One important aspect of the new nuclear agreement with Iran has been ignored altogether. This is the likely impact of the pact upon Israel’s strategic nuclear posture. Although the Israeli bomb remains plainly nonthreatening, and in the metaphoric “basement,” it is plausible to expect that many countries (both friends and foes) will soon call indignantly for the Jewish state’s denuclearization.
Significantly for Israel, compliance with any such demands could prove intolerable. Even if pertinent enemy states were to remain non-nuclear themselves, these adversaries and also their terrorist proxies would still be in a dramatically improved position to overwhelm Israel.
In the past, a number of Arab states and Iran, themselves still non-nuclear, have demanded Israel join the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Looking ahead, even if these states were somehow willing to remain non-nuclear, their cumulative conventional, chemical and biological capabilities could still bring Israel insufferable harm. Lest anyone forget the most basic maxims of war and geopolitics, both Iran and the Arabs have mass.
Israel, smaller than America’s Lake Michigan, has none.
President Obama, who calls passionately for a world “free of nuclear weapons,” still fails to realize that hope is not a strategy. In fact, for the region as a whole, nuclear weapons are not the actual problem. In the Middle East, rather, the core issue remains an utterly far-reaching and unreconstructed Arab-Iranian commitment to excise Israel from the map. Here, cartographic “genocide” represents an anticipatory blueprint for the “real thing.”
In law, war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. Both Palestinian and Iranian maps reveal unambiguous plans for genocide against “the Jews.” Religiously, these contemplated crimes against humanity stem from conspicuous eschatologies of sacred violence.
With its nuclear weapons, even while still “deliberately ambiguous,” or in the “basement,” Israel can deter enemy unconventional attacks, and also most large conventional ones. While in possession of such weapons, Israel could also launch certain cost-effective non-nuclear pre-emptive strikes against any enemy state’s hard military targets that might threaten Israel’s annihilation. Without these nuclear weapons, any such expressions of “anticipatory self-defense” could likely represent the onset of a much wider and asymmetrically destructive (to Israel) war.
The rationale for this argument is readily identifiable. In essence, without nuclear back-up, there would no longer exist any compelling threat of an Israeli counter-retaliation. It follows, contrary to the U.S. president’s misplaced preferences for global nuclear disarmament, that Israel’s nuclear weapons represent a vitally important instrument of regional peace, and, correspondingly, a needed impediment to regional nuclear war.
Always, strategy requires nuance. In his blanket proposal for “a world without nuclear weapons,” however, Mr. Obama has been thinking without any differentiation or subtlety. To survive into the future, the international community will have to make various critical nuclear distinctions between individual states and national nuclear deterrence postures. In the special case of Israel, it will soon need to be acknowledged, nuclear weapons are potentially all that can prevent a grievously destructive and genocidal war.
Jurisprudentially, the residual national right to threaten or even use nuclear weapons in order to survive is enshrined at the 1996 Advisory Opinion on Nuclear Weapons, by the U.N.’s International Court of Justice.
Neither the president of the United States nor the U.N. Security Council can assure Israel’s survival amid growing regional chaos. In the specific matter of nuclear weapons, moreover, not all countries are created equal. For Israel, legitimately, these weapons offer the indisputably ultimate barrier to violent extinction. For Israel, and for the wider system of civilized states, they represent a manifestly latent blessing, not a curse.
Living in a world without Israeli nuclear weapons, Israel’s principal enemies could quickly drive the Jewish state into an eternal darkness, into fire, into ice. Such expressly genocidal action could seem altogether reasonable and rational for the perpetrators. This is because, individually or collaboratively, these aggressor states could now inflict distinctly mortal harms upon a theologically despised foe, and without incurring intolerable harms themselves.
Following the Obama-led legitimization of Iranian nuclearization via naive P5-plus-1 diplomacy, Israel has most to fear from Tehran. If Iran’s religious leadership should ever choose to abandon the usual premises of rational behavior in world politics, Jerusalem’s nuclear posture could fail. Nonetheless, even if Iran could sometime become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm, Israel’s only rational strategy, moving forward, should be to hold on firmly to its nuclear armaments, and, as soon as Iran crosses the operational nuclear threshold, to move determinedly beyond “deliberate ambiguity,” and toward carefully selected forms of nuclear disclosure.
The recent Iran nuclear agreement will do nothing to secure Israel, and will likely raise the shrill chorus of national calls for Jerusalem to accept Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty obligations. For Israel, which is plainly committed to regional peace more than any other nation in the Middle East, the only correct response must be to shore up its indispensable nuclear deterrent.
Louis Rene Beres is a professor of international law at Purdue University.