Israel and the international community, under U.S. leadership, have gone to great lengths in recent decades in the attempt to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, so far successfully. But little attention has been paid in Israel to the danger of this happening. We must also consider the nightmare scenario in which, in response to Iran’s crossing the threshold, additional states in the region, such as Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, also decide to go nuclear.
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For the sake of argument, let us assume a situation in which all preventive efforts have failed and Iran is about to cross the nuclear threshold. In this case, Israel would have a number of options.
The first is a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. This would only be feasible before the threshold is actually crossed, since at that point Iran would gain immunity from attack, much as in the case of North Korea today.
But the danger to Israel of a nuclear Iran is so great — if not, in all likelihood, existential — that Israel would have no choice but to attack in the event Iran approaches the threshold.
At the same time, military action cannot solve the problem. It can only postpone it for a few years, at the most, and at the price of great damage wreaked by Iran on Hezbollah on Israel’s home front. The additional time gained by military action could be utilized to apply a variety of measures against Iran again, including heavy sanctions, but the moment of reckoning, when it threatens to cross the threshold, may return.
Should additional states go nuclear, Israel will probably not be able to implement the so-called Begin Doctrine and take military action, as it did against the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and, according to foreign sources, the Syrian reactor in 2007. Israel is at peace with Egypt and Turkey and both, much like Saudi Arabia, are US allies and enjoy American security assurances. Turkey, moreover, is a member of the NATO alliance. A military strike against nuclear sites in these countries would be almost unthinkable.
A second option would be to end the policy of ambiguity regarding Israel’s purported nuclear capabilities and adopt an explicit nuclear posture, designed to further strengthen Israeli deterrence.
An end to ambiguity?
Assuming, however, that Iran is a rational actor, Israeli deterrence should be effective even under the existing policy of ambiguity. Whether international assessments of Israel’s nuclear capabilities are accurate or not, Iran and other nuclear states will in the future have to assume this to be the case and exercise appropriate prudence.
The incremental addition to Israel’s deterrence that an end to ambiguity might arguably create does not appear to warrant the damage to its relations with the United States, the international community and its neighbors.
A third option would be to seek an American security guarantee, possibly in the form of a defense treaty, although there are also less binding possibilities.
As long as we are talking solely about Iran, Israel’s own deterrence should suffice. Moreover, even in the absence of a formal defense treaty, the Iranians have to assume that there is a de facto U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and that it thus enjoys extended American deterrence.
In a multipolar nuclear Middle East, however, the calculus would be different. In a situation in which some of the regional actors do not have diplomatic relations, or even channels of communication, and some deny the right of others to exist, the dangers of a conflagration are so extreme that a stable nuclear balance may not prove feasible.
Even an American security guarantee would not be sufficient to prevent a deterioration in these conditions, but it might certainly be a moderating and stabilizing factor from Israel’s perspective, especially if broadened to additional states and to a broader regional security regime.
There is a further option in this multipolar nuclear scenario, one that admittedly appears to be totally fanciful at this time, in the form of a regional arms control agreement, ultimately leading to disarmament.
A question of trust
The primary danger in this option, for Israel, is that its adversaries, including Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya, have repeatedly violated binding international arms control agreements they had signed and that it cannot trust them to behave differently in the future, at least until they become stable democracies, an unlikely eventuality in the coming decades.
In a multipolar nuclear Middle East, however, a situation which will only materialize, if at all, a few decades hence, the other options may not be better and the impossible may become realistic.
A nuclear Iran will present Israel with severe dilemmas, but they are still a way off and decisions are not yet necessary, at least in regard to all of them. Nevertheless, processes and decisions in the nuclear realm take many years to play out and Israel should already be conducting its thinking and planning today, quietly and without undue pressure, rather than leaving it for the last minute.
It will take years to reach agreement with the United States on a defense treaty, if at all, to devise a means of ending nuclear ambiguity that does not entail severe costs, or to formulate arms control arrangements that serve Israel’s interests.
At the present time, efforts should be focused on ensuring the future of the nuclear deal with Iran, which remains the best way to prevent it from going nuclear.
The next stage would be to try and redress the agreement’s flaws, first and foremost, its expected expiration at the end of its 10-to-15-year lifetime.
The United States and its allies are already trying to reach agreement on a follow-on agreement with Iran, designed to ensure that it cannot go nuclear even after the current deal expires.
A follow-on agreement such as this would be greatly preferable to the abortive efforts to reopen or terminate the existing one.
Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of the forthcoming “Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change” (Oxford, March 2018)