Prologue to Nuclear War in the Middle East?
An Iranian nuclear 1st-strike could be selected in deference to certain religious obligations. Acting as the ‘individual’ suicide bomber, Iran could potentially offer itself eagerly in the spirit of Shahada, ready & willing to accept a collective Death for Allah.
Louis René Beres
It is an immobilizing question, a query that was once only whispered: Could certain Iranian leaders, including President Ahmadinejad, be seeking nuclear weapons in order to deliberately bring about an apocalyptic “end of days?” Might these leaders be planning a religiously-mandated and possibly nuclear Final Battle in order to bring back the “Hidden Imam”? After all, regional or global stability is not always desirable in this Shiite theological narrative. On the contrary, just prior to the Mahdi’s reappearance on earth, the world must be in chaos.
Generally, the narrative continues, Christian rule will still be dominant, but a special Muslim leader will lead the obligatory fight against “infidel” hegemony. Following especially destructive conflicts in Syria and Iraq, a great general named Mansour (Victorious) will slay Shia Islam’s many enemies. Ultimately, in a moment of heroic victory, he will plant his personal flag of liberation on top of the al-Aqsa mosque, in Jerusalem.
What does this belligerent theology mean for Israel, and also for the United States? The army of Mansour, aided by the newly-revealed Mahdi, or Twelfth Imam, is predicted to conquer “the Jews,” and then to “kill them.” More precisely, according to a prominent Hadith, “The last hour will not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews, and the Muslims will kill them….”
All of this may seem highly improbable or even silly to us, in the West. Nonetheless, a great many people in Iran and elsewhere throughout the region do believe very deeply in the compelling lore of a Shiite apocalypse. From the notably critical standpoints of strategy and future war, moreover, we should recall that it is their own system of beliefs, especially when certain Islamic political leaderships are involved, that genuinely matter most.
It ensues from all this that within authoritative leadership circles in Tehran, any prospect of hastening the Shiite apocalypse could be “good,” and decidedly welcome. In the United States and Israel, on the other hand, although both Jewish and Christian theologies also contain certain core elements of apocalyptic thought, any deliberate encouragement of a Final Battle between Good and Evil is always widely rejected.
Whatever Scriptural expectations of End Times may be embedded in Judaism and Christianity, and however seriously they may be accepted among particular American and Israeli populations, any such expressly apocalyptic visions are always put aside as plausible policy options.
This is as it should be. But there likely does exist, among selected major players in the Iran nuclear story, a more or less acceptable element of eschatology. This potentially tragic drama is fashioned out of starkly polar opposites. The sort of all-consuming, apocalyptic violence that could seem plainly positive and even “purifying” in Tehran would appear manifestly negative, and grievously defiling, in both Washington and Jerusalem.
To avoid any further acquiescence in the religiously-ordained “fate” that may now be planned for them in Tehran, Israel and/or the United States may still have to consider residual forms of military action. It is, however, already very late for launching any gainful preemption against relevant Iranian nuclear assets and infrastructures. It is also effectively inconceivable that any U.S. President could still regard such very problematic military operations as strategically or politically cost-effective. This is the case, moreover, even though these actions could readily be defended in law as altogether appropriate expressions of anticipatory self-defense.
In the past, President Obama had hinted obliquely at one supposed military option, reprisal, but this is one remedy that could only be carried out ex post. By definition, retaliation, unlike preemption, can come only after the fact. It cannot, therefore, ex ante, prevent nuclear aggression. It can merely promise, more or less persuasively, some apt forms of post-catastrophe punishment.
In the case of Ahmadinejad’s Shiite theology, an Iranian nuclear first-strike could be selected in deference to certain deeply felt religious obligations. Here, acting as the individual suicide bomber in macrocosm, Iran could potentially offer itself eagerly in the spirit of Shahada, ready and willing to accept a collective Death for Allah.
Traditional nuclear deterrence, of course, can exist only between fully rational adversaries; that is, between enemies who share an overriding commitment to self-preservation. For Israel and/or the United States, any standoff with an already nuclear Iran could thus be very different from what had once obtained between America and the Soviet Union. In short, this might not be your father’s Cold War.
Echoing the seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, no state, wrote Thomas Jefferson, has the right of national suicide. Instead, every state’s first obligation is the assurance of protection. Innocent life must always be preserved.
Should Iranian leaders openly proclaim their belief in the Shiite apocalypse, a series of final battles presumed indispensable for transforming the profane “world of war” into the sacred “world of Islam,” very far-reaching and possibly problematic measures of self-defense would then need to be considered.
From the standpoint of nuclear arms, Israel is not Iran. Israel’s nuclear weapons exist only to protect the Jewish state from extraordinary forms of aggression. Understandably, this includes the prevention of another Jewish genocide, and also related crimes against humanity.
Israel’s nuclear deterrent force would never be used except in defensive reprisal for massive enemy first strikes. In practice, this now means essentially Iranian attacks involving nuclear and/or certain biological weapons. For the time being, we understand, none of Israel’s enemies is nuclear. But, naturally, this could change.
If it should have to face nuclear enemies one day, a no-longer improbable scenario, Israel could choose to rely upon its own nuclear weapons to reduce the risks of unconventional war. But such reliance would make strategic sense only insofar as the newly-nuclear enemy state(s) would (1) remain rational; and (2) remain convinced that Israel would retaliate with nuclear weapons if attacked with nuclear and/or devastating biological weapons.
For Israel and its substantially weakened U.S. ally (let’s not forget that American military power is now extremely stretched, and economically constrained), there would be very difficult problems to solve if an enemy state such as Iran were permitted to “go nuclear.” These problems would undermine the conceptually neat but decidedly unrealistic notion of any balanced nuclear deterrence in the region, a notion now (understandably) gaining support in both Washington and Jerusalem. Considering the more complex and multiple axes of regional conflict, the Middle East might simply not sustain the comforting equilibrium that had once (more or less) characterized U.S.-Soviet relations.
In the future, whether for reasons of miscalculation, accident, unauthorized capacity to fire, outright irrationality, or the presumed imperatives of “Jihad,” an enemy state in this fevered neighborhood could opt to launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel in spite of Israel’s own obvious and forseeably secure nuclear capability. Here, a Cold War type of “Mutual Assured Destruction,” a so-called balance of terror, might not be viable, and would not be sustainable.
After absorbing any enemy nuclear aggression, Israel would certainly respond with a nuclear retaliatory strike. Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine, such a reprisal would likely be launched against the aggressor’s capital city, and/or against similarly high-value urban targets. In any case, there would be no assurances, in response to this sort of aggression, that Israel would necessarily limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets.
Israel would be well advised, as quickly as possible, to identify explicitly, or at least hint at persuasively (so long as the bomb should remain in the “basement”), a recognizably counter value retaliatory option.
This critical point should not be allowed to be lost on the authoritative decision makers in Tehran.
Now, what if enemy first strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or “minor” biological weapons? In this case, Israel might still launch a presumptively proportionate nuclear reprisal, but this would depend largely upon Israel’s calculated expectations of follow-on aggression, and also on its associated determinations of comparative damage-limitation.
Should Israel absorb a massive conventional first-strike, a nuclear retaliation could not be ruled out. This reasoning is plausible if: (1) the aggressor were perceived to hold nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in reserve; and/or (2) Israel’s leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent national annihilation. Recognizing Israel’s exceptionally small size, the calculated threshold of existential harms could be substantially lower than Israel’s total physical devastation.
Facing imminent existential attacks, Israel, even if it had delayed too long, could still decide to preempt enemy aggression with its conventional forces. The targeted state’s response would then determine Israel’s subsequent moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would assuredly undertake a nuclear counter-retaliation.
If this enemy retaliation were to involve chemical and/or biological weapons, Israel might also plan to take a quantum escalatory initiative. This sort of initiative is known in military parlance as “escalation dominance.” It could be necessary, even indispensable, to Israel’s preservation of intra-war deterrence.
We would all need to bear in mind that deterrence does not necessarily cease functioning immediately upon the commencement of hostilities. It can continue to play a different, but a still more or less productive role, during the ensuing conflict.
If an enemy state’s response to an Israeli preemption were limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is improbable that Israel would ever resort to nuclear counter-retaliation. But if the enemy state’s conventional retaliation were an all-out strike, directed toward Israel’s civilian populations, as well as to Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not automatically be excluded. Such a counter-retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state’s conventional retaliations were entirely proportionate to Israel’s preemption; confined entirely to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity”; and accompanied by explicit and verifiable assurances of no further escalation.
It is almost inconceivable that Israel would ever decide to preempt any enemy state aggression with a nuclear defensive strike. While particular circumstances could arise where such a defensive strike would be completely rational, and also entirely lawful according to the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (which refused to prohibit certain residual resorts to nuclear weapons that were deemed essential to national survival), it is unlikely that Israel would permit itself to reach such all-or-nothing circumstances.
Also worth mentioning is that Israel remains pledged to the “purity of arms” (Tohar HaNeshek), and to incomparably strict compliance with humanitarian international law, especially the overriding minimization of collateral or non-combatant harms.
An Israeli nuclear preemption is highly improbable. In principle, it could conceivably be expected only if: (1) Israel’s enemy or enemies had unexpectedly acquired nuclear or other unconventional weapons presumed capable of destroying the Jewish State; (2) this enemy state had been forthright that its genocidal intentions paralleled its capabilities; (3) this state was reliably believed ready to begin a final countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel believed that non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve levels of damage-limitation consistent with its own national survival.
To utterly reject this particular argument on Israeli nuclear preemption as impossible or implausible, however, would require an antecedent assumption that national self-preservation is not Israel’s highest priority. Prima facie, any such assumption would be incorrect. (Part II tomorrow)
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books, monographs, and articles dealing with Israeli security matters, nuclear strategy and nuclear war.► More from this writer
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