Avner Cohen

This week's guest is Dr. Avner Cohen, a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies (CISSM) at the University of Maryland (full bio here). Cohen is the author of the authoritative Israel and the Bomb, and his new book, Israel's Last Taboo was published in Hebrew last summer.

Cohen has published numerous articles in academic journals, as well as dozens of op-ed pieces in major newspapers in the United States and Israel. Recently, Cohen published "The untold story of Israel's bomb" (read it here) outlining the way in which the U.S. Nixon administration coped with the challenge posed to him by the development of nuclear weapons in Israel.

Readers can send questions to rosnersdomain@haaretz.co.il.

Hi Avner,

You ended your last reply by remarking on "the heart of the paradoxical logic of nuclear deterrence," which brings me to the next set of questions one of our readers wanted you to answer - and there's no better time to discuss it than this week:

"How concerned are you by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear strike against Israel? Do you take Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad seriously when they talk about wiping Israel off the map, while expressing the will to suffer massive losses by their own people? Do you believe that the Bush administration will take a military initiative against Iran before the end of the president's term?"

Best, Rosner

Hi Shmuel,

In my effort to answer your first question - I find myself somewhat divided on how concerned I am, or I should be, about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear strike against Israel. First and foremost, on the practical level I think this discussion is premature. I do not believe Iran has at the present time the capability to pose a credible nuclear threat to Israel. Furthermore, as, I wrote yesterday, I am one of those who do not see the Iranian bomb as a matter of fait accompli. I do not believe in the talk about "points of no return" - technologically and politically - and I think talk about the Iranian bomb as an irreversible fact is both uninformed and undesired.

But even as a mere hypothetical issue, my own way of thinking on the working of nuclear deterrence reminds me of the great British philosopher David Hume (one of my favorite thinkers), who was divided on his own philosophical skepticism.

In one of the most beautiful literary passages in the history of Western philosophy, Hume describes his own divided views on the power of his own skeptical arguments in the following way:

From the perspective of the world of human affairs and common life, Hume writes, he would, in a heartbeat, throw his skepticism onto the fire as worthless. But in the world of abstract reasoning, philosophical skepticism is a most powerful tool that must be taken very seriously; it has the ability to undermine and destroy all reasoning, including its own. In a way, I feel in a similar position in relation to your first question.

From the perspective of the arena of international politics, the chances of Iran - or for that matter any other nuclear power - unleashing a nuclear strike against Israel, which has nuclear capabilities itself, strike me as close to zero. To launch a first nuclear strike would be an act of outright insanity, not to say a calamitous offense against anything associated with international norms. Regardless of any lunatic statements by President Ahmadinejad - and more about this in a minute - I think that today's Iran is a rational player in the diplomatic scene and should be treated as one.

Furthermore, one can easily be reminded that the entire nuclear age may be described as a successful demonstration that the prudence and rationality of nuclear deterrence prevail. One could also argue (and correctly, I believe) that since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a worldwide nuclear taboo has gradually emerged, been recognized, and, to some extent, even codified: The nuclear initiative is perceived as prohibited.

All national leaders, Western and non-Western alike, recognize the unacceptable consequences of using nuclear weapons. They know that no rational political objective could be served by launching nuclear weapons against another nuclear state. Iranian leaders must understand the fundamentals of nuclear deterrence; they know that Iran as we know it would perish, if Tehran were ever to use nuclear weapons against Israel.

Indeed, various Iranian leaders have said on numerous occasions that Iran does not believe in nuclear weapons. So, under normal political circumstances, I think that the prospect of a deliberate Iranian first nuclear strike on Israel, an out-of the-blue scenario, is virtually nonexistent.

But, in my other reflective mindset, I am also fully aware that when nuclear weapons are at stake there could be "strange" circumstances that are foreign to the normative scene of international affairs. One could always conceive of extraordinary scenarios in which people, in interaction with the complex institutional systems that harness and control nuclear weapons, could fail. In the shadow of a balance of terror (again, it is currently not the situation we face), in moments of intense crisis, when fear (especially fear that the other side could launch a nuclear strike first), confusion, misunderstanding, misjudgment, and the like dictate the moves, even sane and rational leaders could be driven to the nuclear brink.

A situation of political hostility, deep suspicion, mutual fears and lack of direct communication could only heighten the risks involved in those scenarios. Also, one can never rule out the possibility of a crazy national leader who, due to whatever circumstances, has come to view the world in apocalyptic terms.

The bottom line is this: When we think about nuclear weapons, those crazy concerns should be taken seriously, even if they are foreign to normal circumstances. Even if the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear first strike against Israel is highly unrealistic, such eventuality must be taken very seriously.

Now, let us turn to Ahmadinejad's statements about wiping Israel off the map. While I personally do not think that such talk can be taken seriously as a concrete blueprint for action, and surely I do not lose sleep at night over such talk, I do think it should be taken seriously even if it merely expresses a populist wish-list. When a national leader of a country like Iran makes statements about his desire to see another state perish, or even about the illegitimacy of an internationally recognized state, it means his country must be taken seriously.

I think that, more than ever before, the world must insist that such talk is totally unacceptable today. Furthermore, when a national leader behaves in this way his nation must pay a substantial political price. I also think that Ahmadinejad's unbridled rile must be banned within any agreement on Iran's nuclear program.

As to whether the Bush administration will take military action against Iran before the end of its term, I think it is very premature to even speculate. It all depends on how negotiations with Iran evolve, on the IAEA's findings, on the success of the diplomatic campaign, and on many other factors.

While I believe that President Bush is dead serious about his pledge (made a few times in public) not to allow a nuclear Iran under his watch, it seems to me - given our current sense of the various timetables involved - that no strike would be required to back up this pledge anytime soon. If I must make a prediction, I would say that the Iranian nuclear issue will remain a diplomatic issue throughout the Bush administration and beyond.

Best, Avner

Dear Dr. Cohen

Since prime minister Levi Eshkol pledged in the mid-1960s that "Israel will not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East," this has been Israel's official policy. It was recently repeated by Mark Regev, a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry who said, "There has been no change in Israel's long-standing position that we will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the region."

This strategic doctrine worries me. Am I to understand that we are to wait for Tel Aviv or Haifa (or both) to be laid waste before unleashing our response? How does nuclear deterrence work, surely not by saying, "After you?"

When (or preferably before) Iran acquires a working bomb and Ahmadinejad threatens Israel with destruction (again), would Israel not be justified in attacking and destroying strategic sites in Iran before he gets carried away by his own rhetoric?

Realistically, what would happen to us? Would China, Russia or Pakistan carry out a punitive nuclear strike? We would be excoriated in the UN, be boycotted by those who hate us and possibly banned from the Eurovision Song Contest. All these are a lot better than being wiped out.

If, of course, Eshkol's pledge and Israel's policy are just diplomatic niceties, perhaps we should reconsider repeating them too often before we are carried away by our own rhetoric.

Kind regards, Shimon Blackman, Kfar Saba


If your comment makes the point that Israel's current opaque nuclear policy - a policy manifested via the declaratory stance you cited ("Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region") - may not survive the advent of the Iranian bomb I would not disagree with you. If Iran does get the bomb - but in my view this far from a fait accompli, and in any case it would depend on the modality by which Iran would become a nuclear power, it is almost inevitable that Israel could not sustain its traditional policy of nuclear non-declaration and would replace it by a declaratory policy of open nuclear deterrence.

This eventuality would be very unfortunate. It would mean open nuclearization of the Middle East and its conflicts. It would place the Middle East under a balance of terror regime, the kind of situation that your questions aim at.

But before we move to the as yet unborn scary situation that you asked about, it would be worthwhile to reflect on the current situation. You noted, and correctly so, that Israel's ambiguous nuclear declaratory formula dates to the days of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in the mid 1960s (and in fact Shimon Peres had used in response to a question by President Kennedy even before that) has survived to this day without even one iota of change.

While the exact meaning of this formula may have changed since its initial use - if it ever had any positive operational meaning in the first place - its long survival reflects a profound pillar of continuity and stability in Israeli strategic thinking about nuclear weapons.

Regardless of the vast changes on the ground, the Israeli nuclear dilemma has remained until now fundamentally unchanged. While the declaratory formula you cited may have very little operational significance - and it is surely NOT equivalent to a "no first use" pledge - it does reflect a certain Israeli philosophical outlook on the Israeli nuclear dilemma. In this respect you are wrong - it is more than merely diplomatic niceties, it is a national response to a difficult question.

One could characterize briefly the Israeli nuclear dilemma as an effort to reconcile two contradictory impulses, one of resolve and the other of caution.

On the side of resolve, Israeli national leaders from Ben-Gurion to Olmert have found themselves compelled to establish a "nuclear option" as the national insurance policy for a rainy day.

On the side of caution, Israeli national leaders have tended to be "nuclear pessimists" and were highly skeptical - if not utterly negative - about the idea of establishing a nuclear balance of terror in the Middle East.

In a way, Israel's entire nuclear history could be constructed as a constant effort to recalibrate these two seemingly contradictory commitments.

A policy of nuclear ambiguity, formulated publicly by the "non-introduction" stance and accepted by the U.S. and most of the world, has become Israel's unique way of living by its "schizophrenic" commitment to both resolve and caution.

Since the Meir-Nixon nuclear deal of 1969, the U.S. has tacitly has accommodated this stance. The commitment not to introduce nuclear weapons meant that Israel has committed itself to keep its nuclear activities invisible and out of the public eye.

It is also worth noting that in today's political arena, there is relatively little public talk about Israel's nuclear policies. In fact, it is remarkably rare that an Israeli prime minister of recent years - whether his name is Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Sharon or Olmert - would be publicly asked a question on the subject of Israel's nuclear policy (and as you surely know, nobody censors journalists' questions).

The reasons for this relative lack of discussion, in my view, are twofold. First, the fundamental facts about Israel's nuclear status are essentially quite well known and well understood. Simply put, Israel is firmly recognized as a state with advanced nuclear weapons. While the details remain obscure, the fundamentals are viewed as unquestionable.

Second, the world has also learned to recognize - perhaps even to respect and accept - Israel's unique policy of nuclear ambiguity. In any case, all recognize that it would be pointless to ask questions that cannot be answered, in public at least.

The fact that such questions have almost vanished from common public discourse - in and out of Israel - is perhaps the best demonstration of the effectiveness of Israel's policy of nuclear opacity. Iran, if successful in its nuclear quest, could shatter all that, and make for a much riskier Middle East.

And this brings me to your hypothetical and somewhat naive questions, which assume the Iranian bomb is a political and military fact. My somewhat evasive response to your questions would be this:

Even if Israel will one day find itself in a situation of open nuclear deterrence with Iran, you should not expect to have public answer to your queries. I should remind you that some elements of ambiguity regarding issues of nuclear use exist even in the cases of the declared nuclear weapons states.

During the height of the Cold War, under the regime of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), Americans had rarely posed questions (like yours) such as "are we to wait for New York or Washington (or both) to be laid waste before unleashing our response against Moscow or Kiev?" Just as American officials have always avoided speculating in public how nuclear weapons might be used in hypothetical scenarios, so I expect Israel would do so as well.

And the reasons why those issues are inherently so uncomfortable as topics for public discussion go beyond merely questions of operational secrecy. It goes to the heart of the paradoxical logic of nuclear deterrence. But this is a matter for another discussion. Enough for now.

With best wishes, Avner

Dear Avner,

Israel claims that the real danger of Iran acquiring nuclear capability is that it would result in other Middle Eastern states also wanting to acquire nuclear capability, and is not just an Israeli concern about being "removed from the arena of time" ("Israeel bayad az sahneye roozegar mahv shavad" - usually translated as "Israel must be wiped off the map").

I find it somewhat ironic that in chapter 13 of your book "Israel and the Bomb," this was exactly the concern expressed by the Americans about Israel's nuclear capability in the 1960s, and the reason that the Israeli policy of "opacity" was grudgingly accepted by the U.S. -i.e. so that the Arab states would not claim the right to nuclear weapons since Israel had them. Could you please comment?

Also, while Iran is being derided for its clandestine nuclear research, if the politics were different, couldn't that secrecy also be considered "ambiguity" or "opacity" from an Iranian point of view (a notion which Israel clearly is unwilling to admit or permit)?


Marsha B. Cohen Florida International University Miami, FL

Dear Marsha,

Thank you for your intriguing and thoughtful note. It stimulated me to reflect broadly on the ironies of nuclear age historiography, and in particular on the historical analogy (or lack of herein) between the nuclear cases of Israel and Iran.

Before I respond to your specific comment I start with a few broad observations. The history of nuclear proliferation is full of ironies of the kind you pointed out. Those ironies involve a kind of paradigm twist from the fears of "the day before" to the assurances of "the day after."

That is, states which were feared to be "irrational" and "irresponsible" should they acquire the bomb, once they actually got the bomb were treated as "rational" and "responsible."

This irony is at the heart of the academic debate between the proliferation "pessimists" and the proliferation "optimists." The former worry about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, while the latter believe that the presence of the bomb tende to inspire stability and prudence.

Some proliferation optimists in the academia (e.g., Kenneth Waltz) seem to argue that the possession of the bomb compels national leaders to behave rationally and responsibly, as if there is something about understanding the bomb that bestows prudence and responsibility.

I personally do not "buy" this optimist way of thinking. I believe that "nuclear learning" is something which wise national leaders may indeed acquire over time and via a crisis. It was the Cuban nuclear crisis that imbued JFK with nuclear sobriety. The presence of the bomb in itself is not a guarantee for any prudence or wisdom.

As a second line of defense I would say that we are empirically too ignorant to know who is right in that theoretical debate between the "optimists" and the pessimists." Our empirical evidence is (fortunately) just too slim, as nuclear weapons were used in anger only twice, in one particular historical context, at the dawn of the nuclear age.

While students of international relations may have the leisure to debate the pros and cons of nuclear proliferation, in the real world, most decision makers and observers have viewed nuclear proliferation from the pessimist perspective.

When nuclear matters are at stake, in the absence of solid empirical knowledge, prudence commands us to err on the side of caution. The United States, the world's first nuclear power, has always opposed other nations' acquisition of nuclear weapons, friends and foes alike (but with a varied desire to act).

The United States extended its nuclear umbrella to its allies in western Europe largely to prevent a situation of nuclear diffusion. Yes, the U.S. failed to prevent friendly proliferation in the cases of the U.K. and France, but exerted great - and ultimately successful - effort that Germany as well as Italy and Sweden would not become nuclear states. And of all the American presidents during the Cold War, it was John Kennedy who made non-proliferation a fundamental U.S. global commitment.

His nightmare about nuclear proliferation shaped the American mindset that led to the creation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, after almost a decade of negotiations. The NPT codified the norms that exist today - that the spread of the bomb is viewed as a threat to international security. This is the prism today's world views the Iranian nuclear problem.

And this brings me, Marsha, directly to your own comment. One would have expected that the U.S. should have tolerated - if not accepted - Israel's nuclear program from the very outset. How could the U.S. oppose Israel's acquisition of the nuclear option: This was a small and friendly state surrounded by much larger enemies vowing to destroy it; it was situated outside the boundaries of U.S. global alliances; it was only 15 years after the Holocaust; and, above all, Israel enjoyed unique domestic support within American domestic politics.

But this did not happen. Instead, the Kennedy administration, led by JFK himself, was willing to force a showdown in U.S.-Israel relations, just to force Israel into pledging that it would not acquire nuclear weapons.

JFK's pressure was motivated by both global and regional considerations. On the global scale, if the U.S. could not influence little Israel not to go nuclear, how could it persuade the most difficult and dangerous Western case - Germany - not to acquire the bomb.

On the regional level, numerous U.S. documents (some I cited in my book) from the early 1960s "predicted" that, if and when Israel acquired nuclear capability, it would likely to be more aggressive, even compelling, in its dealing with its Arab neighbors.

This pessimistic view of Israeli nuclearization was supported in a number of memos by John Badeau, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo at the time, who suggested that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Israel would be regarded by Egypt as a cause for war against Israel, in fact the only war he could envision between the two states. Hence, one could certainly draw some historical analogy, as you suggest, between the U.S. concerns over the Israeli nuclear program in the early 1960s, and the way the U.S. and Israel are concerned today about nuclear Iran. An historical irony indeed.

One could even extend this historical irony further and argue that just as the Nixon administration (and the rest of the world) ultimately had to accept a nuclear Israel in 1969, and ever since Israel proved itself as a responsible and prudent nuclear nation, that historical lesson may apply to Iran as well. Some may even wish to argue that just as the U.S. changed its entire attitude to the Israeli nuclear quest from Kennedy to Nixon - from fierce opposition to gentle accommodation - a similar thing should apply to Iran today. A compounded irony.

Once again, I do not "buy" this "optimistic" historical lesson. My response to it is twofold.

First, I would emphasize that we are still historically quite ignorant as to the importance the nuclear issue played in the events that led to the Six-Day War of June 1967. Only recently, due partly to new (Israeli-based) research by Ami Gluska and by (Russian-based) Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, we have become significantly more aware of the role of nuclear perceptions in the escalation that led to the war.

Even so, a great deal of this history is still a mystery. I say this to highlight the point that even in the case of Israel, where layers of opacity, inhibitions and secrecy have obscured the sight of the nuclear dimension, it is increasingly apparent that the warnings of Badeau and others about the risks involved in Israeli nuclearization may have proved correct.

In 1967 Israel scored a decisive win, and that victory subsequently allowed Israel to complete its nuclear transition safely and opaquely. In the wake of that victory, for more than a decade, no Arab power could seriously challenge Israel's nuclear monopoly.

History is written from the perspective of the winners. Israeli historiography has its own good reasons to suppress the risks that were involved in the transition that made Israel a nuclear state. If this is true, then the analogy between the Israeli and Iranian cases - which I do believe deserves further study - only highlights the elements of danger which is lying ahead with Iran's nuclear pursuit. The closest Iran will get to the bomb, whether in reality or in perceptions, the more realistic and ominous the perils of confrontation are.

Second, I should also recall the obvious differences between the two cases, the Israeli and the Iranian. After 1967, Israel crossed that dangerous nuclear corridor under the most "friendly" international and regional circumstances: (a) by that time the U.S. "played down" the risks involved in the Israeli transition (partly because until 1967-68 the U.S. did not really know (some would say did not want to know) of Israel's nuclear progress and partially because the U.S. did not want to enhance Arab or Soviet apprehensions over this issue); (b) because Egypt had no more a real "say," a military option, about the Israel nuclear program; (c) the NPT was not yet in full swing, nor was the IAEA an institution to reckon with that could enforce non-proliferation norms; (d) the Nixon-Kissinger administration was remarkably sympathetic with Israel's nuclear situation and effectively agreed to go along in establishing a situation under which Israel would be an opaque nuclear power.

Iran's nuclear pursuit today, contra to the Israeli nuclear transition in the late 1960s, lacks a "friendly" environment which could help Iran to make a smooth nuclear transition. Consider the following differences between the two cases: (a) Iran in 2006 is clearly not where Israel was (vis-a-vis its neighbors) after its 1967 victory; (b) there is an NPT regime and a great deal of its future depends on its ability to enforce its obligations and norms on a signatory state such as Iran; (c) there is no way to compare the weak IAEA of the late 1960s with today's stronger and better technically equipped IAEA; (d) the U.S. today, so much unlike the Nixon administration of 1969, is committed not to be a party to accommodate or to acquiesce with a nuclear Iran,

This leads me to your last and probably most intriguing point. You noted that "while Iran is being derided for its clandestine nuclear research, if the politics were different, couldn't that secrecy also be considered "ambiguity" or "opacity" from an Iranian point of view (a notion which Israel clearly is unwilling to admit or permit)?"

Yes, I agree with you that it is a great irony that there is a great deal of resemblance in the mode of opacity - via secrecy, concealment, ambiguity, double talk and denial - between the way Iran is pursuing its nuclear program today and the way Israel was pursuing its own program in the 1960s.

In fact, I would not be surprised if some Iranian policy makers and nuclear technocrats have deliberately decided to try to adopt or mimic the Israeli model of nuclear opacity, IF the world would permit them to pursue that mode.

If this line of thinking is correct, it means that Iran's nuclear program would not aimed at a test of a nuclear device, nor towards declaring Iran as a nuclear-armed state. Instead, while most likely maintaining a secret weaponziation program (but without testing), Iran would continue to insist publicly on its right to enrich uranium.

Over time, while remaining within the NPT, Iran would be seeking to acquire a perception and reputation (by ways of leaks, rumors, double talk, etc) that they have actually built a "secret" nuclear arsenal or at least secretly accumulated a sufficient amount of weapons-grade fissile material.

It may well be that some Iranians have come to believe that by mimicking the Israeli model, as much as they could, they would get all the prestige and deterrence effects they need but without leaving the NPT, let alone without testing or declaring such a bomb. Let the question of the Iranian bomb remain opaque, just like Israel. This would mimic the way Shimon Peres for decades used to talk about "deterrence by way of uncertainty." Let the world guess.

In fact, the world is already guessing now where Iran is in its nuclear pursuit. Some say that Iran is as far as five to 10 years away from producing the bomb, while others, including some mavens in Israel, are fearful that if Iran has been closely imitating Israel it may well already have the bomb. What a remarkable irony indeed.

If Iran indeed follows the Israeli model of nuclear opacity, this would put Israel in a great dilemma of its own. Should Israel call the bluff over Iranian opacity, and in doing so expose its own opacity, or should Israel prefer to acquiesce, just as the world had acquiesced over its own two generations ago.

Thank you again Marsha, for allowing me to reflect on history.

Best, Avner