Facing a Nuclear Iran, Israel Must Rethink Its Nuclear Ambiguity

Facing the growing threat of a nuclear Iran, Israel must be less coy about its own nuclear capabilities.

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Louis René Beres was chair of Project Daniel in Israel, is a professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue, and is the author of many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Admiral Leon "Bud" Edney served as vice chief of Naval Operations; NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic; and commander in chief of U.S. Atlantic Command. Admiral Edney, who holds an advanced degree from Harvard, was also distinguished professor of Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy.

A core element of Israel's nuclear posture has always been "deliberate ambiguity," or the so-called "bomb in the basement." To date this policy has made eminently good sense. After all, both friends and enemies of the Jewish state now recognize that Israel possesses significant nuclear capabilities that are (1) survivable; and (2) capable of penetrating any determined enemy's active defenses.

Further, Israel's nuclear arsenal is plainly governed by a very sophisticated command/control system, and by a carefully conceived targeting doctrine. So, why rock the boat?

A partial answer must be sought in today's chaotic instability, that is, in still-expanding regional patterns of revolutionary unrest and uncertainty. In Egypt, a country "at peace" with Israel since 1979, the post-Hosni Mubarak era exhibits heightened prospects for Islamist or Jihadist influence that create significant risks for Israel's security. Still more portentous, such hazardous developments could arise not only in Egypt, but additionally, in Syria, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, or even in Saudi Arabia. In the case of the Saudis, soon to be faced with a Shi'ite nuclear adversary in Tehran, there could even be a growing incentive to "turn nuclear" themselves.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Of course, especially significant for Israeli security is the always-intersecting issue of "Palestine." A Palestinian state, any Palestinian state, could pose a serious threat to Israel, primarily as a convenient base of operations for launching lethal terrorist attacks against Israel citizens. A possibly even more important security issue for Israel lies in the potential for a rapidly deteriorating regional correlation of forces. Such deterioration could include various destabilizing synergies resulting from both the so-called "Arab Spring," and from Iranian nuclearization.

By itself, a Palestinian state would surely remain entirely non-nuclear. This is obvious. But when viewed together with Israel's other regional foes, this new and 23rd Arab state could still have the consequential effect of being a "force multiplier," thereby impairing Israel's already-minimal strategic depth, and rendering the Jewish state considerably more vulnerable to a panoply of both conventional and unconventional attacks. Here, for a variety of determinable reasons, a non-nuclear adversary could still heighten the chances of involving Israel in certain nuclear weapons operations, or even a nuclear war.

Assuming Palestinian statehood, or at least an incremental United Nations recognition of "Palestine," such perilous developments are not contrived or hypothetical. Rather, they are distinctly plausible. To be sure, there would need to take place an antecedent Fatah-Hamas rapprochement. Yet, such a reconciliation is not at all difficult to imagine.

What is Israel to do? More precisely, what should it do about its nuclear posture and corollary order of battle? How, exactly, should this ambiguous stance be adapted to the increasingly convergent and interpenetrating threats of surrounding Middle Eastern/North African revolutions, a nuclear Iran, and Israel's more or less volitional territorial dismemberment?

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

In these matters, the conventional wisdom routinely assumes that credible nuclear deterrence is somehow an automatic consequence of merely holding nuclear weapons. By this argument, removing Israel's nuclear bomb "from the basement" would only elicit new waves of global condemnation, and would do this without returning any commensurate benefits.