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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Were its leaders to be or turn nonrational, Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Such a destabilizing prospect is certainly improbable, but it is not inconceivable. A similarly serious prospect exists in already-nuclear and distinctly coup-vulnerable Pakistan. To protect itself against military strikes from irrational enemies, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel will need to reconsider virtually every aspect and function of its nuclear arsenal and doctrine.

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Removing the bomb from Israel's basement could enhance Israel's strategic deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of the severe and likely risks involved. This would also bring to mind the so-called "Samson Option," which could allow various enemy decision-makers to note and underscore that Israel is prepared to do whatever is needed to survive.

Irrespective of its preferred level of ambiguity, Israel's nuclear strategy must always remain correctly oriented toward deterrence, not war-fighting. The Samson Option refers to a policy that would be based in part upon a more-or-less implicit threat of massive nuclear retaliation for certain specific enemy aggressions. Israel's small size means, inter alia, that any nuclear attack would threaten Israel's very existence, and could not be tolerated.

A Samson Option would make sense only in "last-resort," or "near last-resort," circumstances. If the Samson Option is to be part of a credible deterrent, an end to Israel's deliberate ambiguity is essential. The really tough part of this transformational process is determining the proper timing for such action vis-a-vis Israel's security requirements, and also pertinent expectations of the international community

The Samson Option should never be confused with Israel's overriding security objective: to seek stable deterrence at the lowest possible levels of military conflict. As a last resort, it basically states the following to all potential nuclear attackers: "We (Israel) may have to 'die,' but (this time) we won't die alone."

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In our often counterintuitive strategic world, it can sometimes be rational to pretend irrationality. The nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would depend, at least in part, upon an enemy state's awareness of Israel's intention to apply countervalue targeting when responding to a nuclear attack. But, once again, Israeli decision-makers would need to be wary of releasing too-great a level of specific information.

In the final analysis, there are specific and valuable critical security benefits that would likely accrue to Israel as the result of a purposefully selective and incremental end to its policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. The right time to begin such an "end" has not yet arrived. But at the precise moment that Iran verifiably crosses the nuclear threshold, Israel should remove "the bomb" from its "basement."

When this critical moment arrives, Israel should already have configured (1) its optimal allocation of nuclear assets; and (2) the extent to which this particular configuration should now be disclosed. This preparation could importantly enhance the credibility of its indispensable nuclear deterrence posture.

When it is time for Israel to selectively ease its nuclear ambiguity, a fully-recognizable second-strike nuclear force should be revealed. Such a robust strategic force—hardened, multiplied, and dispersed—would necessarily be fashioned to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against major enemy cities. Iran, it follows, so long as it is led by rational decision-makers, should be made to understand that the actual costs of any planned aggressions against Israel would always exceed any conceivable gains.

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To comprehensively protect itself against potentially irrational nuclear adversaries, Israel has no logical alternative to developing an overwhelmingly problematic conventional preemption option. Operationally, especially at this very late date, there could be no reasonable assurances of success against multiple hardened and dispersed targets. Regarding deterrence, however, it is also noteworthy that "irrational" is not the same as "crazy," or "mad," and that even an irrational Iranian leadership could still have preference orderings that are both consistent and transitive.