For Israel, What Next In The Matter Of Iran? (2 of 3)

Iran’s vice president and the chief of its nuclear-energy agency Fereydoon Abbasi
(Photo Credit: IRNA)

Steadily, Israel is strengthening its plans for ballistic missile defense, most visibly on the Arrow system and also on Iron Dome, a lower-altitude interceptor that is designed to guard against shorter-range rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza.

Unavoidably, these defensive systems, including certain others, which are still in the development phase, would have leakage. Because system penetration by even a single enemy missile carrying a nuclear warhead could, by definition, be intolerable, their principal benefit would not lie in supplying added physical protection for Israeli populations. Instead, this still-considerable benefit would have to lie elsewhere – that is, in critical enhancements of Israeli nuclear deterrence.

If still rational, a newly nuclear Iran would require incrementally increasing numbers of offensive missiles. This would be needed to achieve or to maintain a sufficiently destructive first-strike capability against Israel. There could come a time, however, when Iran would become able to deploy substantially more than a small number of nuclear-tipped missiles. Should that happen, all of Israel's active defenses, already inadequate as ultimate guarantors of physical protection, could cease functioning as critically supportive adjuncts to Israeli nuclear deterrence.

In the case of anticipated Iranian decisional "madness," a still timely preemption against Iran, even if at very great cost and risk to Israel, could prove indispensable. Yet, at least in itself, this plainly destabilizing scenario is insufficiently plausible to warrant defensive first strikes. Israel would be better served by a bifurcated or two-pronged plan for successful deterrence. Here, one "prong" would be designed for an expectedly rational Iranian adversary, the other for a presumptively irrational one.

In broadest policy contours, we already know what Israel would need to do in order to maintain a stable deterrence posture vis--vis a newly nuclear Iran. But what if the leaders of such an adversary did not meet the characteristic expectations of rational behavior in world politics? In short, what if this leadership, from the very start or perhaps more slowly over time, chose not to consistently value Iran's national survival as a state more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences?...

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