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Political Analysis and Commentary
Iran Policy Committee On Growing Iranian Nuclear Threat To Israel
By: Louis Rene Beres
The following remarks on Iranian nuclearization were delivered by Professor Louis Rene Beres at the National Press Club, Washington DC, May 10, 2006, on behalf of the Iran Policy Committee. They were televised nationally and internationally, including in Iran where, via the Iranian resistance movement, they were viewed by millions.
I am Louis Rene Beres, Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University and weekly columnist for The Jewish Press. I am also Chair of Project Daniel, a small private group that issued an urgent advisory report to the then Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon (January 16, 2003), titled "Israel’s Strategic Future". My particular expertise in the matter before us today is both strategic and jurisprudential.
Let me begin with the latter – that is, with the specifically legal rights of Israel and the United States to initiate appropriate preemptions against pertinent Iranian hard targets. I first wish to explain these rights very briefly, apart from any antecedent military calculations.
Whether or not we can argue persuasively for preemption in operational terms – and that is a big part of what we are discussing here today – there is indisputably an inherent right under international law that is called "Anticipatory Self-Defense." This right is frequently overlooked or misunderstood. International law is not a suicide pact. No state can be compelled to sit back and simply wait to be annihilated. (Interestingly, it was Thomas Jefferson – not just international legal scholars – who earlier wrote in this fashion.)
Indeed, although the right of anticipatory self-defense arose formally under international law in 1837 – in an event the lawyers call "The Caroline" incident – this right is of vastly greater importance today. This is the case because of the emergence of mass destruction weapons – especially but not exclusively nuclear weapons. Simply put, the risks in certain circumstances of not striking first are, today, substantially greater than ever before. These risks – particularly in the case before us – can even be authentically existential.
Binding international law is not found exclusively in codified form. It is not only found in treaties. It is also found in "international custom", and customary international law is equally authoritative.
We can also identify binding sources of international law in what are called "the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations" and in "the teachings of highly qualified publicists". (See the Statute of the ICJ, Article 38.) All of these sources, together, now support the position that lawful self-defense can assuredly take place before an attack is suffered. The right to post-attack self-defense that is codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter does not override or replace the customary right to anticipatory self-defense. These rights exist side-by-side under contemporary international law. They are coincident rights.
Now, with these formal points in mind, it should be clear that the American and/or Israeli right to exercise a preemption option against Iran is conceivably well established, and should not be dismissed out-of-hand by uninformed arguments and/or for narrowly political reasons. Again, it is a distinctly separate question whether or not anticipatory self-defense against Iran now makes operational sense. I first wanted to clarify – at the outset – that such self-defense can surely and firmly be rooted in international law. It can be entirely permissible.
It is true, of course, that the rules of humanitarian international law – the law of armed conflict – must apply in the actual execution of any preemption option, but this is a matter that has nothing to do with the fundamental right to strike first. The question of the law of war is one the lawyers call Jus in bello (justice in war) rather than Jus ad bellum (justice of war). For those of you who might be interested in learning more about the formal legal arguments involved for preemption/anticipatory self-defense, there is considerable information in the published document, "Israel’s Strategic Future: Project Daniel", and in the special columns on Project Daniel which appeared in The Jewish Press. It is easily available online; I also have a few copies with me here today.
Now, let me turn to the second major aspect of our concern with Iranian nuclearization – the military or operational side. So much has been written and talked about on this particular aspect, that I will restrict myself here to some of the critical assumptions involved, and to some specific Project Daniel recommendations given to former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon. These recommendations were shared, of course, with appropriately high levels of the government of the United States.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union relied upon something called "deterrence" for safety. Always necessary to such reliance is a basic assumption of rationality – that is, that each player is fundamentally committed to its own survival. Technically, this means that both the US and the USSR were presumed to value their continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences.
Today, this assumption may not be warranted in the case of Iran. During our intensive and extended deliberations, Project Daniel reasoned that the prospect of Iranian irrationality in this sense was relatively small, but that even a very small likelihood posed a grave and intolerable threat to a country that is smaller than Lake Michigan. Now, the reasonableness of an extended Israeli reliance upon deterrence vis-ŕ-vis Iran would be enhanced somewhat if Israel’s operational systems of ballistic missile defense (BMD) were thoroughly efficient. But we all know that even the best of such systems (in Israel’s case, the "Arrow") are insufficiently "leak-proof."
No ballistic missile defense (BMD) system can possibly assure a sufficiently high reliability of interception when incoming warheads are nuclear (or perhaps even "only" biological). Hence, we found that there are very strong reasons for Israel not to rely – for security – in any protracted sense, upon deterrence augmented by BMD.
Would it make any military/operational sense for Israel to strike preemptively against Iran? We already know that international law is not a suicide pact. We also already know – from my comments about prospective Iranian irrationality – that an entire country could now conceivably act as a suicide-bomber in macrocosm.
Consider this horrifying image – and please consider it carefully. An entire state – in this case the Islamic Republic of Iran – behaving as if it were a suicide-bomber, writ large. If this were allowed to happen – due to the benign neglect of the so-called "international community" – the human consequences for Israel could be genuinely existential. Jurisprudentially, they would likely amount to another Jewish genocide.
We all know that Iran today is not the same as Iraq on June 7, 1981. We all know that Iran would not be another "Osirk". Hardly.
We all already know that, operationally, an act of anticipatory self-defense against hardened/dispersed/multiplied Iranian nuclear infrastructures and command/control facilities would entail huge strategic and political costs. What we must also not forget is that such anticipated costs must always be compared to the costs of not preempting. To use an apt medical metaphor here, doctors often prescribe therapies for seriously ill patients that create excruciatingly painful and corrosive harms. But, compared to the costs of non-intervention with these therapies, the cost is nonetheless bearable.
I will leave the more narrowly operational issues of preemption to other members of this panel – who are better informed on such particulars. But I am rather certain that we simply cannot consent to live as free peoples in a world with a fully nuclear Iran. We simply cannot – rationally – agree to live at the pleasure of enemy states who openly seek our individual and collective annihilation.
Let me conclude with some of the relevant recommendations of Project Daniel. Israel’s Strategic Future: The Final Report Of Project Daniel was completed in mid-January 2003, several months before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Combining legal with strategic analyses, the Project Daniel Group linked the concept of anticipatory self-defense to various preemption scenarios and to the National Security Strategy of the United States (September 20, 2002).
We also examined the prospects for expanded strategic cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem, with particular reference to maintaining Israel’s "qualitative edge." Project Daniel looked very closely at a recommended "paradigm shift" to deal with ascending low-intensity and long-range WMD threats to Israel. We also considered the specific circumstances under which Israel should purposefully end its current posture of "nuclear ambiguity." The Project Daniel Group urged a continuance of constructive support to the US-led War Against Terror, and stipulated that Israel should combine a strengthening of multilayered active defenses with a credible, secure and decisive nuclear deterrent. This recognizable retaliatory (second-strike) force should be fashioned with the capacity to destroy some 10 to 20 high value targets, scattered widely over pertinent enemy states in the Middle East.
The Project Daniel Group recognized a very basic asymmetry between Israel and the Arab/Iranian world, concerning the desirability of peace; the absence of democracy; the acceptability of terror as a legitimate weapon; and the overwhelming demographic advantage of the Arab/Iranian world. With this in mind, the Project Daniel Group concluded that non-conventional exchanges between Israel and adversary states must always be scrupulously avoided – and…that Israel must do whatever is needed to maintain its conventional supremacy in the region. Most importantly, we argued that Israel must never allow a nuclear Iran, and that it absolutely must prepare for lawful preemptive strategies, even if the United States and the international community reject the preemption option.
Israel remains the openly declared national and religious object of an Iranian genocide. I use this term in the literal jurisprudential sense – not as hyperbole; not as a figure of speech. No other country on earth is in a remotely similar predicament.
Thank you for listening. I shall be happy to answer any and all questions.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with terrorism, strategic theory, war planning and international law. He has lectured and published widely in Israel on security issues, and is the Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press. Beres is the academic advisor to lthe Freeman Center For Strategic Studies.