of “victory” based upon a one-time avoidance of nuclear war. In this geo-strategic conflict with Iran, potentially existential dangers to Israel are foreseeably continuous.

The Israel-Iran strategic conflict is self-propelling. For Jerusalem, providing Israeli national security vis-à-vis a steadily-nuclearizing Iran ought never to become an ad hoc or “seat-of-the-pants” struggle. Without any suitably long-term plan in place for avoiding an atomic war, a nuclear conflict that is deliberate, unintentional or accidental could “sometimes happen.”

At every stage of its corrosive competition with Tehran, Israel should avoid losing sight of the only rational use for its presumptive nuclear weapons and doctrine. That limited use is to maintain Israeli “escalation dominance” during military crisis and to prevent an operationally usable Iranian nuclear force. More generally, nuclear weapons can succeed only as instruments of strategic deterrence and nuclear war avoidance. By reasonable definition, any actual use of a state’s nuclear weapons would “automatically” signify their failure. Israel ought to view ongoing “asymmetrical” conflict with Iran as the preferred context for preventing Iranian nuclear weapons.

There is something else. In the absence of such conflict, an already nuclear Israel could still exercise a preemption option against a pre-nuclear Iran, but only as a “bolt-from-the-blue” attack. Though this particular sort of action could fulfil all authoritative expectations of “anticipatory self-defense” under international law, it would be vastly more difficult to support in political and public relations terms.

What if Israel and Iran were both “already nuclear”? In such a next-to-worst case scenario, Israel, having failed to act in a timely fashion, could have to strike preemptively against a more menacing adversary. In a worst case scenario, Israel would fail to prevent a nuclear Iran, and Iran would become the first adversary to fire its nuclear weapons. Certain specific Arab states could rush to join the “nuclear club.” In all likelihood, these states – potentially joined by Turkey – would be Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Summarizing all these “strategy of conflict” issues in policy-relevant terms, Israel’s only cost-effective strategy would be to prevent Iranian nuclearization and correlative Arab state nuclearization by dominating escalations during a non-nuclear war or an asymmetrical nuclear war. Ideally, such a strategy would be exercised during the course of an already-ongoing armed conflict, though Israel could, as last resort, plan “bolt-from-the-blue” strikes against Iranian hard targets that are convincingly lawful expressions of national survival options. Under international law, these permissible strikes would be examples of “anticipatory self-defense.”

In the end, we are all creatures of biology. For Israel and Iran, a nuclear war would resemble any other incurable disease. For both, therefore, the only reasonable survival strategies must lie in prevention.

Prof. Louis Rene Beres was educated at Princeton(Ph.D., 1971). He is the author of many books and articles dealing with war, terrorism and counter-terrorism, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1979), and Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980).  His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016 (2nd ed. 2018).

Professor Beres has examined WMD terrorism for more than fifty years, earlier in consultation with the Nuclear Control Institute, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Defense Nuclear Agency (DoD), and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center (USA). His articles have appeared in BESA (Israel); Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; International Security (Harvard); Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Yale Global (Yale University); World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsAir-Space Operations Review (USAF); Jewish Business News; The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; and Oxford University Press Annual Yearbook of International Law and Jurisprudence (Oxford University Press). The Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, PM Sharon, 2003-2004), Dr. Beres’ work is known to both American and Israeli intelligence communities. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II.



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