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Belmont Club

Thinking the no longer unthinkable

December 11th, 2008 - 4:59 am

Fox News reports that Barack Obama is offering Israel an nuclear guaranty against Iranian attack, signalling that a nuclear Iran is inevitable.

President-elect Barack Obama will offer Israel a strategic pact designed to fend off any nuclear attack on the Jewish state by Iran, an Israeli newspaper reported on Thursday.

Haaretz, quoting an unnamed source, said the Obama administration would pledge under the proposed “nuclear umbrella” to respond to any Iranian strike on Israel with a “devastating U.S. nuclear response.”

Granting Israel a nuclear guarantee would essentially suggest the U.S. is willing to come to terms with a nuclear Iran, the paper reported.

According to the paper’s source, Obama’s nuclear guarantee would be backed by a new and improved Israeli anti-ballistic missile system. The Bush administration took the first step by deploying an early-warning radar system, which enhances the ability to detect Iranian ballistic missiles. …

A senior Bush administration source reportedly said the nuclear umbrella was ridiculous and lacked credibility.

“Who will convince the citizen in Kansas that the U.S. needs to get mixed up in a nuclear war because Haifa was bombed? And what is the point of an American response, after Israel’s cities are destroyed in an Iranian nuclear strike?,” he said.

The really interesting question is what the American nuclear umbrella will add that the Israeli nuclear arsenal does not already provide. If Iran is deterrable by the threat of retaliatory destruction, why should an American response, which is by no means certain because it would open the US to retaliation, be preferred to an Israeli one, which will unquestionably be delivered if Israel is attacked?

The answer may lie in the coda. “According to the paper’s source, Obama’s nuclear guarantee would be backed by a new and improved Israeli anti-ballistic missile system. The Bush administration took the first step by deploying an early-warning radar system, which enhances the ability to detect Iranian ballistic missiles.” Here the function of the anti-ballistic missile system undergoes a curious change. The Bush early warning radar fulfilled the function of explicitly identifying the source of a missile attack as a prelude to a deterrent strike. Anti-ballistic missiles would render any Iranian plan to launch a successful first strike problematic. But what does an ABM system achieve when an American nuclear strike is used to guarantee Israel? The Israel ABMs don’t protect American nuclear strike assets from being pre-empted by Iran.

One possible answer is that the the ABMs will help sell the concept of an American nuclear umbrella offered in lieu of an underaking by Israel not to use or even to decommission its own nuclear deterrent. From a certain point of view the only thing worse than an Iran with nuclear weapons is the prospect of an Israeli retaliation to an attack, which however justified, could only create eternal enmity with its neighbors. But if the retaliation could be left to America, that might have the virtue of preventing Israel from retaliating, thereby preventing other regional nuclear powers (who presumably emerge in response to a nuclear Iran) from explaining to their outraged populations why they ought not punish the Jews for using atomic bombs. Maybe there is the belief that an American retaliation to an Iranian strike would be more politically acceptable than an Israeli one. With an American deterrent in play Israel could be cut out of the deterrent process — and this would be desirable from a political point of view.

But does it make strategic sense? The downside to this reported proposal is that America undertakes to automatically involve itself in a regional nuclear exchange between atomic powers; thereby creating the risk of going straight from a regional nuclear war to a global one. If an attack on Israel is automatically followed by retaliation from America, what role do Israeli nukes play? From a certain point of view the proposal may actually increase the risk of nuclear war in the Middle East. A combination of tacitly accepting an nuclear-armed Iran and reposing deterrence in Washington could make the Ayatollahs more willing to run the risk. What are the odds that the West can bring itself to enter into a nuclear exchange with Iran if it could not muster the will to prevent Teheran’s acquisition of those weapons in the first place?  The Ayatollahs may interpret this proposal as meaning that the West will be a party to any Israeli decision to retaliate for an nuclear attack on its soil, undertaking to attack in lieu or veto the retaliation. It adds one more step in the process of pulling the retaliatory trigger. That can only reduce the certainty of retribution in Teheran’s eyes.

It is far from clear that this proposed policy — acquiescing to a nuclear Iran while reducing the certainty of retaliation — helps anybody. It may hurt everybody.

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