Nuclear Deterrence, With a Grain of Salt

The director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Shaul Horev, rushed on Rosh Hashanah eve to give a speech at the annual International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Vienna and issue a thinly veiled warning against a nuclear Iran and Syria. He was still speaking when Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the Iranian representative, took his turn, complaining about how forgiving the world is of Israeli nuclear power. There was no contact between the two, who spoke from different corners of the same hall.

Horev is an officer in the naval reserves, a commander of the submarines to which international journalists never fail to attribute the ability to launch strategic munitions. The conference ended, and just like 35 years ago, it's almost Yom Kippur. And still, the Iranian challenge appears resistant to Israeli deterrence.

October 6 is not just the date of Yom Kippur in 1973. It is also an important date in the lives of the two Arab leaders who attacked Israel at the time. It is Hafez Assad's birthday and the day of Anwar Sadat's death. They were momentary partners and conditional allies - Assad relied on the Soviet Union, Sadat neglected it in favor of American pleasantries - but their different activities indicate that in the eyes of foreigners, the image of Israeli nuclear capability is of very limited value. Rather than reining in plans to destroy Israel with a single blow, it leads them down other, more gradual paths. The nuclear deterrence attributed to Israel does not affect the capability of hostile elements or even their intentions - just the time frame in which they can carry out their plans.

In crossing the Suez Canal, Sadat was striving for a narrow military achievement that would lead to a wide-scale political one: the return by Israel of the entire Sinai as a preface to the return of the other territory captured in June 1967. He thought defeating Israel inside the Green Line was not practical, for various reasons - including the nuclear capability attributed to it, which would be activated during an existential crisis.

Sadat got rid of most of the Soviet presence in Egypt (aside from Scud missiles launched at Israel Defense Forces troops at Suez at the end of the war) and defected to the American bloc. Assad, by contrast, received Soviet help in the 1982 war as well, and Syria hosted SAM-5 long-range surface-to-air missiles that threatened the entire region between Turkey and Haifa, along with thousands of instructors in every brigade and battalion. In the face of Israel's nuclear deterrence, Assad built a force of surface-to-surface missiles as well as chemical and biological warheads.

Now his son, Bashar, is signaling that the choice is in the hands of Washington and Jerusalem: If they want, he'll move toward the West and accept Israel; otherwise, he'll remain under the Iranian umbrella, which will soon go nuclear. A year ago, it became clear that Israeli strength and even the proximity of Damascus to the Golan border, a few short hours for the IDF's armored vehicles, had not deterred Syria from choosing the North Korean shortcut to nuclear armament. The Israel Air Force operation on September 6 last year revealed Israel's determination to prevent a neighboring country from going nuclear, but also exposed Israel's helplessness in the face of Syria's determination to become stronger while continuing to use terrorism and to arm itself with rockets and missiles, more numerous and accurate than in the past.

Rowan Scarborough's 2004 book "Rumsfeld's War" revealed a secret intelligence report from the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Intelligence Agency in 1999 that described what it called "the future threat," from 1999 to 2020. The report indicated that U.S. President George W. Bush did not invent the double threat of Iraq and Iran; it was identified during Bill Clinton's time. In the report, the DIA's director, Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, took inventory of the world's nuclear weapons. Nine years ago, he wrote that Israel had 60 to 80 nuclear weapons and that by the end of the century's second decade, it would have between 65 and 85. Iran and Iraq were expected to go from having no nuclear weapons to between 10 and 20 each by 2020. That was before Saddam Hussein's Iraq was crossed off the chart, but that still leaves Iran.

Every known nuclear site in the world can be pinpointed with precision and targeted for demolition. The international literature is full of guesses about Israeli nuclear sites. The Iranians, Syrians and fundamentalist Islamic organizations are liable to believe that barrages of missiles and rockets on these sites will damage Israel's strategic alignment, or will at least disrupt or paralyze it, without giving Israel a reason to use other, well-hidden means against them from that same alignment. The sad conclusion, on the 35th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, is not that the nuclear deterrence attributed to Israel is completely superfluous - it dissuaded Saddam from using chemical and biological weapons in 1991 - but that if embraced without earnestly and continuously striving for peace, that deterrence will be a costly illusion.