The failure of Israeli policymaking with regards to the Iranian nuclear threat is rooted in the fact that Israeli leaders are completely ignoring the need to discuss Israel’s policy in the event that Iran succeeds in equipping itself with nuclear weapons. In all the discussions taking place in the closed forums led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the focus is on one question alone: whether or not to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities.
Netanyahu’s policymaking reference point, which he publicly proclaims, is that Israel cannot reconcile itself to a nuclear Iran. Therefore, he asserts, Israel has no alternative but to take military action against Iran’s nuclear program. Since the assumption is that Iran will not have nuclear weapons, there is no need for political discussions or policy formulation on how to cope with the threat of a nuclear Iran. This is the reason that the public discourse in Israel is almost completely limited to the pros and cons of a possible [pre-emptive] strike.
This is, of course, a severe shortcoming in Israeli strategic thinking because it is possible — despite the massive pressures, sanctions, and even an Israeli strike — that Iran will [succeed in] acquiring nuclear weapons. Even Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have stated that the Iranian bomb-development plan can only be stalled for a relatively short period of time.
An analysis of Israel’s options in its formulation of a “day after” policy, demonstrates that the most logical, realistic and effective approach is to switch to unconcealed nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis Iran. In the 1960s, the two superpowers — the United States and Soviet Union — came to the conclusion that only unconcealed, mutual nuclear deterrence would prevent the use of nuclear weapons [after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963]. Thus, Israel will also be forced to adopt the unconcealed deterrence approach.
For more than four decades of the Cold War, the annihilation of the human race was avoided because of mutual deterrence between the two super-powers. The strategic stability was based on “balance of terror” and on what was called Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD. To each of the sides it was clear that even if it succeeded in surprising its adversary and attacking it with all the nuclear weapons at its disposal, the nation-adversary would still have enough bombs to inflict total destruction on the attacker [second strike force capability].
The nuclear-deterrence theory, developed mainly by American academics, went through many changes from the mid-1940s until the MAD strategy was consolidated in the mid-1960s, mainly by US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Once McNamara succeeded in persuading the Soviet leadership that the only way to create stable deterrence was for both sides to expose themselves to total annihilation by its adversary, this doctrine became the cornerstone of nuclear deterrence that would ensure the continued existence of human civilization.
It seems that the most effective way to deter policymakers in Tehran from planning on the future use of nuclear weapons, will be clarifying the horrific price that Iran will pay if it makes use of these weapons. In order to achieve this, Israel will have to abandon nuclear ambiguity — its current policy — and adopt unconcealed nuclear deterrence, in which it will make clear to Iran the new rules of the game in the region.
The Israeli nuclear deterrence must include clear clarifications regarding “red lines” [set by Israel]. If the Iranians cross these lines, they risk an Israeli nuclear response. For example, it should be made clear that the detection of any ballistic missile launched from Iran in a westerly direction will mean, for Israel, the launching of an Iranian nuclear missile against it. (Detection after launching is possible with the help of American satellites that transfer information to Israel according to an agreement between the two countries.) Under such circumstances Israel will not wait to see where the missile hits [and whether it is equipped with a nuclear warhead].
Instead, Israeli will automatically retaliate by launching its nuclear missiles at targets in Iran’s territory (this approach is called “launch under attack” in professional literature). It will be made clear to the Iranians that Israel’s nuclear attack would be aimed at major Iranian cities such as Tehran, Tabriz, Kom and Esfahan. The results of such an assault will be clear. Such clarification will force the policy-makers in Tehran to decide whether the killing of several hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens is worth the price of the destruction of the modern Iranian state, its return to the Middle Ages, and the loss of life of millions of its citizens.
Despite the inflamed rhetoric of high-level Iranian officials, it is doubtful if there is any Iranian national interest, including the possibility of wiping out hundreds of thousands of citizens of ‘the Zionist entity’ or ‘small Satan,’ that justifies such a high price.
There are many in Israel who argue that, unlike policymakers in the superpowers, the Iranian leadership — the extremist Islamic ayatollahs — are not rational, so one cannot rely on deterring them from using the bomb when it will be in their hands. Therefore, the key question is whether an Iran with nuclear weapons would act like a rational state. For if it is not possible to deter Iranian leaders from launching its nuclear weapons against Israel, because their considerations and decisions are not rational, then a nuclear Iran will, indeed, represent an existential threat that Israel cannot reconcile itself to. In such a case Netanyahu would be correct in his assessment that there is no choice but to attack and attempt to destroy the Iranian nuclear program.
On the other hand, if the assumption is that even the ayatollahs in Tehran are rational, it will be possible to rely on appropriate Israeli deterrence. Israeli citizens will be able to live in the shadow of the Iranian bomb, exactly like the citizens of the two superpowers lived in the shadow of tens of thousands of nuclear bombs during the Cold War period.
Thus Israeli policymakers face a dilemma regarding the cornerstone assumptions on which mutual deterrence was based during the Cold war: Are these assumptions also applicable to the Iranian instance? Will the calculations and considerations of an Islamic leader in Tehran, resemble those of the men who sat in the Kremlin? Will the heirs of Ayatollah Khomeini be willing to commit suicide and bring about the annihilation of the Iranian nation, only to kill a few hundreds of thousands of citizens of the hated Zionist entity?
It seems that a professional and sober analysis of the Iranian way of thinking, of the Iranian culture and of past Iranian experience, teaches us that the behavior of Iran’s leaders with regard to Israeli nuclear deterrence, will be rational in the Western understanding of the concept. In other words, their behavior will be as rational as the behaviors and policies of the leaders of the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War.
It must be understood that Iran is developing nuclear weaponry because of its bitter experience during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s — and not to use it against its neighbors or against Israel. The development of nuclear weapons is a rational Iranian decision, because it is the [classic] answer of Third World countries to the threats posed by Western superpowers and their allies. (In this context, I quote Defense Minister Ehud Barak in saying that if he were an Iranian, he would also try to develop nuclear weapons.)
Ironically, it is precisely the possession of nuclear weapons that may moderate the Iranian regime, exactly the way the Chinese regime, perceived as dangerous and radical, became more moderate in 1964 when it acquired the bomb. We have reasonable grounds to assume that the existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of the ayatollahs would lead them to “rational” thinking. Such was the case of India and Pakistan, which joined the nuclear club in May 1998. Since then, the leaders of both countries — whose prolonged dispute has already led to three wars — have behaved extremely cautiously with regard to any use of their military power.
We should remember that the nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan in May 1998 created the fear that the model of mutual deterrence between two countries would fail. These fears were grounded in cultural differences between the two countries, the religious component of the struggle between them, and Pakistani extremism. And then, after about a year, the "Kargil Crisis" erupted between the two countries, a crisis that threatened to lead to war. It turned out that precisely the existence of nuclear weapons in both countries, was what led the leaders to a policy of restraint. The concern that the crisis would to deteriorate into nuclear war, prevented an escalation.
The "Kargil Crisis" strengthened the assumption that leaders of countries with nuclear weapons will avoid making use of those weapons against other nuclear countries. According to that assumption, it makes no difference what religion or worldview is held by those leaders: they will be deterred by the fear of their country’s annihilation, and their own deaths as well. A leader does not commit suicide with his country and no state has a national interest that justifies the destruction and loss that will result from the rival country’s [massive] nuclear retaliation.
The main objective of Iranian leaders is, like any regime, to remain in power. Survival is the highest objective even of rogue nations. I remind those who talk about the “lunatic dictators in Tehran” about those “lunatics” of the Cold War, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, who acted rationally when it came to their use of nuclear weapons.
History also teaches us that the Iranian leadership acts rationally when faced with the choice of having to pay a steep price for military action. Thus even Ayatollah Khomeini, often viewed as the most irrational of leaders, acted rationally when the Iraqis began launching ballistic missiles against Tehran, missiles that took the lives thousands of Iranian citizens. Although Khomeini had previously declared that he would never sign a cease-fire agreement with Iraq and would wait for Iraqi unconditional surrender, he was forced to reconcile with the new reality created by missiles in the heart of the Iranian capital, and signed a cease-fire agreement with Saddam Hussein [in 1988].
Kenneth Waltz, one of the most significant of the theoreticians dealing with analysis of the nuclear deterrence theory, asks rhetorically, “What government would risk sudden losses of such proportion or indeed of much lesser proportion?” He immediately answers, “Rulers want to have a country that they can continue to rule.” Afterwards he raises an argument that seems very relevant to the situation of future deterrence between Israel and Iran:
“If countries armed with nuclear weapons go to war, they do so knowing that their suffering may be unlimited. Of course, it also may not be. But that is not the kind of uncertainty that encourages anyone to use force. In a conventional world, one is uncertain about winning or losing. In a nuclear world, one is uncertain about surviving or being annihilated. If force is used and not kept within limits, catastrophe will result.”
I expect that, in the end, under the assumption that Iran will succeed in arming itself with nuclear weapons, a Middle Eastern model of MAD will develop. It will be a model of mutual deterrence between two hostile states involving clear "rules of the game." Later on, as happened between the two superpowers, means of communication will develop between the two sides with the goal of avoiding misunderstandings that could lead to unintended use of nuclear weapons. For example, a “red phone,” or hot line,” could be set up between Tehran and Jerusalem [like the one between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War]. It will be in the [national] interests of both parties to institutionalize a means of communication, even if it's secret, to avoid nuclear catastrophe.
According to foreign sources, Israel has already gone a long ways toward the option of unconcealed nuclear deterrence. Israel has succeeded in creating deterrent power including second-strike ability from submarines. The choosing of the correct option, and the consolidation of an unconcealed nuclear deterrence policy, will not only save a great deal of money but also ensure Israel’s safety. The key point for future strategic stability in the Middle East is that the leaders in Jerusalem and Tehran come to realize that the use of nuclear weapons is irrational when both sides are equipped with it.
Reuven Pedatzur is a senior military affairs analyst with Haaretz newspaper and a senior lecturer of political science at Tel Aviv University. He is one of Israel’s leading commentators on missile defense, nuclear and other non-conventional weapons; the IDF’s strategic doctrine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.