After many years of deception, delay, and self-delusion concerning Tehran’s intentions and capabilities, a fully nuclear Iran is now almost certainly a fait accompli.
For a time, selective preemptions against certain Iranian nuclear assets and infrastructures might still have been practicable. Nonetheless, during this limited “window” of opportunity, neither Israel nor the United States chose to exercise its lawful right of anticipatory self-defense. For Israel, the state most directly threatened by these developments, but by no means the only one, remaining self-defense options will soon be confined to certain interpenetrating plans for improved nuclear deterrence, and expanded active defense.
These options will likely include an end to the country’s longstanding policy of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity,” as well as substantial additional improvements and deployments of Arrow, Iron Dome, and (later) Magic Wand missile interceptors. Of course, there will also be assorted parallel and reinforcing efforts aimed at enhanced cyber-defense and cyber-war.
By definition, while a successful preemption would have prevented a nuclear Iran, defensive anti-missile programs can come into play only after an Iranian nuclear force has already been deployed, or (in the utterly worst case scenario) after an Iranian nuclear attack has already been launched.
Shall anyone reasonably expect a newly-nuclear leadership in Tehran to be reliably rational? Exactly what could happen to Israel if pertinent Iranian leaders, endowed with offensive nuclear weapons, should, even on a single occasion, proceed to value certain presumed religious obligations more highly than their state’s physical survival? What, too, could happen to the United States, as a consequence of any Iran-mentored nuclear terrorism?
These core questions must be raised in reference to all possible Iranian successor regimes, not only to the present Ahmadinejad government. Although counter-intuitive, and possibly still misunderstood in Washington or Jerusalem, regime change in Tehran could conceivably yield an increased likelihood of irrational enemy decision-making.
Irrationality is not the same as madness. Even an irrational Iranian leadership could maintain a consistent and “transitive” hierarchy of preferences. This means, at least in principle, that even an irrational Iran could still be deterred by certain threats to its most cherished religious values or places. Concern for protecting the “holy city” of Qom comes quickly to mind.
It is also plausible that an Iranian leadership could simultaneously value very highly certain of its core military institutions, and would, therefore, also be deterred by credible threats to these institutions. A prime consideration would be the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps., the power behind the Iranian dictatorship, the principal foe of the Iranian people, and the current leadership’s main instrument of institutional repression.
Here, it could be purposeful for Washington and/or Jerusalem to hold at risk the Guard’s physical facilities, its terrorist training camps, its navy of small attack boats, its missile program, the homes of its leaders, and its space program. What should be excluded from any American and Israeli-generated vulnerabilities, however, would be manifestly civilian targets, and also those accessible military targets which are not identifiably Guard-related.
Enemy irrationality would likely be less dangerous for Israel than having to face a genuinely mad adversary. Still, it will not be Israel’s or even America’s option to decide precisely which type of adversary it would prefer to face in Tehran.
Also worth noting is that a nuclear Iran could be dangerous to Israel even if its leadership were, in fact, entirely rational. This is the case because miscalculation, or errors in information, could still lead a perfectly rational adversary to strike first. In these relatively favorable circumstances, even the very best anti-missile defenses could still be sorely inadequate.
If Iran were presumed to be rational, in the usual strategic sense of valuing its physical survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences, Jerusalem could begin to consider certain benefits of pretended irrationality. Years ago, Israeli General Moshe Dayan warned insightfully: “Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother.” In this crude but effective metaphor, Dayan had already understood that, sometimes, it can be decidedly rational to feign irrationality.
What if an Iranian nuclear adversary were presumed to be irrational, again, in the specific sense of not caring most about its national survival? In such circumstances, there would be no deterrence benefit to Israel to assuming any posture of pretended irrationality. The potentially more probable threat of a massive nuclear counterstrike by Israel in this case would likely be no more compelling in Tehran, than if Iran’s enemy were considered rational.
Any Iranian leadership that slouches toward military conflict with the “Zionist Entity” could, perhaps sooner than had been expected, initiate regional nuclear war. Deliberately or inadvertently, as a “bolt from the blue,” or as a fully unintended result of escalation, whether out of an inexorable religious commitment to Jihad against “unbelievers,” or, for much more mundane reasons of miscalculation, accident, coup d’état, or command-control failure, a nuclear Tehran could ignite a real-world “Armageddon.”
Thirty-two years ago, I published the first of ten books that contained authoritative descriptions of the physical and medical consequences of nuclear war, any nuclear war. These descriptions were drawn largely from a still-valid 1975 report by the National Academy of Sciences, and included the following very tangible outcomes: large temperature changes; contamination of food and water; disease epidemics in crops, domesticated animals, and humans due to ionizing radiation; shortening of growing seasons; irreversible injuries to aquatic species; widespread and long-term cancers due to inhalation of plutonium particles; radiation-induced abnormalities in persons in utero at the time of detonations; a vast growth in the number of skin cancers, and increasing genetic disease.
Overwhelming health problems would afflict the survivors of any Iranian nuclear attack upon Israel. These difficulties would extend beyond prompt burn injuries. Retinal burns could even occur in the eyes of persons very far from the actual explosions.
Tens of thousands of Israelis could be crushed by collapsing buildings, and torn to shreds by flying glass. Others could fall victim to raging firestorms. Fallout injuries would include whole-body radiation injury, produced by penetrating, hard gamma radiations; superficial radiation burns produced by soft radiations; and injuries produced by deposits of radioactive substances within the body.
After an Iranian nuclear attack, even a “small” one, those few medical facilities that might still exist in Israel could be taxed beyond capacity. Water supplies could quickly become unusable. Housing and shelter could be unavailable for hundreds of thousands of survivors. Transportation would break down to rudimentary levels. Food shortages could be critical and long-term.
Israel’s normally complex network of exchange systems would be shattered. Virtually everyone would be deprived of the most basic means of livelihood. Emergency police and fire services would be decimated. All systems dependent upon electrical power could stop functioning. Severe trauma would occasion widespread disorientation and psychiatric disorders for which there would likely be no therapeutic services.
Normal human society would cease. The pestilence of unrestrained murder and banditry could soon augment plague and epidemics. Many of the survivors would expect an increase in serious degenerative diseases. They could also expect premature death; impaired vision, and sterility. An increased incidence of leukemia and cancers of the lung, stomach, breast, ovary and uterine cervix would be unavoidable.
Extensive fallout would upset many delicately balanced relationships in nature. Israelis who survive the nuclear attack would still have to deal with enlarged insect populations. Like the locusts of biblical times, mushrooming insect hordes could spread en masse from the radiation-damaged areas in which they arose.
Insects are generally more resistant to radiation than humans. This fact, coupled with the prevalence of unburied corpses, uncontrolled waste and untreated sewage, would generate tens of trillions of flies and mosquitoes. Breeding in the dead bodies, these insects would make it impossible to control typhus, malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis. Throughout Israel, tens or even hundreds of thousands of rotting human corpses would pose the largest health threat.
All of these same effects, possibly even more expansive and destructive, would be unleashed upon Iran, by Israel. This is because an immediate and massive Israeli retaliation for any Iranian nuclear aggression would be a certainty. Nonetheless, Iran’s comparatively greater suffering could offer little meaningful solace for Israel.
A fully nuclear Iran poses an existential hazard for Israel, but it is still not certain that such a nuclear adversary would necessarily lie outside the bounds of effective Israeli nuclear deterrence. In the best of all possible worlds, the unprecedented hazard from Iran would already have been halted via preemption, or, in legal terms, “anticipatory self-defense.” But this is not yet the “best of all possible worlds,” and Israel will likely have no reasonable alternative going forward to relying, more or less, upon protracted deterrence of a nuclear Iran.
Such reliance would not be fated to fail, and could potentially even succeed, at least in the short run. In any event, the foreseeable consequences of an always still-possible failure – catastrophic outcomes that must be avoided at all costs – have now been presented for examination, authoritative assessment, and decisional scrutiny.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Professor of International Law at Purdue. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is author of several of the earliest major books on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including TERRORISM AND GLOBAL SECURITY: THE NUCLEAR THREAT (Westview, 1979); APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (The University of Chicago Press, 1980); PEOPLE, STATES AND WORLD ORDER (F. E. Peacock, 1981); MIMICKING SISYPHUS: AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (D.C. Heath, Lexington Books, 1983); and SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (D.C. Heath, Lexington Books, 1986). Dr. Beres was Chair of Project Daniel, a private group that delivered an early report on a nuclearizing Iran (ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE) to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on January 16, 2003. Some of his most recent articles on these issues have appeared in The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Special Warfare (DoD); Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College (DoD); NATIV (Israel/Hebrew); and International Security (Harvard).