Opinions & Commentary

Nuclear dilemmas

By Chuck Freilich


Chuck Freilich is a former Israeli deputy national security adviser and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. Chuck Freilich is a former Israeli deputy national security adviser and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. Israel and the international community, under U.S. leadership, have gone to great lengths in recent decades to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, so far successfully. Were Iran to go nuclear, Israel would face the following primary options.

First, a military attack against Iran’s nuclear sites, which would only be feasible before Iran goes nuclear; once it does, it will be immune to attack. The danger to Israel of a nuclear Iran is so severe, however, even if probably not existential, that Israel will have no other choice but to attack, once Iran approaches the threshold. Conversely, military action cannot solve the problem, only postpone it for a few years, at most, and at the price of severe damage to Israel’s civilian rear, caused by Iran and Hezbollah. The additional time gained by military action could then be utilized to apply a variety of measures against Iran once again, including heavy sanctions, but the moment of reckoning, when it threatens to cross the threshold, may return.

Second, end the policy of ambiguity regarding Israel’s purported nuclear capabilities and adopt an explicit nuclear posture, designed to strengthen further Israeli deterrence. Assuming Iran is a rational actor, however, Israeli deterrence should be effective even under the existing policy of ambiguity. The incremental addition to Israel’s deterrence that might arguably stem from an end to ambiguity does not appear to warrant the damage to its international relations.

Third, seek a U.S. security guarantee in the form of a defense treaty or another less binding option. As long as we are talking solely about Iran, though, Israel’s own deterrence should suffice. Moreover, even in the absence of a formal defense treaty, the Iranians have to assume that there is a de facto US commitment to Israel’s security and that it thus enjoys extended U.S. deterrence.

In a multipolar nuclear Middle East, however, the calculus would be different. In a situation in which some of the regional actors do not have diplomatic relations, or even channels of communication, and some deny the right of others to exist, the dangers of a conflagration are so extreme that a stable nuclear balance may not prove feasible. Even a U.S. security guarantee would not be sufficient to prevent a deterioration in these conditions, but it might certainly be a moderating and stabilizing factor from Israel’s perspective, especially if broadened to additional states and to a broader regional security regime.

A further option in this multipolar nuclear scenario – one that appears to be utterly fanciful at this time – is a regional arms control agreement, ultimately leading to disarmament. The primary danger in this option, for Israel, is that its adversaries, including Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya, have repeatedly violated previous binding international arms control agreements and that it cannot trust them to behave differently in the future, at least until they become stable democracies, an unlikely eventuality in the coming decades. In a multipolar nuclear Mideast, however, a situation that will only materialize, if at all, a few decades hence, the other options may not be better and the impossible may become realistic.

A nuclear Iran would present Israel with severe dilemmas, but they are still a way off and decisions are not yet necessary. Nevertheless, processes and decisions in the nuclear realm take many years to play out and Israel should already be conducting its thinking and planning today, quietly and without undue pressure, rather than leaving it for the last minute.

Current efforts should focus on ensuring the future of the nuclear deal with Iran, which remains the best way to prevent it from going nuclear. The next stage would be to attempt redressing the agreement’s flaws, particularly its expected expiration in 10-to-15 years. The U.S. and its allies are already working on a follow-up agreement with Iran, designed to ensure that it cannot go nuclear even after the current deal expires. An agreement such as this would be greatly preferable to the abortive efforts to reopen or terminate the existing one.



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