21 April 2024

Prof. Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and scholarly articles dealing with international law, nuclear strategy, nuclear war, and terrorism. In Israel, Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon). His twelfth and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed., 2018)

Abstract: After its recent missile exchanges with Iran, Israel’s overriding concern should be on preventing Iranian nuclear weapons. No other concern should be allowed to change this priority. Accordingly, Israel’s “deliberately ambiguous” nuclear strategy will require immediate and substantial modifications. Taking time-urgent account of the Gaza War (Hezbollah as well as Hamas), Israeli defense planners will now need to ensure that all future competition in risk-taking vis-a-vis Iran proceed with Israel’s nuclear strategic advantage.

In any upcoming crises between Jerusalem and Tehran, there would take place a mutual search for “escalation dominance. Significantly, however, this search could favor Israel only if Iran were first compelled to remain non-nuclear. It follows (counter-intuitively) that war avoidance (preventing military competition for “escalation dominance”) during the time that Israel remained the only nuclear competitor could be to Israel’s irremediable disadvantage. Though conceptually bewildering, a conventional war begun by Iran could represent the optimal condition for keeping Iran outside the “nuclear club.”

While Israel’s recent success with ballistic missile defense was extraordinary and reassuring, Jerusalem still requires various augmentations of its active defenses by upgraded strategies of nuclear deterrence. Inter alia, Israel’s strategies of “selective nuclear disclosure” should be revealed as “seamlessly” as possible and be calibrated to all pertinent forms of military encounter with Iran. It will also need to be kept in mind that war avoidance per se ought never to become Israel’s ultimate standard of existential success and that Israel’s competitive advantage in crises of “escalation dominance” with Iran could obtain only as long as it remained the only “dyadic” nuclear adversary.

…those vast impersonal forces

T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948)

Though previously preoccupied with counter-terrorism warfare against Hamas and other enemy proxies, Israel will need to shift its prioritizing attention and resources to war with Iran. Whether steadily ongoing or still-impending, this inherently unpredictable war would force Israeli strategists and thinkers to confront the most utterly primal elements of national survival. An Iranian adversary that succeeded in becoming an operational nuclear power could unleash existential harms (“vast impersonal forces”) on Israel. Such forces would be not “merely” terrorizing, but authentically genocidal.[1]

There are multiple details. Military confrontations with Iran will become increasingly plausible and will require antecedent changes in Israel’s up-till-now opaque nuclear strategy.[2] Such confrontations could raise eventual risks of a regional nuclear war, unprecedented hazards that would surface even if Iran were to remain non-nuclear.[3] This is because Israel’s obligatory search for “escalation dominance”[4] during military crises with Iran could sometime spawn a “limited” nuclear strike by Jerusalem.

How likely is such a portentous scenario? From the standpoints of logic and mathematics, this question simply cannot be meaningfully answered. Because science-based judgments of probability must always rest upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events, nothing useful can be said about the calculable odds of a nuclear war. Muddying the conceptual waters even more, there already exist substantial but effectively indecipherable nuclear relations between Iran and North Korea. Nuclear North Korea (long a supporter and ally of Iran) could become a surrogate aggressor of the still pre-nuclear Islamic Republic.

What happens then? What does such a scenario suggest about tangible power in world politics? There exists no mathematical or logical basis to answer any such query. The relevant narrative is without precedent. It is sui generis.

There is more. Successful deterrence of multiple adversaries in the Middle East by a small and beleaguered State of Israel must remain in continuous flux. This condition presents a task so exceedingly complex that nothing less than herculean applications of human intellect could ever match the correlative analytic challenge. Over time, such industrious and imaginative applications of “mind” could represent the most irreducible source of Israeli military power. Though inconspicuous, it would be those individual Israeli scholars and thinkers who undertake such applications who ultimately make Israel’s survival possible.

What does this perplexing strategic understanding “mean” in all its evident and not-so-evident particulars? How should any derivative nuclear deterrence expectations actually be operationalized? Is such a task even subject to realistic policy-making formulations?

A partial and also personal answer is available. For more than half a century, this writer has been thinking and writing about Israel’s nuclear strategy. Arguably, to at least some extent, this has been a futile academic focus. Israel, after all, has never even acknowledged its possession of nuclear weapons, let alone identified any corresponding infrastructures, strategies or tactics.

None at all.[5]

So, what exactly is there for security policy-planners to analyze, assess and refine?

Often, in world politics but especially in the Middle East, the core truth of what is taking place is what is not being said. During the past several years, it has remained easy to extrapolate from multiple and intersecting sources that Israel’s nuclear capacity does represent an evident truth and that the country’s literal survival is inextricably intertwined with its “ambiguous” nuclear posture. Now, however, a primary responsibility for Israeli thinkers and politicians should be to better utilize/optimize their country’s nuclear strategy and to tackle this unique challenge against an ever-changing backdrop of state and sub-state adversaries.

This task is preeminently intellectual. It will require informed assessments not only of traditional or plausible prospects, but of assorted “hybrid” enemies (e.g., Iran-Hezbollah; Iran-Hamas; Iran-North Korea; Turkey-Hamas). By definition, these adversarial combinations will represent more densely complex foes, enemies situated in variously discernible configurations of state and sub-state elements.

The suitability of national nuclear policy planning will vary, in part, according to the presumed “mix” involved. To this point, very little published analysis has addressed the effective use of Israeli nuclear deterrence against sub-state and/or “hybridized” adversaries.[6] Now, for Israel’s existential security, this visible inattention will have to be reversed.

Going forward, Israel will require more explicit considerations of nuclear deterrence strategies directed against conventional; non-nuclear or pre-nuclear enemies.[7] Above all, these considerations will represent fully intellectual obligations; that is, analytic responsibilities that can be met only by more purposeful and science-based theorizing.[8] Nonetheless, these obligations will not necessarily offer palpable satisfactions commensurate with the breadth or inclusiveness of conflict explanation. It follows that Israeli scholars and political leaders should remain conspicuously modest about offering nuclear conflict predictions. Recalling ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights, especially Aristotle (both Poetics and Politics), this will not be a proper time for Israeli displays of hubris. Lest they forget, such displays of overweening pride led directly to the 1973 Yom Kippur War and to the October 7, 2023 Hamas terror attacks.

For Israel, perhaps more than for any other imperiled state in world politics, it is essential not to prepare for the challenges of any previous war. Though, for the moment, Israel still faces no regional nuclear adversaries, this relatively favorable condition will not last indefinitely. When it does come to an end – and such an eventual or incremental cessation is pretty much inevitable with regard to Iran – Israel should be ready to operationalize a suitably systematic strategy of response.[9]

Whether or not Israel is prepared for such a staggering task will depend, at least in part, on whether adversarial nuclear capacities become evident in more-or-less tolerable increments or in sudden “bolt-from-the-blue” acts of military attack. If the latter, the worst case for Israel could involve a future of irremediable suffering. Significantly, there would be little solace in Israel that its Iranian nuclear aggressor had been similarly or even more grievously harmed.

To best prepare for an Iranian nuclear adversary,[10] Israeli planners should remain continuously analytic and theory-directed. This means, among other things, factoring into virtually every coherent nuclear threat assessment (a) the expected rationality of enemy decision-makers and (b) the expected intentionality of these decision-makers during crisis.[11]

It is always a proper time for Israeli strategists to be self-consciously scientific, especially in the sense of producing comprehensive theoretic assessments. Only such disciplined appraisals  could capably explore a clarifying variety of “soft” human factors.[12] Up  until now, Israel’s defense establishment has been more than capably scientific, but only in the narrowly operational sense of applying mathematical/artificial intelligence measures to interlocking weapon systems and infrastructures. Now, IDF/MOD will need to further operationalize its structured orientations to any prospective nuclear conflict.

An appropriate example would be the creation of multiple decisional “templates” to allow consideration of not-easily measurable explanatory factors. More precisely, if a basically dichotomous or two-part distinction could be assumed concerning enemy rationality and intentionality, four logically possible categories or scenarios would result. In turn, these templates could inform or enhance Israel’s long-term nuclear security policies and posture.

To proceed, IDF planners ought to consider the following potentially plausible scenarios: 

 (1) Rational/Intentional 

Both Israeli and Iranian leaders are presumptively rational (i.e., each set of leaders values national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences), and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of fully deliberate decision choices by one or both of the relevant decision-makers;

(2) Rational/Unintentional

Both sets of leaders are presumptively rational, and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of certain unintended decision choices made by one or both of them;                    

(3) Irrational/Intentional

Either Israeli or Iranian leaders or both are presumptively irrational, and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of still fully deliberate decisional choices made by one or both; and 

(4) Irrational/Unintentional

Either Israeli or Iranian enemy leaders or both are presumptively irrational, and any nuclear exchange between these adversaries would be the necessary outcome of unintended decisions made by one or both of them.

In such complex strategic matters (Clausewitz reminds, in On War, “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is still very difficult.”), nothing could prove more practical than good theory.[13] Always, such duly general and comprehensive policy explanations could help guide Jerusalem beyond otherwise vague, ad hoc or viscerally “seat-of-the-pants” appraisals of adversarial nuclear conflict possibilities.[14]

By definition, any future nuclear crisis between Israel and a designable enemy state like Iran would be unique. Among other things, therefore, Israel’s Prime Minister and his principal national security advisors ought never to become overly-confident about predicting specific nuclear crisis outcomes or their own personal expertise in being able to successfully manage unprecedented crises.

There are no authentic experts on nuclear conflict.     None!

There is more. Israeli strategic analysts must continuously upgrade any proposed nuclear investigations by identifying core distinctions between intentional or deliberate nuclear war and between unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The risks resulting from these different types of possible nuclear conflict are apt to vary considerably. Israeli analysts who would remain too exclusively focused upon any deliberate nuclear war scenario could too-casually underestimate a more genuine enemy threat.

In principle, any such underestimations could produce lethal or prospectively lethal outcomes for Israel. To make the avoidance of these underestimations still more urgent, analysts and planners should acknowledge that nuclear war risks in the Middle East could be created or enhanced via “spillover effects” from nuclear conflict situations in other regions. Presently, for Israel, the most credible “ignition points” for such creation could be India-Pakistan escalations and/or assorted North Korean aggressions.

While North Korea-Middle East nuclear intersections may at first appear far-fetched, a crossing of the nuclear threshold anywhere on this planet could impact nuclear weapons use in other places. This prediction does not even take into account the historic ties between destabilizing North Korean nuclear technologies and certain traditional Arab state enemies of Israel. One obvious case in point is Syria. Here, Israel’s preemption against prospective enemy nuclear weapons(Operation Orchard) took place in September 2007.[15]

In principle, Israel could sometime need to respond to bewildering circumstances generated by a US war with Iran. This could be the case even if Iran itself were to remain non-nuclear.[16] Moreover, Israeli planners will need to anticipate such conditions in a suitably systematic and dialectical fashion.

International relations always represent a system. What happens in any one component of this system can impact what happens in another component? Sometimes, the cumulative impact of regional or global interactions could also be “synergistic.” In these circumstances, by definition, the calculable “whole” of relevant interactions would prove greater than the simple sum of component “parts.”

In thinking about nuclear strategy, Israeli planners should calculate holistically, considering the world as a multi-actor totality, one where consequential outcomes will have to be assessed in all their most conceivably complex intersections. Also noteworthy in this regard is a seemingly subtle but still meaningful difference between an inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. Any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be recognizable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not be accidental.

The policy-related differences here are not by any means insignificant.

Most critical, in clarifying this connection, would be potentially serious errors in calculation, whether committed by one or both (or several) sides. The most evident example of such grievous mistakes would concern more-or-less plausible misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity as might emerge during the course of a particular crisis escalation. Such consequential misjudgments would likely stem from an expectedly mutual search for strategic advantage taking place during an ongoing competition in nuclear risk-taking. In orthodox military parlance, this would mean a determinable multi-party search for “escalation dominance.”

To achieve a proper or (better still) optimal start in this sort of required theorizing, Israeli analysts would first need to pinpoint and conceptualize the vital similarities and differences between deliberate nuclear war, inadvertent nuclear war and accidental nuclear war. Subsequently, undertaking various related investigations of rationality and irrationality within each affected country’s decision-making structure would be necessary.[17]One potential source of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could be a failed strategy of “pretended irrationality.” To wit, a posturing Israeli prime minister who had “successfully” convinced enemy counterparts of his own decisional irrationality (not the same as “madness”) could unwittingly spark an otherwise-avoidable enemy first-strike.

There is more. An Israeli leadership that begins to take seriously an enemy leader’s self-declared unpredictability could sometime be frightened into striking first itself. In this diametrically opposite or reciprocal case, Israel would become the preempting party that would claim legality for its allegedly defensive first-strike. Under authoritative international law, a permissible preemption could possibly be taken as a law-based expression of “anticipatory self-defense.”[18]

Also worth considering amid such chess-like strategic and legal dialectics is that the first scenario could end not with an enemy preemption, but with Israel opting to “preempt the preemption.” Israel, sensing the too-great “success” of its own pretended irrationality, might “foresee” an Iranian enemy’s resultant insecurity and then decide (correctly or incorrectly) to “strike first before being struck first.”

In all such cases, the underlying strategic dialectic[19] would be both dense and complicated.[20]

An additional observation warrants emphasis. A future Israeli instance of feigned or pretended irrationality need not necessarily be misconceived. Years ago, then Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan declared: “Israel must be seen (by its enemies) as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.” Under certain plausible circumstances, this declaration could prove tangibly gainful.

There is more. the credibility of adversarial military posturing could sometime be enhanced by conspicuous characterizations of a “Samson Option.” The key point of any such characterizations would not be to prepare for a “final battle” (an outcome that could be in neither adversarial state’s overall interests), but to better convince Iran of Israel’s willingness to take extraordinary risks in order to best ensure its survival.[21]

While Israel has yet to exploit this particular modality of strategic thinking, Russia made precisely such a calculation with explicit reference to the United States. Regarding its Burevestnik missile, a self-declared “vengeance nuclear weapon,” Vladimir Putin is not hoping to employ this weapon as part of its actual operational policy, but rather to signal the United States that it would “go to the mat” in a nuclear belligerency. Presumptively, the Russian “point” is not to “fight a nuclear war” with the United States, but rather to best influence the strategic choices that its American rival could conceivably make.

In other words, this means to optimize Russia’s nuclear deterrence posture.

Immediately, the core focus of Israel’s nuclear strategy will have to be replacement of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (or “bomb in the basement”) with “selective nuclear disclosure.” At this point, the Prime Minister understands that successful nuclear deterrence of a soon-to-be-nuclear nuclear Iran will require less nuclear secrecy. What will soon need to be determined by IDF planners will be the operational extent and subtlety with which Israel should communicate its selectively-declared nuclear posture; that is, its corollary intentions and capabilities toward Iran.

  To protect itself against Iranian enemy strikes that could carry intolerable costs, IDF defense planners will need to prepare to exploit every relevant aspect of the country’s nuclear arsenal. The success of Israel’s effort here will depend not only upon its particular choice of targeting doctrine (“counterforce or counter value”), but also upon the extent to which this key choice is made known in advance to Iranian decision-makers and/or to this foe’s sub-state surrogates. Before Tehran could be suitably deterred from launching any nuclear first strikes against Israel, and before they could be deterred from launching any nuclear retaliatory attacks following Israeli preemptions, it would not be enough for them to know only that Israel “has the bomb.” This enemy would also need to believe that Israeli nuclear weapons were sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attacks and that they were targeted at appropriately high-value targets.

The key message here is straightforward. Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrent to the extent that it would enlarge Iranian perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces.[22] Such a calculated end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these forces in reprisal for certain designated enemy first-strike and/or retaliatory attacks.[23]

From the standpoint of successful Israeli nuclear deterrence, IDF planners should proceed on the assumption that perceived willingness is always as important as perceived capability. In all cases, Israel’s nuclear strategy and forces should remain fully oriented to deterrence, not toward any actual war fighting. With this in mind, Jerusalem has likely already taken steps to reject tactical or relatively low-yield “battlefield” nuclear weapons and any corresponding plans for counter-force targeting. For Israel, as long as Iran has not yet embarked upon a no-holds-barred nuclear conflict, nuclear weapons can make sense only for deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.[24]

It’s not just about Iran. There are attendant adversarial problems adversaries among certain other Islamic states. At some stage, Iran or an already-nuclear Pakistan could implement protective measures that would pose additional existential hazards to Israel. Designed to guard against preemption, whether by Israel or other prospective enemies (e.g., India vis-à-vis Pakistan), such measures could involve the attachment of “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies. Easily undertaken, such policies could be coupled with destabilizing pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority.

In part, such policies suggest that Israel could become increasingly endangered by steps taken by Iran or even coup-vulnerable Pakistan to prevent a real or imagined eleventh-hour Israeli preemption. Optimally, Israel would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of the expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its major armaments and civilian populations. Still, if certain enemy counter-preemption steps were to become a fait accompli, Jerusalem might then calculate that a preemptive strike would in fact be legal and cost-effective. In essence, an expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, might then still appear more tolerable than any expected consequences of Iranian first-strikes.

There is a related matter of conventional deterrence. In some circumstances, Iranian decision-makers contemplating a conventional attack upon Israel might be dissuaded only by the threat of a strong conventional retaliation. Hence, inasmuch as a conventional war could quickly escalate into an unconventional war, Israel’s conventional deterrent could prove indispensable in offering protection against chemical/biological/nuclear war as well as against a catastrophic conventional war.

Maintaining a persuasive conventional deterrent is always a sine qua non of Israel’s security. This is true whatever the persuasiveness of Jerusalem’s nuclear deterrent and/or the availability of alternative preemption options. Reciprocally, Israel’s conventional and nuclear deterrents are interrelated.  For the foreseeable future, any enemy state such as Iran that would launch an exclusively conventional attack upon Israel would almost need to maintain conspicuously unconventional weapon capabilities “in reserve.”  Even if Israel could rely upon conventional deterrence as a “first line” of protection, that line should be augmented by Israeli nuclear deterrence. This would be to prevent any intra-war escalations that might be initiated by a pertinent enemy state.

Summing up, Israel should prepare to rely upon a distinctly multi-faceted doctrine of nuclear deterrence. In turn, this doctrine will need to be less ambiguous and more determinedly “synergistic.” Its core focus should embrace prospectively rational and non-rational enemies and include both national and sub-national foes.[25]

Over time, any such prudential Israeli reliance should prove “cost-effective.” Whether it is directed at nuclear or non-nuclear adversaries, or both, Israel’s nuclear strategy[26] will play an increasingly important role in that country’s national security planning. At some point, Israel and Iran –  somewhat resembling the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War – could find themselves like “two scorpions in a bottle”[27] or (even more worrisome) like two “scorpions” enclosed amid three or four others.

What happens then? Will Israel be ready? A positive answer is possible only if the task is viewed in Jerusalem as an intellectual one, a struggle not just about comparative ordnance or “orders of battle,” but about “mind over mind.”[28]

Israel has always been in recognizable possession of intellectual power. Proceeding diligently with its bewilderingly intersecting strategic tasks, Israel’s security planners and political leaders should more fully appreciate the enduring primacy of this source of power.[29] For Israel, such appreciation should always be antecedent to any required military nuclear policy refinements,[30] including variously incremental divestments from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.”[31]

Two final points need to be offered about Israel’s nuclear deterrence.

First, because North Korea has ongoing weapons-related ties to both Iran and Syria, a pre-nuclear Iran might still be able to draw tangible nuclear support from an already nuclear Pyongyang. More specifically, a pre-nuclear Iran could act against Israel as if it were an already-nuclear power. Here, though perhaps difficult to imagine or conceptualize, a more nuclear advanced North Korea would act as a surrogate or proxy of less nuclear advanced Iran. Apropos of this rarely discussed scenario for Israel, even a North Korea that shared “only” its sophisticated ballistic missile technologies with Iran (but not its nuclear warheads) could trigger a nuclear war.

Second, during any nuclear crisis involving collaboration between a pre-nuclear Iran and an already nuclear North Korea, Israel’s nuclear deterrent could depend upon a “Samson Option.”[32] This would not mean a last-resort spasm of Israeli vengeance, but a residual and carefully considered outcome of competitive risk-taking in world politics. Though such an outcome could require sudden or incremental threats of unprecedented destructiveness, “Samson’s” designated purpose would not be to “die with the Philistines,” but to prevent a nuclear war.

Israel’s chances for success in any such ultimate test of national nuclear deterrence would depend on (1) its perceived determination to acquire “escalation dominance;” and (2) its recognizably prior moves from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” to “selective nuclear disclosure.” Looking at military nuclear matters though the magnifying lenses of both the Israel-Hamas Gaza War and the more portentous war with Iran, the success of Israeli nuclear deterrence amid “vast impersonal forces” would be indispensable to Israel’s survival.


[1] See, by this author, Louis René Beres: https://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1151&context=ilr  See also Louis René Beres, Justice and Realpolitik: International Law and the Prevention of Genocide , The American Journal of Jurisprudence, Volume 33, Issue 1, 1988, Pages 123–159, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajj/33.1.123

But neither international law nor US law advises particular penalties for states that choose not to prevent or punish genocide by others. All states, notably the “major powers” belonging to the UN Security Council, are bound, among other things, by the peremptory obligation (defined at Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties) known as pacta sunt servanda, to act in continuous “good faith.” This pacta sunt servanda obligation is itself derived from an even more basic norm of world law commonly known as “mutual assistance.” This civilizing norm was famously identified within the classical interstices of international jurisprudence, most notably by eighteenth-century Swiss legal scholar, Emmerich de Vattel, in The Law of Nations (1758).

[2] See by this author, Louis René Beres, “Changing Direction: Updating Israel’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Strategic Assessment (Tel Aviv): Vol. 17, No. 3, October 2014.

[3] See at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: https://thebulletin.org/2024/02/wargame-simulated-a-conflict-between-israel-and-iran-it-quickly-went-nuclear/

[4] See by this author at Air-Space Operations Review (USAF/Pentagon): Louis René Beres, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/ASOR/Journals/Volume-1_Issue-1/Beres_Nuclear_War_Avoidance.pdf

[5] There have been three prominently recorded incidents in which some explicit reference was made to Israel’s “bomb” by a prime minister, but none went beyond deliberately vague and general commentary. On December 22, 1995, then Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared to the Israeli press that Israel would be willing “to give up the atom” in exchange for peace. Years later, on December 11, 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert uttered a very similar remark. And in just the last year, at the end of 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed a “slip of the tongue,” combining “Israel” and “its nuclear….” in the same public utterance.

[6] But see, by this author: Louis René Beres, Israeli Nuclear Deterrence Against Broad Spectrum Attacks: Strategic and Legal Considerations, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 9, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/louis-rene-beres-israeli-nuclear-deterrence-against-broad-spectrum-attacks/.; Louis René Beres, https://israeldefense.co.il/en/node/30198; and Louis René Beres, https://besacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/814-Israeli-Deterrence-Beres-final.pdf

[7] At first hearing, it may sound erroneous to adapt any nation’s nuclear strategy to assorted non-nuclear adversaries, but it should still be obvious to Israel in the case of Iran that even a conventional enemy could (1) sometime threaten existential harms; and that (2) these threats might sometime be rationally countered by various expressions of nuclear deterrence.

[8] We ought not to be allowed to forget that theoretical fruitfulness must always be achieved at some more-or-less decipherable costs of “dehumanization.”  As Goethe reminds in Urfaust, the original Faust fragment: “All theory, dear friend, is grey, And the golden tree of life is green.” Translated by the author from the German: “Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und grun des Lebens goldner Baum.”.

[9] Such needed preparation should extend to multiplying enemy nuclear states, or the dynamic problem of nuclear proliferation. Philosophically, this problem has certain conceptual antecedents in the work of seventeenth-century English scholar, Thomas Hobbes. Here, instructs the author of Leviathan, although the “state of nations” exists in the condition of a “state of nature,” it is more tolerable than the condition of individuals in that state. This is because, in the case of individual human beings, “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” With nuclear weapons spread, however, there is no longer any reason to assert that the state of nations must be more tolerable. Instead, this spread will bring the state of nations much closer to a true Hobbesian state of nature. Similarly, the classical German philosopher, Samuel Pufendorf, also unable to imagine nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare, still reasoned, like Hobbes, that the state of nations “lacks those inconveniences which are attendant upon a pure state of nature….” And in the same vein, wrote Baruch Spinoza: “A commonwealth can guard itself against being subjugated by another, as a man in the state of nature cannot do.” See: A.G. Wernham, ed., The Political Works, Tractatus Politicus, iii, II (Clarendon Press, 1958), p. 295.

[10] On deterring a potentially nuclear Iran, see: Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?” The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. General Chain (USAF/ret.) served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[11] It can also underscore Sun-Tzu’s oft-cited suggestion to “embrace the unorthodox.” For a specific application of Sun-Tzu to Israel’s prospective calculations, see: Louis René Beres, “Lessons for Israel from Ancient Chinese Military Thought: Facing Iranian Nuclearization with Sun-Tzu,” Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, published October 24, 2013.

[12] This does not mean trying to account for absolutely every pertinent explanatory variable. Clarification can be found at “Occam’s Razor,” or the “principle of parsimony.” In essence, it stipulates a preference for the simplest explanation still consistent with scientific method. Regarding current concerns for Israel’s nuclear strategy, it suggests, inter alia, that the country’s military planners not seek to identify and examine every seemingly important variable, but rather to “say the most, with the least.” This presents an important and often neglected cautionary idea, because, all too often, strategists and planners mistakenly attempt to be too inclusive, unwittingly distracting themselves from forging more efficient and “parsimonious” theory.

[13] This reminder references the largely unpredictable effects of errors in knowledge and information concerning intra-Israel (IDF/MOD) strategic uncertainties; on Israeli and Iranian under-estimations or over-estimations of relative power position; and on the unalterably vast and largely irremediable differences between theories of deterrence, and enemy intent “as it actually is.” See: Carl von Clausewitz, “Uber das Leben und den Charakter von Scharnhorst,” Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, 1 (1832); cited in Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper No. 52, October, 1996, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Washington, D.C. p. 9.

[14] Such appraisals will also need to take account of a possible chaos in world politics, a condition classically foreseen by Thomas Hobbes. Although composed in the seventeenth century, Hobbes’ Leviathan still offers a prospectively illuminating vision of chaos, a view that goes far beyond “ordinary” conditions of “mere” anarchy. Says the English philosopher in Chapter XIII, “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery:” during chaos, a condition which Hobbes identifies as a “time of War,” it is a time “…where every man is Enemy to every man… and where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” At the time of writing, Hobbes believed that the condition of “nature” in world politics was less chaotic than that same condition existing among individual human beings – because of what he called the “dreadful equality” of individual men in nature being able to kill others – but this once-relevant differentiation has effectively disappeared with the global spread of nuclear weapons.

[15] See: https://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/29389

[16] See, by this writer at Israel Defense: Louis René Beres, https://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/38613

[17] “The rational is not thinkable without its other,” says philosopher Karl Jaspers, “the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it. The only question is in what form the other appears, how it remains in spite of all, and how it is grasped.” See Karl Jaspers’ Reason and Existence (1935).

[18] See, by this writer: Louis René Beres, https://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/33558  In  law, this is what happened in mid-April 2024 when Israel acted to prevent another round of deliberately indiscriminate Iranian missile attacks.

[19] The Israeli analytic “cast” must always be linked to expressly dialectical thought processes. In the middle dialogues of Plato, dialectic emerges as the preferred form of early “scientific” investigation. Plato describes the dialectician as one who knows how to ask and then to answer questions. In fashioning a usable strategic theory, Israeli planners will first need to better understand this core expectation –  even before they proceed to the usual compilations of facts, figures, orders of battle, and regional balances of power.

[20] A passage in Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, compares the medieval scholastics with spiders, weaving webs out of their own heads, without any consideration of surrounding facts. To be sure, these webs were admirable on account of their workmanship and fineness of thread, but they were nonetheless lacking in any true explanatory substance. (I, iv., 5). Presently, in explaining and advancing Israel’s nuclear strategy, it is important to construct upon suitably fact-based foundations, not on the diaphanous constructions of modern-day scholastics.

[21] Conspicuous preparations for nuclear war fighting could be conceived not as distinct alternatives to nuclear deterrence, but as essential and even integral components of nuclear deterrence.  Some years ago, Colin Gray, reasoning about U.S.-Soviet nuclear relations, argued that a vital connection exists between “likely net prowess in war and the quality of pre-war deterrent effect.”  (See:  Colin Gray, National Style in Strategy: The American Example,” INTERNATIONAL SECURITY, 6, No. 2, fall 1981, p. 35.)  Elsewhere, in a published debate with this writer, Gray said essentially the same thing:  “Fortunately, there is every reason to believe that probable high proficiency in war-waging yields optimum deterrent effect.”  (See Gray, “Presidential Directive 59: Flawed but Useful,” PARAMETERS, 11, No. 1, March 1981, p. 34.  Gray was responding directly to Louis René Beres, “Presidential Directive 59: A Critical Assessment,” PARAMETERS, March 1981, pp. 19 – 28.).

[22] The expected security benefits to Israel of any considered reductions in “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” must remain more-or-less dependent upon Clausewitzian “friction.” Here, this classic term of operational military planning references the always-unpredictable effects of errors in knowledge and information concerning intra-Israel (IDF/MOD) strategic uncertainties, Israeli and adversarial underestimations or overestimations of relative power position, and the unalterably vast and largely irremediable differences between abstract theories of deterrence and actual enemy intentions.

[23]  More generally, the expressly legal problem of reprisal as a permissible rationale for the use of force by states is identified in the U.N. Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States (1970) (https://cil.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/formidable/18/1970-Declaration-on-Principles-of-International-Law-Concerning-Friendly-Relations.pdf)  A possible prohibition of reprisals is also deducible from the broad regulation of force expressed in the UN Charter at Article 2(4); the obligation to settle disputes peacefully at Article 2(3); and the general limiting of permissible force (codified and customary) by states to necessary self-defense.

[24] In the words of Israel’s Strategic Future, the Final Report of Project Daniel (Israel, 2004): “The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.” See also: Louis René Beres, “Facing Iran’s Ongoing Nuclearization: A Retrospective on Project Daniel,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 22, Issue 3, June 2009, pp 491-514; and Louis René Beres, “Israel’s Uncertain Strategic Future,” Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College, Vol. XXXVII, No.1., Spring 2007, pp. 37-54.

[25] Worth noting here is that Israel’s nuclear strategy could have certain meaningful implications for U.S. national security. On these generally ignored connections, see Louis René Beres (with special postscript by retired General/USA Barry McCaffrey), ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY AND AMERICA’S NATIONAL SECURITY, Tel-Aviv University and Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, Tel-Aviv, December 2016: https://sectech.tau.ac.il/sites/sectech.tau.ac.il/files/PalmBeachBook.pdf

[26] Strategy is not the same as “doctrine.” More precisely, doctrine is the required framework from which strategic goals should be extrapolated. Generically, in “standard” or orthodox military thinking, such doctrine describes the tactical manner in which national forces ought to fight in various combat situations, the prescribed “order of battle,” and variously assorted corollary operations. The literal definition of “doctrine” derives from Middle English, from the Latin doctrina, meaning teaching, learning, and instruction. Always, a central importance of codified military doctrine lies not only in the way it can animate, unify and optimize pertinent military forces, but also in the way it can transmit certain desired “messages” to an enemy.

[27] See: Louis René Beres, “Like Two Scorpions in a Bottle: Could Israel and a Nuclear Iran Coexist in the Middle East,” The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 1., 2014, pp. 23-32; Louis René Beres, “Facing Myriad Enemies: Core Elements of Israeli Nuclear Deterrence,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. XX, Issue 1., Fall/Winter 2013, pp. 17-30; Louis René Beres, “Lessons for Israel from Ancient Chinese Military Thought: Facing Iranian Nuclearization with Sun-Tzu,” Harvard National Security Journal, 2013; Louis René Beres, “Striking Hezbollah-Bound Weapons in Syria: Israel’s Actions Under International Law,” Harvard National Security Journal, 2013; Louis René Beres, “Looking Ahead: Revising Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity in the Middle East,” Herzliya Conference presentation, 2013; March 2013; IDC, Herzliya; Louis René Beres and (General/USAF/ret) John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?” The Atlantic, 2012.

[28] On the importance of a “seamless” nuclear deterrent, see by Professor Louis René Beres and Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval at Modern War Institute, West Point: https://mwi.westpoint.edu/creating-seamless-strategic-deterrent-israel-case-study/

[29] Rabbi Eleazar quoted Rabbi Hanina, who said: “Scholars build the structure of peace in the world.” See: The Babylonian Talmud, Order Zera’im, Tractate Berakoth, IX.

[30] To illustrate with an example, Israeli planners will need to examine increasingly nuanced scenarios. In this connection, strategic theorist Herman Kahn once introduced creative distinctions between a surprise attack that is more-or-less unexpected and one that arrives “out of the blue.” The former, he counseled, “…is likely to take place during a period of tension that is not so intense that the offender is essentially prepared for nuclear war….” A total surprise attack, however, would be one without any immediately recognizable tension or warning signal. This particular subset of a surprise attack scenario could prove difficult for Israel to operationalize, but it ought certainly not be ignored.  See: Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s (Simon & Schuster, 1984).

[31] See earlier, by this author, at Strategic Assessment (Israel):  Louis René Beres, https://www.inss.org.il/wp-content/uploads/systemfiles/adkan17_3ENG%20(3)_Beres.pdf

[32] See by this author at West Point (Pentagon): Louis René Beres, https://mwi.westpoint.edu/israel-samson-option-interconnected-world/  See also, by Professor Beres, at BESA (Israel):  https://besacenter.org/navigating-chaos-israel-nuclear-ambiguity-and-the-samson-option/

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