Nir Elias / Courtesy Reuters An Israeli air force F-15I fighter jet takes off at Hatzerim air base in southern Israel, December 2013.

Maximum Deterrence

Israel's Tightrope Walk

In the coming months, the United States and its partners will continue trying to negotiate a comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear challenge. For the world, and for Israel, this is a moment of maximum opportunity and maximum danger. Many Israeli experts recognize that the interim deal preceding this round of talks is not entirely bad, and that diplomacy should be given at least a chance. For Israel, that will mean carefully calibrating pressure and cooperation to make sure that its concerns are heard, that Iran stays at the negotiating table, and that no party tries to preempt flagging talks with an attack.

According to conventional wisdom, whereas Washington celebrated diplomatic success with the recent interim deal (modest and temporary sanctions relief in exchange for Iran’s momentary halting of its nuclear program), Jerusalem saw a grave historical mistake (the appeasement of an aggressive regime). But this interpretation is not entirely correct, in that it blows existing Israeli skepticism out of proportion. In fact, Israeli opinion is far more nuanced. Policymakers, of course, have condemned the deal, but many of the country’s experts and policy wonks believe that the glass is at least half full. “While the agreement reached may not be ideal,” Amos Yadlin, formerly the head of Israeli military intelligence and presently the head of the Institute for National Security Studies, has said, “it has to be seen in the context of all the other alternatives.”

Long before the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom) sat down with Iran, Israel considered Iran a threshold state -- a country that could attain an atomic bomb at any time given the strategic decision and political will to do so. Israel’s most urgent goal, then, has been to halt Iranian attempts, to shorten the time it would take Iran to sprint to a bomb. The current deal might look limited in scope for many in Israel, but it is nonetheless the most significant rollback of Iranian nuclear aspirations so far. Even those who suspect that Iran will not honor the interim deal, let alone negotiate a final agreement, must acknowledge that, as The Economist put it, “If the talks break down, Iran will not be much closer to having a bomb than it is today -- and further away than it would have been without a deal.” In addition, although Israel was not party to the negotiations, it sees itself as deserving some credit for their outcome. Jerusalem assumes that its efforts during the last decade to turn Iranian nuclear aspirations into a world problem, including its repeated threats to strike Iran, mobilized the international community to do something. That something turned out to be harsh sanctions, which were levied in early 2012 and which brought Iran to the negotiating table by late 2013.

All this is not to suggest that Israel is relaxed. The deal does have serious shortcomings. First, from the Israeli perspective, since the accord does not require Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure completely, it seems to have implicitly recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Second, the deal made no references to the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, or even to ballistic capabilities, since the parties preferred to postpone those matters until the comprehensive deal. Israel believes that the resulting interim arrangement contradicts the United States’ earlier red lines on Iran and indicates a disturbing desire to preserve negotiations at almost any cost. Now, with the pressure of sanctions lifted, Israel believes that the United States has given up its main bargaining chip without demanding that Iran do the same. Tellingly, the most vociferous Israeli condemnations have been about the United States’ lack of determination rather than about Iranian intransigence.

Israelis see the interim deal as more of a sign of continuity than an indicator of a fundamental change in Tehran. From the Israeli point of view, moreover, Iran is getting a lot and giving very little -- and it comes off as a constructive international player in the process. Although sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, the thinking goes, the country is not desperate. It was able to turn this round of diplomacy into a typically deceptive extension of its quest for the bomb. The strategy worked, and Tehran secured the best possible outcome: minimum concessions for maximum sanctions relief.

TIPPING POINT

In the following months, Israel will likely channel its strategic energy in two directions. First, it will continue to promote international pressure on Iran and work with other world powers to include in the final agreement the parts missing from the interim deal. An ideal comprehensive agreement will nix any military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear project, curtail its plutonium enrichment, and remove a significant number of centrifuges and enriched uranium from Iran. All these will further lengthen the Iranian dash toward a bomb. Second, Israel will promote the military option to signal its resolve. That should push Iran to calculate that a comprehensive deal is a better bet; if diplomacy is to bear any fruit, Israeli thinking goes, Tehran will have to see that a sword of Damocles hangs over its head.

But Israel’s dual strategy also comes with a catch. Rather than mutually enforcing, threats and reassurances can be mutually destructive if not managed properly. Military threats, which Israelis see as a diplomacy multiplier, can turn a moment of opportunity into a moment of danger if the strategy passes the “culminating point of deterrence,” to paraphrase the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. This term refers to a moment after which additional threats to an enemy become counterproductive and, instead of leading to restraint, provoke escalation. When the culminating point of deterrence is crossed, credible threats become so convincing that the adversary feels cornered with nothing to lose, assumes that the enemy is about to strike anyway, and decides to preempt and escalate rather than back down.

Israel and its allies should recognize this peculiar juncture and plan accordingly. If Western diplomatic requests start to come off as humiliating dictates, and if an Israeli strike seems inevitable, Iran may sprint toward the bomb -- the very outcome the deterrence strategy aims to prevent. Tehran will not accept demands that would look like embarrassing capitulation to the world. That is why pushing for a complete dismantlement of the nuclear program may be naive and counterproductive. Iran would never accept such national dishonor, and humiliation could empower hard-liners at the expense of moderates.

History is ripe with examples of this dangerous phenomenon. Three decades ago, in November 1983, the world approached the brink of a nuclear apocalypse when U.S. deterrence strategy vis-à-vis the Soviets almost crossed the culminating point. Threatening declarations and military moves around the world that seemed like effective muscle-flexing to the United States almost resulted in Moscow’s nuclear overreaction. The scared Soviets considered a preventive nuclear strike. Middle Eastern history, too, shows that actors often escalate not from the position of military superiority but out of desperation to change a humiliating status quo.

For now, then, Israel and the P5+1 must seek a strategy somewhere between under- and overshooting. Pressure should not be withheld but applied skillfully and delicately. Israel should aim to not spoil diplomatic efforts to reach a final deal with Iran. If these efforts fail, and Tehran annuls its commitments and abrogates the deal, the blame is on the Iranians. And Israel walks away without looking like a rejectionist power. Under these circumstances, a potential military strike on Iran will benefit from more legitimacy.

Time will tell if the Geneva talks paved the way for a tectonic shift in the Middle Eastern security landscape. Meanwhile, the region is in for a tense several months. If Israel wants to give both diplomacy and tough talk a go, it should be preoccupied with the culminating point of deterrence. The most terrifying thing about the 1983 nuclear crisis -- the moment of maximum danger in the late Cold War -- was the fact that Washington did not even know it had brought itself to the brink of war. Israel will have to be more careful. If it is, diplomacy has a chance.

Browse Related Articles on {{search_model.selectedTerm.name}}

{{indexVM.results.hits.total | number}} Articles Found

  • {{bucket.key_as_string}}