Appeared in MIDSTREAM (December 1995)

Power, Preemtion and The Middle East "Peace Process"

By Louis Rene Beres

Within a year or two, the Islamic Republic of Iran could have a devastating and secure arsenal of unconventional weapons with which to destroy Israel. In all likelihood, this arsenal will include a small number of nuclear weapons. It follows that unless Jerusalem believes that its still unacknowledged nuclear deterrent can prevent an Iranian strike, or that its future defensive weaponry (primarily anti-tactical ballistic missiles known as "Arrow" or "Hetz) could reliably intercept incoming enemy missiles, Israel may have no sane alternative to striking first. Under international law, such an Israeli strike, which has ample precedent in the June 1981 attack against the Osiraq nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad, would be an expression of anticipatory self defense.

Should Israel believe in the efficacy of its nuclear deterrent? Even if the Israeli bomb were taken out of the "basement," i.e., if it were shifted from a policy of deliberate ambiguity to some form of frank disclosure, it would be altogether irrational for Israel to count upon the nuclear threat for national survival. This is the case not only because of the very real dangers of Iranian miscalculations or errors in information, but also because of the equally real dangers of Iranian irrationality. An enemy state like Iran could conceivably value destruction of Israel so highly that it would be prepared to absorb a devastating and fully expected Israeli nuclear reprisal. Moreover, even a fully rational Iranian leadership could be undeterred by Israel if it believed that Israel's nuclear arsenal were vulnerable to first-strike destruction and/or that Israel's decision-makers were unwilling to make good on their nuclear retaliatory threats.

As for Israel's ATBM (Arrow) capability, even the most optimal progress would not produce deployment before the year 2000. Once it were deployed, even the most "brilliant" active defense could not assure adequate levels of interception. that is, levels consistent with protecting the great majority of Israeli lives. And during the interim between production and deployment, Israel's susceptibility to Iranian attack would be enlarged. After all, in fashioning its own calculations of costs and benefits, Iran's leadership will assuredly recognize the expected benefits of launching while Israel is altogether indefensible. Israel needs to prepare for preemption against pertinent Iranian hard targets. To the extent that it will be able to undertake such preemption, Israel will display power. Yet, there is a substantial and overriding impediment to Israel's preemption option - the so-called Middle East Peace Process. Because this Process makes an Israeli preemption effectively impossible (how, after all, could Israel justify resort to anticipatory self-defense while "peace" is being negotiated?), this Process impairs Israel's power.

We may see, therefore, that the important consequences of Oslo I and II go far beyond the expectations of increased anti-Israel terrorism. Indeed, these consequences include nothing less than the very survival of the Jewish State, a survival now so problematic that the Third Temple might not even endure through the end of the Second Millennium. By immobilizing Israel's essential preemption option against a steadily nuclearizing Iran, the Peres Government's commitments to "peace" could bring about catastrophic war.

Israel should now be planning urgently for the preemptive destruction of Iran's developing nuclear arms and infrastructure, but it is probably prevented from ever carrying out such plans by its misplaced trust in diplomatic agreements. Israel requires power to survive, but Israel's "Peace Process" precludes such power. Simultaneously, because of what military strategists describe as the "zero-sum" nature of power in world politics, Iran's power grows enormously as a result of Israel's diplomatic concessions. It goes without saying that if the Oslo agreements with the Palestinians are soon complemented by an Israeli surrender of the Golan Heights to Syria, the reciprocal relationship between Israeli and Iranian power will become even more unfavorable to Israel.

Although not generally recognized, this reciprocal relationship will also be affected by the tragic assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. As it is already evident that this assassination is producing a strengthened Israeli commitment to Oslo, the assassination is producing a critical reduction in Israel's power. In the final analysis, this ironic consequence of a political murder intended to stop Oslo surrenders could prove to be the single most terrible result of the assassination.

Israel's commitment to Oslo exhibits what we international law scholars call the "fallacy of legalism," an unreasonable degree of faith in the presumably self-evident value of diplomatic agreements. This commitment also displays an unsupportable faith in military defense as opposed to offense. Here it would benefit Israel's political and military leadership to brush up on the writings of ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu. Writing in his classic, THE ART OF WAR, Sun-Tzu reminds his readers: "Those who excel at defense bury themselves away below the lowest depths of Earth. Those who excel at offense move from above the greatest heights of Heaven. Thus they are able to preserve themselves and attain complete victory."

There is another passage in THE ART OF WAR that should be brought to the attention of Israel's leaders. "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting," says Sun-Tzu, "is the true pinnacle of excellence." By this standard, the Islamic world has almost reached this pinnacle. As for Israel, which has absolutely no chance of subjugating enemy armies without fighting, it is now so far from this pinnacle that it is not even recognizable.

Iran has time. Israel does not. As time is an integral component of military power, Iran has power that Israel lacks. Before this particular discrepancy in power can change, Israel will have to move from a strategy of defense to one of offense, from its current plans for an orbiting Bar-Lev Line to a strategy of preemption. This move, in turn, could require a repudiation of misconceived agreements with the Palestinians and an avoidance of similar surrender agreements with Syria.

For now, as we have already seen, Israel lacks altogether the capacity to intercept incoming ballistic missiles, while the prevailing climate of "peace" effectively precludes the preemption option. At the same time, Israel's military Intelligence Branch, which must operate at the very highest levels of reliability, has a disturbing record of substantial mistakes. When, on October 5, 1973, Egyptian and Syrian surprise attacks came close to jeopardizing the Third Temple Commonwealth, Israel paid a very high price. The Yom Kippur War produced 2326 deaths of Israeli soldiers, nearly ten thousand injuries and hundreds of prisoners. These costs were the direct result of A'man's (IDF Intelligence Branch) failure to predict the attack. This failure is known in the intelligence community as the Mechdal, a Hebrew term meaning "omission," "nonperformance," and "neglect." Similarly, when at 0143 on January 18, 1991, the scream of air-raid sirens could be heard in every corner of Israel, the Iraqi Scuds that slammed through Tel-Aviv and Haifa neighborhoods were armed with relatively benign warheads. Again, Israel, in the words of a former intelligence chief, was caught "with its pants down." Until this point, of course, Israel's blunders have had relatively little human cost. For the future, Israel might not be so "lucky."

What, exactly, is the future threat that contains vastly more ominous possibilities for Israel's security and survival? More than anything else, it is the ongoing process of Iranian nuclearization, a developing menace with two critical and interrelated dimensions: capabilities and intentions. A'man must monitor this menace without making any major mistakes, and it must advise a government that will be severely constrained by technological disadvantages (i.e., the inherent shortcomings of ballistic missile defense) and by diplomatic agreements. In calculating the Iranian threat to national survival, Israeli strategists will have to consider both enemy capabilities and enemy intentions. Yet, because such threat components are never entirely discrete, but rather interdependent, interpenetrating and interactive, these strategists will have to look closely at all pertinent relationships. Here they will need to understand that: (1) capabilities affect intentions; (2) intentions affect capabilities; and (3) the combined effects ofcapabilities and intentions may be synergistic, producing policy outcomes, that are greatly accelerated or even more than the simple sum of these effects.

For the moment, there are many in Israel who would maintain that Teheran's unconventional capabilities remain problematic and that this Islamic regime's actual interest in attacking Israel is certainly very low. Yet, over the next few years, that country's ongoing development of chemical/biological/nuclear weapons could be substantial, creating conditions wherein a first-strike against Israel could be construed as perfectly rational. Whether correct or incorrect in its calculations, an Iranian leadership that believes it can strike Israel with impunity or near impunity - i.e., that it can preemptively destroy Israel's nuclear retaliatory capacity - could be strongly motivated to undertake such a strike. Such motivation, of course, would be heightened to the extent that Iran remained confident about Jerusalem's own reluctance to preempt, a reluctance - as we have already seen - that is likely an integral feature of the Peace Process.

Iranian capabilities, therefore, could affect, possibly even determine, Iranian intentions. The Iranian threat to Israel might, however, originate differently. In this scenario, Iran's intentions toward the Jewish State, irremediably hostile and perhaps even authentically genocidal, could hasten Teheran's development of unconventional military capabilities. Here, representing genuinely far-reaching international hatreds rather than mere bluster and propagandistic bravado, Iranian diatribes against Israel would accelerate dramatically the production/deployment of extraordinarily destructive forces, weapons and postures. What has been described now are circumstances where Iranian intentions could affect, possibly even determine, Iranian capabilities.

What if Iran's intentions toward Israel were not irremediably hostile or genocidal? What if its public bombast were not an expression of genuinely belligerent motivations, but a position designed entirely for political consumption? The short answer to these questions is that such shallow and contrived intentions would not impact Iranian capabilties vis- a-vis Israel. But, upon reflection, it is altogether likely that even inauthentic expressions of intent could, over time, become authentic, that repeated again and again over many years, such expressions could become self-fulfilling. For those who might doubt such a transformation, one where Iranian leaders would begin to believe their own rhetoric in spite of themselves - incrementally and unwittingly - one need only recall the history of the Cold War. It would, therefore, be premature for Israel to draw comfort from the argument that Iranian intentions are effectively harmless. Such intentions could impact Iranian capabilities decisively over time.

The most complex relationships between Iranian capabilties and intentions, and potentially the most consequential to Israeli security, survival, and power, concern synergy. The issue here is not whether, or to what extent, one threat component affects the other, but instead how certain of their various combinations might: (a) produce an ongoing series of interactions that moves relentlessly toward war; or (b) produce a wholly new effect, an effect of which neither capability nor intention is individually capable. An example of (a) would be an Iranian "bolt-from-the-blue" attack against Israel that is launched only because of theparticularly synergistic way in which capabilites and intentions feed upon each other. In the fashion of a human pathology that is hastened by the interactive effects of two individually potent carcinogens, e.g., alcohol and tobacco, such an attack (metaphorically, a pathogenic intrusion into the Israeli "organism") would be speeded up and perhaps even made possiblebecause of the specific way in which "carcinogenic" capabilties and intentions continuously transform and enlarge each other. An example of (b) would be an Iranian attack against Israel - bolt-from-the-blue or product of escalation, conventional or unconventional - that would not otherwise even have taken place. This example is plausible to the extent that one believes Iran would never strike first against Israel, irrespective of Iran's singular intentions and capabilties, unless these two threat components were judged mutually reinforcing. Returning to our metaphor, the pathogenic intrusion into the Israeli "organism" in this example would produce a distinctly different "disease," one that could not have been produced independently by either individual "carcinogen," and one that could be either more or less injurious than the other synergistic outcome.

Let us now explore further the pertinent constraints codified in the Oslo accords. Should Iran recognize the inhibitions on Israeli preemptive action that stem from these accords, that Islamic enemy state could calculate as follows: As our (Iranian) nuclearization will be less threatened by Israeli preeemptive attack because of Israel's adherence to diplomatic agreements, we (Iran) should expand our unconventional capabilities - especially our nuclear weapons capabilities -- as quickly as practicable. Such a calculation could also enlarge Iranian intentions to attack Israel and might even make cost-effective hostile actions by Iran that would not otherwise have been possible.

What if the Oslo accords should lead directly to the creation of a Palestinian state, an outcome that now seems indisputable? Here, it is altogether probable that Israel's loss of strategic depth would be recognized by Iran as a significant liability for Israel. Such recognition, in turn, could heat up Iranian intentions against Israel, occasioning an accelerated search for capabilities and consequently a heightened risk of war initiated from Teheran.

Israel, of course, might forsee such Iranian calaculations and seek to compensate for the loss of territories in a number of different ways. Jerusalem, for example, could decide to take its bomb out of the "basement," as a deterrence-enhancing measure, and/or it could accept a heightened willingness to launch preemptive strikes against enemy(including Iran) hard targets. Made aware of such Israeli intentions, intentions that would accrue from Israel's new vulnerabilities, Iran could respond in a more or less parallel fashion, preparing more openly for nuclearization and/or for first-strike attacks against the Jewish State.

There is one last point of real consequence. Should Israel ever conclude that an act of anticipatory self-defense is needed against Iranian military assets, it may still resist this act because of world public opinion. If, however, Israel began immediately to alert the world to Iran's aggressive intentions against Israel and its growing nuclear capabilties, the Jewish State might not be self-deterred from launching a life-saving preemption. Israel, therefore, should cease immediately its general, counterproductive silence on Iran, and should remind the world, instead, of Teheran's commitment, in word and deed, to destroy the Jewish State. Such a reminder would not be propagandistic, to be sure, but rather a prudent and entirely honest component of reasonable self-defense.

Israel thus faces a unique dual-preemption imperative. It must, in effect, preempt its own military preemption of Iranian mass-destruction assets with a far-reaching public-relations preemption of expected global condemnation. Unless the second preemption action precedes the first, and does so in a timely and convincing fashion, the defensive destruction of Teheran's developing nuclear weapons capacity would elicit uniformly negative reactions all over the world. For Israel, constrained by the Oslo accords, preemption is already very problematic and power, therefore, is already diminishing. Recalling Sun-Tzu, leaders of the Jewish State must bear in mind: "One who knows when he can fight, and when he cannot fight, will be victorious."

===============
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is a Professor in the Department of Political Science, Purdue University and a frequent contributor to MIDSTREAM and THE MACCABEAN. He will be in Houston on Sunday, March 24, 1996, speaking to a public meeting of the Freeman Center.

 HOME  Maccabean  comments