President Bush’s time in office is running out, and so far he has been unable to convince the Pentagon, Congress or the American people of the need to leap into the Iranian lake before he can get out of the Iraqi puddle. Of course, Israel may carry out a strike against Iran on its own. However, given the formidable intelligence and operational problems it would involve, such a strike does not appear very likely at the moment.
The time has come, therefore, to prepare for the day when Iran joins the nuclear club. That is likely to happen in a year, or two, or three. A few experts, basing themselves on what Iran could have done with the aid of the old American-built reactor it possesses, believe that it may have happened already.
Whatever the date, a public announcement is very unlikely. After all, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has consistently denied any intention to weaponize his country’s nuclear program; an announcement, let alone a test, would make him look like a liar to all the world. Hence Iran’s most probable course will be to follow the longstanding Israeli policy of keeping a bomb in the basement. There will be no fanfare, no threats.
Iran’s neighbors around the Persian Gulf have more reason to worry about a nuclear Iran than Israel does. They’ll have to look after themselves. As for Israel, there are a number of steps it ought to take to prepare for the day when Iran does go nuclear.
First, construct a national command and control center capable of riding out an Iranian nuclear attack and continuing to function. During the Cold War, every one of the great nuclear powers built such a center. Detailed plans to safeguard the head of state and those closest to him were drawn up and rehearsed.
Many of the details are classified. However, the broad outline is known, and models for what can and must be done are readily available. If international media reports are to be believed, Israel has already started work on the facilities in question.
Second, make sure that Israel’s own nuclear forces can survive anything Iran may throw at them. Since the early 1970s, according to the international media, Israel’s deterrent has consisted of its air force as well as Jericho surface-to-surface missiles based in the Judean Hills. As long as the other side did not have nuclear weapons, Israel’s forces could easily ride out any enemy attack. However, as nuclear weapons enter the equation in the Middle East, this ability may well be lost.
To compensate, Israel has reportedly acquired three missile-launching submarines from Germany. Over the next few years it is due to receive another three, which will enable two subs to be on patrol at all times. Israel has reportedly also developed cruise missiles capable of being launched from mobile launchers. Assuming all these forces, along with the necessary command and control apparatus, are properly deployed, then Israel’s deterrent will be as survivable as it can be made.
Third, continue developing the country’s anti-missile defenses. Currently Israel is the only country in the world whose skies are defended by an operational anti-missile system, the Hetz, or Arrow. Not everybody agrees that its construction was a good idea, and even those responsible for it admit that it is incapable of providing full protection. Still, now that billions have been sunk into it and it does exist, it should be put to the best possible use.
That use would consist of convincing the leadership in Tehran that if they decide to attack Israel, their missiles may not get through. And if the missiles don’t get through, just as if they do, Iran will open itself to “awesome and terrible retaliation,” as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once put it.
And lastly, Israel ought to reexamine its nuclear doctrine. Since Israel has never admitted to possessing nuclear weapons, next to nothing is known about any nuclear doctrine it may have developed. Whether a secret doctrine is a good thing is debatable, but it is certain that it is better than no doctrine at all.
The purpose of Israel’s nuclear doctrine, like those of other countries, should not be to try and foresee every eventuality that may arise. Rather, it is to save decision-makers the need to think out everything from the beginning at the most unsuitable moment — namely, when Iran makes threatening noises, or when Iranian missiles are actually on their way. Israel doubtless has the experts capable of developing such a doctrine, but it remains to be seen whether key decision-makers will take the time to study and absorb their counsel.
To deter a war, one must be able to fight it. Given the enormous uncertainties involved, preparing for nuclear war is an extraordinarily difficult enterprise that will require the best minds, as well as plenty of money. Chances are, however, that the enterprise will succeed and that a stable balance of terror will develop.
After all, the world has learned to live with a nuclear North Korea. The same applies to a nuclear Pakistan, a nuclear India, a nuclear Israel, a nuclear China, a nuclear France, a nuclear Britain, a nuclear Soviet Union and even a nuclear United States. Add to that another 30-40 states that could go nuclear almost as soon as they make the decision to join the club. The world has learned to live with countries going nuclear, and it will learn to live with a nuclear Iran, too.
Martin van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of “The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq” (Presidio Press).