Establishing and maintaining deterrence is an uncertain art, to understate the case, but it is the best strategy for avoiding costly wars, particularly in the era of cyber attacks and nuclear weapons. The decades of Cold War tensions and confrontations, with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis at the center, provided an intense environment for developing and testing different theories of deterrence.
For Israel, deterrence has always been the core of national security strategy, and this is still the case in the escalating conflict with the Iranian regime.
An overconfident leadership in Tehran, firmly ensconced in Syria in alliance with the Hezbollah forces based in Lebanon, will continue to probe and challenge the IDF, looking for weakness. By defining red lines and credibly threatening to impose high costs on the Iranian leadership, Israel seeks to prevent a catastrophic outcome.
Under the fundamental principles of deterrence, the decision makers at both ends of the conflict need to be rational actors, carefully weighing the likely responses to each move, and the costs and benefits of any action. If the consequences of an attack are viewed as high and overwhelm the potential benefits, deterrence is achieved.
But if the leaders do not calculate rationally, or base their analysis on distorted images of the other side, deterrence does not work, and security must be based on prevention and pre-emption, with the likelihood of destructive counter-attack.
The rationality of political leaders under stress is difficult to assess. From the outside, decisions on war and peace appear to made by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while the official government officials led by President Rohani are advisors or perhaps only figureheads. They have no experience in dealing directly with Israel, suggesting that they could readily misread Jerusalem’s intentions and reactions to perceived threats.
In 2006, Hezbollah launched an over-the-border attack which killed a number of Israelis, and included the kidnapping of two soldiers, whose bodies were exchanged many years later.
The Israeli counterattack was withering, and Hassan Nasrallah, the terror group’s leader, subsequently admitted that he had misjudged the scale of the response. This was an example of deterrence failure, and might well be repeated on a larger scale in a confrontation directly involving Iran.
While the Israeli decision-making framework is transparent with checks and balances to prevent emotional actions or attacks motivated by domestic political considerations, the current environment does not appear conducive to cold rationality.
Consensus among the top political and military leaders including the IDF Chief of Staff is required, and the process has proven itself in most conflicts over the past 70 years. This does not mean that Israel is immune to bad decisions, particularly in a period of intense legal and political stresses on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The lack of direct and unencumbered communications between the decision makers also adds to the vulnerability of deterrence between Jerusalem and Tehran.
Even during the darkest days of the missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev were able to exchange messages through ambassadors and other envoys, as well in the form of telegrams. These mechanisms allowed the leaders to assess each other’s situation, to transmit determination and strength, as well as to formulate the measures to the end of the confrontation. Similarly, during the Kargil crisis between India and Pakistan, the presence of embassies in each other’s capitals facilitated de-escalation, while leaving the deterrence capabilities of both sides intact.
But Iran and Israel have no direct means of communication, no embassies or other mechanisms by which to pass messages during a crisis. Misunderstandings filtered through a prism of distrust and worst-case analysis makes deterrence management far more precarious.
The potential for miscommunications and exaggerated threat perceptions is compounded by the overheated rhetoric from Tehran, proclaiming the imminent eradication of Israel, and the wiping out of Tel Aviv (a favorite theme accompanying rockets on parade on Al Quds Day).
Israelis remember the late Iranian president Rafsanjani's declaration that Israel could be destroyed with a single nuclear weapon, and pay close attention to Iran’s oft-stated Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic cartoon contests.
In a crisis threatening both countries with devastating war, negotiating the means to prevent catastrophe will be particularly difficult.
Another potential weakness in relying on deterrence to prevent war follows from opposing strategic objectives. For Israel, as a status-quo power (to use the language of the Cold War), deterrence is presumably more important than for Iran, which has a revisionist agenda. The direct military confrontation between their respective military forces on February 10 was building for many months, as Iranian forces established themselves in Syria.
The 2015 nuclear agreement (known as the JCPOA) was supposed to ease some of these tensions by paving the way for Iran to "fully rejoin the community of nations," as President Obama put it at the time.
But Iran clearly has no interest in pursuing a stabilizing foreign policy. Instead, they continue to expand their power, whether in Syria, Yemen or other venues, through brinksmanship, and where they see weakness, via more aggressive means. This expansionist strategy makes deterrence towards Iran both vital and difficult to achieve.
Given these factors, what might seem to be a disproportionate Israeli response is rational and necessary to send an unambiguous warning. The combination of an aggressive Iranian policy, dangerously mysterious and uninformed decision making, and the lack of direct communications, leaves disproportionality as the best means of reinforcing deterrence.
Prof. Gerald Steinberg is professor of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University, where he founded the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation. Twitter: @GeraldNGOM
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