Recalling Project Daniel: Israel, Iran and Regional Nuclear War

Project Daniel was an early major effort to provide Israel's prime minister with scholarly assessments of Iran's future nuclear threat. It's original emphases on complex inter-dependencies between deterrence, defense and preemption options remain analytically sound and intellectually valid. Opinion

Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant (Photo: AP)

“In the end, we must all depend upon creatures of our own making.” (Goethe, Faust)

On January 16, 2003, the private Project Daniel Group first advised then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the then already-growing threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. Our detailed final report, which included assorted legal as well as strategic recommendations, urged the prime minister to suitably enhance Israel’s deterrence and defense postures; to consider a prompt end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity (that is, if Iran should ever be “permitted” to become nuclear); and to refine any still-timely preemption options. It also concluded, inter alia, that Israel should never reasonably expect to establish stable coexistence with a fully nuclear Iran, and that Israeli active defenses, especially Arrow or Hetz, be strengthened accordingly.

None of these urgings was merely “whispered” or offered sotto voce. On the contrary, all were made wholly explicit and unambiguous. Moreover, all were offered together with the antecedent understanding that Israel’s enduring focus be both strategic and tactical. Recalling Sun-Tzu's The Art of War: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

This ancient wisdom remains timely and sound.

Of course, Israel’s core military strategy contains various intersecting elements of defense as well as deterrence. In brief, the country’s plan for active defense involves mutually-reinforcing Arrow, Iron Dome, and assorted other overlapping systems, now most notably David's Sling. To adequately protect against any significant future WMD attacks from Iran, however, these advanced elements of ballistic missile defense must remain complemented by continuously upgraded foundations of Israeli nuclear deterrence, and also by recognizably workable options for launching defensive non-nuclear first strikes.

Plausibly, at some point, such residual options could be directed against selected Iranian military and industrial targets.

Under no circumstances, Daniel originally advised, should Israel's prime minister ever assume that a safe and durable “balance of terror” could be created with Tehran, whether by tacit agreement or by formally codified forms of expanding bilateral cooperation.

Generally, of course, in all professional strategic thought, deterrence logic is necessarily based upon a fixed and invariant assumption of enemy rationality. However, this simplifying assumption might not always be warranted in the significant case of Iran. Moreover, any purported analogy between Iran and US deterrence relationships with the former Soviet Union could quickly prove facile or even starkly injurious.

In essence, this would not be your father's Cold War.

Ironically, the United States and Russia are already actively involved in what might now be accurately characterized as “Cold War II.” To be sure, Israel's core defense and deterrence calculations will be directly and indirectly impacted by this “reborn” superpower rivalry, and Jerusalem will need to be more wary than ever before to avoid inciting any escalations of surrogate Russian hostility. In this connection, Iran and its Quds Force of Revolutionary Guards has increasingly been operating from Syria's T4 airbase in northern Homs Province; ultimately, the ongoing range and destructiveness of these operations will depend upon certain prior approvals from Moscow.

Whoever is “pulling the strings” of Israel’s assorted and sometimes intersecting regional adversaries, authoritative assessments of pertinent hazards will always require up-to-the-minute accurate information about enemy rationality. Accordingly, if Iran's current and projected leadership could convincingly and continually meet the critical test of rationality – an assumption which would mean persistently valuing the country’s national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences – there might then still remain various intolerable security risks to Israel. In part, at least, these risks would be associated with Tehran's potentially problematic command and control of any future nuclear forces. For example, even a determinedly rational Iranian leadership could sometime base its vital nuclear decisions upon erroneous information; on myriad computer errors; or even upon too-fragile or misconceived pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority.

In any event, no truly scientific assessments of probability are available in such unique or sui generis matters, as all meaningful statements of probability are necessarily based upon the discernible frequency of pertinent past events.

In this regard, and in case some analysts or commentators may not yet have noticed, there are no pertinent past events here.

There is more. Certain related command and control problems of vulnerability to violent regime overthrow (coup d'état) in Tehran must continue to be taken into aptly close account by relevant decision-makers in Jerusalem. Ironically, there could be no assurances that any new or “improved” regime in Iran would necessarily pose a diminished prospective nuclear security threat to Israel. It follows, among other things, that any visceral or off-the-cuff suggestions about improving Israeli security via an engineered regime change in Tehran would likely be unwarranted and contrived.

What about defense versus deterrence? If Israel's active defenses were reasonably presumed to be one hundred percent effective, even an irrational Iranian adversary armed in the future with nuclear or biological weapons could be kept at bay without defensive first strikes or preemptions, and without any threats of retaliation. Significantly, however, no BMD system could ever be taken as entirely “leak proof.”

In the future, terrorist proxies, using ships or trucks, not missiles, could deliver at least some forms of Iranian nuclear attack upon Israel. In such low-tech but expectedly high consequence assaults, there could be no security benefit to Israel from any of its deployed anti-missile defenses. It also warrants mention here that American President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the multilateral 2015 JCPOA agreement will almost certainly undermine rather than reinforce long-term Israeli security.

For some utterly curious reason, Mr. Trump seemingly reasons that by further removing US support for any prospective anti-nuclear regime enforcement, Tehran will now be better dissuaded from any continuing or future nuclearization. The American president's tortured logic here remains not merely eccentric; it is still preposterous, prima facie.

Jerusalem likely already understands that the largely incoherent Trump presidency in the United States represents a net liability for Israel, even if the underlying causes of this (however reluctant) negative assessment are due more to various unintentional intellectual debilities in Washington than to any deliberately bad presidential intentions. Further, Israel can never depend entirely upon its anti-ballistic missiles to defend against future WMD attacks from Iran any more than it can rely entirely on nuclear deterrence. This does not mean that active defense is now any less than a vital element of Israel’s overall security apparatus.

It remains altogether vital, but is nonetheless still insufficient.

One may also wish to underscore various relevant jurisprudential factors. Among other things, every state has a very basic right under international law to act preemptively when facing potentially existential aggression. The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice even extends such lawful self-defense authority to the preemptive use of nuclear weapons, at least in certain patently last-resort circumstances.

Still, for now, any still-purposeful Israeli resort to “anticipatory self-defense” should remain entirely non-nuclear.

It is altogether likely that the operational window for any cost-effective conventional self-defense attack is already closed, and that Israel will correctly decline any remaining nuclear preemption option, even if arguably lawful. After all, Jerusalem could expect to find no absolutely tangible solace in exercising any military option that is simultaneously self-destructive. For now, any rational Israeli preemptions would necessarily be substantially more measured and incremental, limited perhaps “only” to presumptively necessary targeted killings of designated enemy scientists or military figures, and also to certain expanded interventions of cyber-war.

Looking long-term, however, even such potentially less sweeping or comprehensive protective measures could expectedly confer only modestly limited national security benefits.

There are, however, certain critics who will argue that an Israeli nuclear preemption is still at least conceivable. In proper “anticipatory” response to any such hypothetical arguments, a defensive Israeli nuclear first-strike could be imagined only if: (1) Israel's enemy or enemies had unexpectedly acquired nuclear or other unconventional weapons presumed capable of actually destroying the Jewish State; (2) this enemy state had already been forthright in signaling that its genocidal intentions closely paralleled its recognizable annihilatory capabilities; (3) this state was reliably believed ready to commence a final countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel were to believe that non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve those particular levels of damage limitation still consistent with its own national survival.

As recommended originally by Project Daniel, if, for any reason, Iran should eventually be allowed to become nuclear, and thus in plain contravention of its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, Israel should then immediately strive to enhance the credibility of its presumed nuclear deterrent. This discernibly robust second-strike strategic force, hardened, multiplied, and dispersed, would have to be fashioned, observably, to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against selected enemy cities. In military terms, this means, for Israel, a manifestly more openly counter value-targeted nuclear force.

These are not just Middle East matters of concern. The dangers of a nuclear Iran, like the dangers of an already-nuclear North Korea, could directly impact the United States. While it will still be several years before any Iranian missiles could strike American territory with nuclear ordnance, the US could still become as vulnerable as Israel to certain nuclear-armed terrorist surrogates. In this connection, any American plan for an expressly “rogue state” anti-ballistic missile shield, for the US, and for its NATO allies, would confer roughly the same limited protective benefits as Israel’s already-deployed active defenses.

Under long-standing international law, every government's most rudimentary obligation is always the assurance of protection to its citizens. In the United States, early support for this axiomatic rule can be found in the aptly jurisprudential writings of Thomas Jefferson, especially his Opinion on the French Treaties. Here it is worth recalling that once upon a time, American presidents were expected not only to be able to read, but also to write. Manifestly, that time is now gone; accordingly, Israel must soon become even more aware than in its past that national survival must ultimately depend upon fully mindful policies originating in Jerusalem, not Washington.

Always, complementing this indispensable awareness, the objective of Israel’s presumed nuclear strategy and forces must be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post. In the final analysis, the prime minister and his closest advisors must never forget that a nuclear war would inevitably resemble any other incurable disease. At any given moment, therefore, the only rational remedies for such a war still lie in prevention. Paradoxically, however, the optimal paths to nuclear conflict prevention could include certain expanded threats of launching a “limited nuclear war” – this on the (invariably problematic) assumption that such threats would provide a more credible nuclear deterrent. The “flip side” of any such presumed expansions, however, could also include making the simple onset of any nuclear combat circumstances more likely. In other words, any increased future deterrence reliance by Israel upon threats of a limited nuclear response to aggression could diminish the costs or disutility of any ensuing war, but simultaneously increase such a war’s de facto plausibility.

In the end, these are all calculations of very considerable complexity, ones that will require informed expectations not only of various singular enemy decisions, but also of multiple and sorely difficult-to-assess decisional synergies.

In the end, extrapolating from Goethe’s far more general counsel (posthumously, the poet here unites with the strategist), Israel’s future will assuredly depend upon “creatures of its own making.”


Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue, was Chair of Project Daniel. A frequent contributor to Israel Defense, he lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.


*** Project Daniel’s final report was originally prepared for confidential presentation to the prime minister and was not intended for publication. In April 2004, it was published by Ariel Center for Policy Research (ACPR):

See also: and from Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College:


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