Six years ago, on January 16, 2003, the special Project Daniel Group first advised then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. Our final report urged the PM, among other things, to enhance Israel’s deterrence and defense postures, to consider an end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity if Iran should become nuclear, and to refine pertinent preemption options. It also concluded that Israel should not expect peaceful coexistence with a nuclear Iran, and that active national defenses should be strengthened.
Israel’s core plan for active defense remains the Arrow. To protect against attack from Iran, however, this system of ballistic missile defense must be complemented by improved Israeli deterrence, and by viable options for certain defensive first strikes against appropriate hard targets. Under no circumstances should it be assumed in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv that a stable “balance of terror” could be created with Tehran. Here, the essential assumption of enemy rationality might not always be warranted. This would not be your father’s Cold War.
Of course, if the Arrow were entirely efficient, even an irrational Iranian adversary armed with nuclear and/or biological weapons could be kept at bay without defensive first strikes, and/or threats of retaliation. But no BMD system can ever be truly “leak proof.” Moreover, terrorist proxies in ships or trucks – not missiles - could deliver Iranian nuclear attacks upon Israel. In such low-tech but high consequence assaults, there would be no benefit to any sort of anti-missile defenses.
Israel cannot depend upon its anti-ballistic missiles to fully defend against any future WMD attack from Iran any more than it can rely only on nuclear deterrence. This does not mean that Arrow fails to play an important protective role as part of a larger security apparatus. It does play such a role.
Every state has a plain right under international law to act preemptively when facing an openly genocidal assault. Israel is no exception. The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice even extends such authority to the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in certain existential circumstances; but – at least for now – Israel could still undertake “anticipatory self-defense” without such weapons. It must also be noted that Russia has agreed to sell Iran its SA-20 strategic-range air defense system. Once deployed, this system would further complicate the success of any Israeli hard-target preemption.
If, for whatever reason, Iran should be permitted to proceed to become fully nuclear, Israel would – at a minimum - have to enhance the credibility of its presumed nuclear deterrent, and also to deploy a recognizable second-strike force. This optimally robust strategic force – hardened, multiplied and dispersed - would be fashioned to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against selected enemy cities. Iran should understand, therefore, that the actual costs of any planned aggression against Israel would always exceed any conceivable gains.
One last point warrants mention. The substantial dangers of a nuclear Iran would also impact the United States. While it could still be several years before any Iranian missiles could strike actual American territory, the US could still be as vulnerable as Israel to nuclear-armed terrorist surrogates. In this connection, any American plan for a “rogue state” anti-ballistic missile shield (a plan that has been favored by outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush, and that has not gone over well with Russian President Putin) would have the very same inherent limitations as Israel’s Arrow.