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September 15, 2019 7:44 am

What Happens to Israel if the US and Iran Go to War?

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avatar by Louis René Beres


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Sept. 4, 2019. Photo: Official President website / Handout via Reuters.

On core matters of  peace and security, two closely interrelated questions must be asked and answered, capably:

  1. What precisely does Donald Trump have in mind regarding any potential armed conflict with Iran?
  2. What might such more-or-less plausible expectations bode for a key US ally — Israel?

All useful replies must extend beyond narrowly partisan simplifications. They will, therefore, be many-sided, nuanced, and subtly overlapping. At a minimum, once a shooting war were actually underway, full-scale military engagements could quickly and substantially involve Israeli armed forces (the IDF). In plainly worst case scenarios, these clashes would involve assorted unconventional weapons and directly impact Israel’s civilian populations. Looking ahead, the most fearful worst case narratives could sometime involve nuclear ordnance.

In anticipation, serious strategic thinking is required. Even during the seemingly favorable time that Israel remained the only regional nuclear power, an American war with Iran could still elicit Israeli nuclear deterrence threats and/or Israeli nuclear reprisals for enemy-inflicted harms. For Israel, moreover, such threats or reprisals could be entirely rational.

But how might such portentous circumstances emerge, as a “bolt-from-the-blue” spasm of violence, or in less blatant stages, that is, in difficult to fathom increments of harm? Most credibly, perhaps, a “collateral war” would come to Israel as a catastrophic fait accompli, a multi-pronged belligerency wherein even the most comprehensive security preparations in Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv could suddenly prove inadequate. What could happen next?

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The only meaningful answer to such inherently problematic queries must be a candid affirmation of strategic unpredictability. In science and mathematics, after all, accurate statements of probability must be drawn systematically from the discernible frequency of relevant past events. Significantly, however, in those increasingly dense strategic matters currently before America and Israel, there are no relevant past events.

There is more strategy to ponder. For the moment, at least, Donald Trump has favored or revealed absolutely no tangible military doctrine. Accordingly, once confronted with a “no doctrine” war launched against Iran by this American president, whether as a defensive first-strike or a retaliation, Israel’s senior strategists would need to fashion their own corresponding doctrines. Inevitably, they would have to proceed without the benefit of normally indispensable bodies of associated historical information.

How precisely should Jerusalem/Tel Aviv most accurately anticipate Iranian or Iranian-surrogate attacks on Israeli targets? As an antecedent question, how should these decision-makers and planners best identify which of these vulnerable targets would be judged presumptively “high value”? At some point, such an Intelligence Community/Ministry of Defense (MOD) operational challenge could even include the small defending the country’s Dimona nuclear reactor.

Israel is less than half of the size of America’s Lake Michigan. Literally.

In both 1991 and 2014, the ultrasensitive facility at Dimona came under rocket and missile attack from deliberate Iraqi and Hamas aggressions, respectively.

In an upcoming war with the United States, Tehran would likely regard certain direct attacks upon selected Israeli targets as proper “retaliations” for American strikes — whether these strikes were an initial move of war against the Islamic Republic and its surrogates, or a more-or-less foreseeable response to Iranian first strikes, Here, too, Iranian forces could potentially gain operational access to hypersonic rockets or missiles. Should this access be obtained, Israel’s critical capacity to shoot down hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and/or hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) might subsequently prove inadequate.

What would happen next?

In essence, when the pertinent options are examined dialectically, as they should, it could be to Tehran’s perceived advantage to ostentatiously drag Israel into any US or Iran-initiated war. Striking the US homeland itself would prove vastly more difficult for Iran, and also more likely to elicit variously intolerable reprisals. Wittingly or unwittingly, a Trump-initiated war against Iran would strengthen Saudi military power specifically and Sunni Arab military power in general. While such an expected strengthening might now seem less worrisome to Israel than further Iranian militarization, this delicate strategic calculus could change very quickly.

In this easily imagined case, Israeli planners would need to recall and reexamine the presumptively truthful adage: “Be careful what you wish for.”

There is more. Should the Trump-led American military find itself in a two-front or multi-front war — a complex conflict wherein American forces were battling in Asia (North Korea) and the Middle East simultaneously — Israel could unexpectedly find itself fighting on its own. For such an exceptionally complicated scenario to be suitably appreciated, Israeli strategists would first need to bear in mind that the “whole” of any deterioration caused by multi-front engagements could effectively exceed the sum of constituent “parts.”

This means, among other things, that Israeli strategists and planners will need to remain aptly and persistently sensitive to all conceivable synergies. In this connection, it goes without saying that the Trump administration is unaccustomed to such challenging intellectual calculations. Somehow, for these planners in Washington, complex strategic decision-making can be extrapolated from the unrelated worlds of real-estate bargaining and casino gambling.

Far better for Washington and Jerusalem to recall timeless insights of Carl von Clausewitz. For the still celebrated author of On War, the determining standard of reasonableness in any military contest must always lie in its presumed political outcomes. For a state to get caught up in war — any war — without any clear political expectations is a mistake, always, on its face, or prima facie.

For more years than we may care to recollect, futile American wars have been underway in Iraq and Afghanistan. In time, for both Iraqis and Afghans, once-hoped-for oases of regional stability will regress to what English philosopher Thomas Hobbes would have called a “war of all against all.” At best, what eventually unravels in these severely fractured countries will be no worse than if these wars had never even been fought.

This will not be a desired political outcome.

Over the years, with the now obvious exception of North Korea, America’s principal doctrinal enemy has changed, dramatically, from “communism” to “Islamism” or “Jihadism.” This time, however, the ideological adversary is palpable, real, and not merely presumptive. This time, also, it is a formidable and finely-textured foe, one that requires serious analytic study, not ad hoc responses or seat-of-the-pants presidential eruptions. At times, to be sure, real or contrived bellicosity can helpfully serve American national security policy objectives, but not where it is wholly detached from any previously-constructed theoretical foundations.

There is more. The Jihadist enemy of Israel and America remains a foe that can never be fully defeated, at least not in any tangibly final sense. To wit, this determined enemy will not be immobilized on any of the more usual or traditional military battlefields.


If at some point a particular jihadist adversary has seemingly been vanquished by US military forces in one country or another, it will likely re-group and reappear elsewhere. After Iraq, after Afghanistan, even after Syria (which now winds down with US and Russian support of a genocidal regime that has been historically hostile to Israel), America will face resurgent adversaries in hard-to-manage and geographically far-flung places. These locales include Sudan, Mali, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, and perhaps even Bangladesh or (in the future) “Palestine.”

Daily, in the Middle East, an American president and his advisors are sounding alarm bells over Iran — and this after the United States, not Iran, withdrew from an international legal agreement that was less than perfect, but (reasonably) better than nothing at all.

When all these intersecting factors are taken into suitable intellectual account, there remains a residual argument (one that might quickly be anticipated in Israel) that a US-generated war with Iran would de facto amount to an anti-nuclear preemption or to some similarly purposeful act of “anticipatory self-defense.” Here, and with little reasonable doubt, the American war would be widely regarded as “cost-effective” or “net gainful” in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv. This visceral assessment, however, could become more a matter of what Sigmund Freud called “wish fulfillment” than of any serious strategic assessment of risks and benefits.

Plausibly, there could be only a tiny likelihood that American bombs and missiles would be adequately targeted on widely multiplied/hardened/dispersed Iranian nuclear infrastructures. In reality, at least at present, a US war against Iran would be contrary to Israel’s core national security interests and obligations. Glib reassurances to the contrary from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or Washington (or from both capitals) could be prospectively lethal for Israel. Though assuredly genuine, the threat from Iran should never be taken as an opportunity for simplifying political rhetoric. Instead, this threat should be assessed and calibrated dialectically, as reliably as possible according to normally verifiable standards of enemy force posture estimations.

If, at any point during crisis bargaining between Iran, Hezbollah, Israel, and the United States, one side or the other should place too great a value on achieving “escalation dominance” and too little on parallel considerations of national safety, the expanding conflict could quickly turn “out of control.” Such consequential deterioration would be especially or even uniquely worrisome if Israel threatened or actually launched some of its presumptive nuclear forces. This is the case, moreover, irrespective of any promised strategic support for Israel from the United States.

In sum, especially now, if Israel should look to the United States for seamlessly capable geo-strategic leadership, it would be taking very great and genuinely unprecedented national security risks. At a minimum, Israel has the incontestable right (and also the obligation to its own citizens) to expect fully decipherable expressions of US military doctrine. Going forward, unless it should insist more firmly and conspicuously upon maintaining this utterly critical right, Israel could at some point have to face certain starkly injurious security outcomes.

It is altogether foreseeable that such intolerable security outcomes could prove irremediable and irreversible.

For Israel and the United States, it is high time for sober humility and determined caution. Without exception, all mentioned Iran-centered quandaries represent turbulent and uncharted waters. In principle, perhaps, they can be successfully navigated, but only after markedly abundant applications of both intellect and perspicacity.

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. Professor Beres’ twelfth and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). 

This is adapted from a report originally published by the BESA Center.

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