Tom Ricks has posted an excellent piece by Zachary Hosford, Best Defense nuclear warfare correspondent, on his Foreign Policy blog. Hosford’s critique of Bruce Riedel’s National Interest article, “If Israel Attacks,” addresses key questions on what it might take for the U.S. to persuade Israel, through enhanced military aid and security guarantees, to accept a deterrence strategy against a nuclear weapons possessing Iran.
The two key takeaways from Hosford and Riedel’s analyses are: a) a disastrous Israeli military strike is possible if Israeli leadership genuinely believe that Iranian leadership are “crazy” and b) an effective deterrence strategy can only be implemented if Israel is willing to acknowledge the existence of its nuclear arsenal.
It’s an interesting coincidence that neocon pundits consistently challenge Ahmadinejad’s rationality (see Bret Stephens‘ most recent column or Reuel Marc Gerecht‘s article in the October 4 Weekly Standard) while enthusiastically defending Israel against any attempts to force transparency regarding Israel’s nuclear arsenal. (See Elliott Abrams‘ blog in the Weekly Standard after the June NPT conference.)
Riedel reaches back to deterrence theory by proposing that the United States offer Israel the benefits of American nuclear umbrella. This, of course, only works if those with their fingers on the hypothetical Iranian nuclear button are rational, and Riedel’s mention of the Netanyahu quote claiming Iran is “crazy” casts doubt on the views of the Israeli leadership, to say the least.
Though Riedel could very well be accurate in his analysis, in order to keep his deterrence argument intact he needs to downplay the possibility that Iran would transfer a nuclear weapon to a third party. So, perhaps not surprisingly, he does not offer any evidence for why Tehran would keep it nukes to itself. On the surface, it does seem as though a Hizbollah nuclear attack on Israel would not be in the interest of either Hizbollah or Iran, but gut feelings and hunches are not likely to convince the Israelis to sit back and watch while Iran goes nuclear.
The second part of the two-fold Riedel plan would call for the United States to bolster Israel’s second strike capability. That is, once the U.S. eases the Israeli population’s fears with promises to employ the formidable American nuclear force in the event the unthinkable occurs, an arsenal of American-supplied hardware would ensure that a stricken Israel would still be able to retaliate with its F-15Is, Jericho IRBMs, and increasingly sophisticated missile defense system. This would enable permit Israel to maintain strategic dominance, even facing a nuclear Iran. Among other items, Riedel advocates selling F-22s to Israel, though they are probably not the most appropriate platform for Israeli defense needs, and are perhaps further obviated by recent Israeli cabinet agreement to allow the United States to give Israel 20 stealthy new F-35s.
Of course, one problem with publicly boosting the Israeli deterrent — which Riedel readily admits — is that it is exceedingly difficult to do without first acknowledging that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. While Israel should, in fact, officially announce its arsenal, there is little benefit for it in doing so, at least at the moment. It would gain little, given that everyone knows of the Israeli nukes anyway, and could potentially entangle them in international debates over the NPT and a nuclear-free zone.
So, could the U.S. out them instead? Doubtful. Washington has been extremely hesitant to adopt a tough approach toward Israel in the past, but if an Israeli action might risk significant consequences to U.S. personnel and strategic interests, perhaps we will be surprised …
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