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March 29, 2018 2:16 pm

Iranian Nuclear Weapons and ‘Palestine’ — Twin Dangers for Israel

avatar by Louis René Beres

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An Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“I think, therefore I am.” — René Descartes, Discourse on Method

Although difficult to calibrate or measure, Iranian nuclearization and Palestinian statehood are likely progressing at roughly the same pace. To be sure, this coincident or near-simultaneous progression is proceeding without any dint of conscious intent or coordinated design. Still, the cumulative security impact upon Israel could at some point prove substantial, even overwhelming.

The whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. World politics is not geometry. Within this most comprehensive sphere of possible human activity, the tangible “whole” of any expected impact could be effectively greater than the simple sum of its myriad “parts.” This means, in consideration of any specific Israeli case, that seemingly separate threats like Iranian nuclear weapons and “Palestine” should also be treated analytically with respect to their foreseeable conjunctions.

Contrary to longstanding conventional wisdom among strategists and military planners, these two converging threats do not present meaningfully separate, discrete, or unconnected hazards to Israel. Instead, they portend intersecting, mutually reinforcing, and potentially existential perils. Jerusalem, it follows, must do whatever is possible to remove or diminish the correlated dangers on both adversarial fronts, and at more-or-less the same time.

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There is more. In this collectively “Cartesian” matter, Israel’s extended “being” will be contingent upon prior and markedly capable strategic thinking. For example, among other things, Israel will now need to continuously enhance and fine-tune its conspicuously advanced multilayered active defenses. As long as incoming rocket attacks from Gaza, the West Bank, and/or Lebanon (i.e., from Hamas, Fatah, or Hezbollah) were to remain conventional, the inevitable “leakage” might still be considered tolerable. But once these rockets are fitted with chemical and/or biological materials, any such vulnerability could quickly prove unacceptable.

Reasonably, when facing Iranian long-range nuclear missiles, Israel’s Arrow ballistic missile defense system would require 100% reliability of interception. To achieve this level of reliability, however, would simply not be possible. Presently, assuming that Israel’s prime minister has already abandoned any once-residual hopes for a cost-effective 11th-hour preemption against pertinent Iranian nuclear assets — an altogether credible assumption, at this late date — Israeli defense planners must look instead to multiple and overlapping forms of deterrence.

In this regard, Israel’s political leaders will assuredly have to accept that certain more-or-less identifiable representatives of these prospective enemies might not always satisfy the complex criteria of rational behavior. In such circumstances, various jihadist adversaries in Palestine, Iran, Lebanon, or elsewhere could sometimes refuse to back away from expressly contemplated aggressions against Israel, and this in spite of any expectations of starkly destructive retaliations.

Moreover, clearly irrational enemies could exhibit such refusals in duly considered anticipation of a fully devastating Israeli reprisal. By definition, a rational enemy of Israel will always accept or reject a first-strike option by comparing the costs and benefits of each available alternative. Where the expected costs of striking first are taken to exceed expected gains, therefore, this enemy will be deterred. But where these expected costs are judged to be exceeded by expected gains, deterrence will fail.

In this case, Israel would be faced with enemy attack, whether as a “bolt from the blue,” or as the unwelcome outcome of anticipated or unanticipated crisis-escalation.

Sooner rather than later, and facing new and still-incalculable synergies from Iranian and Palestinian aggressions, Israel will need to take appropriate steps to assure that:

(1) It does not become the object of any non-conventional attacks from these enemies.

(2) It can successfully deter all possible forms of non-conventional conflict.

Carl von Clausewitz, in his Principles of War (1812) spoke persuasively of a need for “audacity.” Looking ahead,  this intangible quality or strategic trait represents still another key variable for measured consideration by IDF strategic planners.

To meet this ambitious but indispensable goal, Jerusalem must retain its recognizably far-reaching conventional superiority in pertinent weapons and capable manpower, including effective tactical control over the Jordan Valley. This is the case because conventional superiority would almost certainly reduce Israel’s explicit reliance upon any form of nuclear deterrence, a reduction that would enhance its capacity for achieving “escalation dominance” at reassuringly lower levels of belligerent confrontation.

In principle, such conventional superiority retention should reduce the overall likelihood of Israel ever actually having to enter into any chemical, biological or nuclear exchange with regional adversaries. Correspondingly, Israel should plan to begin moving incrementally beyond its increasingly perilous posture of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.” By preparing to shift toward prudently selective and partial kinds of “nuclear disclosure” — in other words, by getting ready to take its “bomb” out of the “basement” in carefully controlled phases — Israel could better ensure that its principal enemies will remain sufficiently subject to Israeli nuclear deterrence.

There is more. In further identifying its “principal enemies,” Israel will  not only need to include both state and sub-state adversaries (sometimes in “hybrid” alliance with one another), but also the cumulative intentions and capabilities of each enemy category. Regarding sub-state adversaries (e.g., Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, etc.), Israeli planners must undertake their assessments by offering a more nuanced effort than the traditional group-by-group military evaluation.

In addition, the sub-state groups being analyzed should be considered and appraised in their entirety, collectively, and as they might sometimes interrelate with one another vis-à-vis Israel.

These several hostile sub-state organizations will also need to be considered in their cumulative interactive relationships with certain core enemy states. This last expectation could perhaps best be characterized as a foreseeably essential IDF search for vital synergies between its state and sub-state adversaries.

In proceeding to examine pertinent conflicts between state and sub-state parties, Israel will already understand that there is nothing new about such “asymmetric warfare.” Nonetheless, today, and especially in the Middle East, a manifestly crucial asymmetry lies not in particular force structures or force ratios, but rather in enemy determination or strength of will.

In matters of strategy, Israeli planners may soon have to recognize that the efficacy or credibility of their country’s nuclear deterrence posture could sometime vary inversely with enemy views of Israeli nuclear destructiveness. Also critical, of course, is that Israel’s current and expected adversaries will continuously view the Jewish state’s nuclear retaliatory forces as “penetration capable.” This suggests Israeli forces that seem “assuredly capable” of penetrating any Arab or Iranian aggressor’s active defenses. Naturally, any new state of Palestine would be non-nuclear itself, but it could still represent a “nuclear danger” to Israel, by virtue of its impact upon the more generally regional “correlation of forces.” Thereby, Palestine could represent an indirect but nonetheless markedly serious nuclear threat to Israel.

Both conceptually and operationally, there is more to be done. Israel must continue to strengthen its active defenses, but it must also do everything possible to improve each critical and interpenetrating component of its cumulative deterrence posture.

Overall, the success of Israel’s national deterrence strategies will depend upon an informed prior awareness of enemy preferences, and also of specific enemy hierarchies of preferences. In this connection, altogether new and open-minded attention will need to be focused on the seemingly furious emergence of “Cold War II” between Russia and the United States. This time around, moreover, the relationship between Jerusalem and Moscow could prove distinctly helpful rather than adversarial. At the same time, it will be difficult for Jerusalem to fathom the true parameters of Cold War II because this rapidly expanding national rivalry coexists with an American president who may be “beholden” to his Russian counterpart and defer to him in controversies.

There is more. For Jerusalem, it may soon become reasonable to explore whether Cold War II between the present superpowers could turn out to be more strategically gainful for Israel than the original Cold War. Credo quia absurdum. At this seemingly transitional moment in geostrategic time, when Washington is increasingly deferential to Moscow, virtually anything appears possible. On another related issue, traditional Israeli cooperation with the United States could imply, ipso facto, non-traditional Israeli cooperation with Russian geostrategic interests.

It is essential that Israeli planners approach all prospective enemy threats as potentially interactive or even synergistic. More precisely, if a soon-to-be-formalized state of “Palestine” does not readily find itself in the same ideological orbit as Iran — now a distinctly plausible conclusion, especially in view of steadily stubborn Shiite-Sunni fissions in the Middle East — the net threat to Israel could become still more perilous than what is suggested by the merely additive result of its pertinent regional enemies.

In the interim, Iran will likely push for the creation of a more openly militant state of Palestine, and — once established — Iran will support a solidly militant stance by the newly established Arab state vis-à-vis Israel. This posture could then prove perplexing for Iran’s principal Sunni adversary, Saudi Arabia, which could decide to back off its historic support for Palestinian statehood and perhaps also its traditional opposition to Israel. Worth mentioning, too, is that a nuclear Iran will plausibly “beget” a nuclear Saudi Arabia, although that rival capacity could take extra time unless Islamabad steps quickly into the relevant knowledge “breech” on behalf of Riyadh.

A final word about inevitable and far-reaching complexity in these matters. In addition to the (already mentioned) ties between North Korea, Palestinian terrorist organizations, and Hezbollah, Pyongyang has maintained very close and extended ties with Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, North Korea supplied Tehran with Scud B missiles. North Korea also sold Soviet-made artillery, tanks, and trucks to Iran during the 1950s and 1960s.

There is even more detail to this ominous historic connection between North Korea and Iran. Over time, Pyongyang sold Scud B, C, and D extended-range Scuds to Iran, and has played a continuing role in the Islamic Republic’s advanced missile development program. North Korea has helped to build the Safir two-stage missile and the Sejil solid fuel missile for Iran; moreover, Iran’s Imad and Shihab-3 ballistic missile programs are conspicuously based on North Korea’s own Nodong missile (regarding extended range technologies).

All of this is probably just the tip of the collaborative “iceberg.” Iran still relies on parts shipped from North Korea. Without regular assistance from Pyongyang, Iran’s liquid fuel ballistic missile program could wither or even disappear. Simultaneously, the Assad regime in Syria, now conducting a literally genocidal war against portions of its own beleaguered population, could be effectively deprived of its Scud missile infrastructures.

In strategizing about the near simultaneity of Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem must consciously bear in mind that the adversarial whole would be greater than the simple sum of its belligerent parts.

What Israel faces, therefore, will likely take place less in any traditional “balance-of-power” context than within the near-total “state of nature” described  in William Golding’s nightmarish novel Lord of the Flies. Moreover, this challenging context could be magnified by the regional spread of nuclear weapons, that is, by precisely the sort of “dreadful equality” that 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes identified in Leviathan as a condition wherein the life of man must inevitably become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Going forward in their relevant strategizing, Israel’s military planners must assign intellect and learning a distinctly preeminent pride of place. Without granting such an assignment, assorted vital intersections between seemingly disparate threats — in this case, between Palestinian statehood and Iranian nuclear weapons — will fall short of their much needed evaluations and prognoses. Were this to happen, the cumulative consequences for Israel’s national security could quickly lead to previously unimagined tribulations, or perhaps even to “lamentations.”

Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. A version of this article was originally published by Israel National News. 

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