Arab Proliferation, Regional Power Balancing and Nuclear War in the Middle East

Israel still faces a potentially nuclear adversary in Iran. At the same time, certain normally adversarial Arab states, most plausibly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, could seek to balance this growing Shi’ite threat with a Sunni nuclear capacity. In such bewildering circumstances, Jerusalem would be faced with unprecedented but unavoidable decisions on "friend or foe." Opinion

Arab Proliferation, Regional Power Balancing and Nuclear War in the Middle East

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi (Photo: AP)

Almost certainly, Iran's pace of military nuclearization was hastened by US President Donald Trump's unilateral withdrawal from the July 2015 JCPOA Iran agreement. In response to this probable acceleration, one or more Sunni Arab state powers in the region could soon decide to embark upon or augment its own nuclear program. For the moment, at least, considering both capabilities and intentions, Egypt and Saudi Arabia represent the most likely candidates (or "suspects") for any such plausibly reciprocal nuclearization.  

What about Israel? Until now, Israel's most visible effort to prevent an enemy nuclear state has been the widely-publicized and well-documented Osiraq raid against Iraq. There was also a later though markedly less publicized preemption than the June 7, 1981 Operation Opera. This was Israel's more determinedly inconspicuous Operation Orchard.

On September 6, 2007, Israel quietly launched Orchard, a carefully-planned defensive attack against then-developing Syrian nuclear facilities. Because of this foresighted operation, and Israel's still earlier strike against Saddam Hussein's nuclear facilities, the Middle East is not immediately endangered by Arab nuclear weapons. Significantly, if an already genocidal Damascus regime had not been the object of a successful Israeli preemption back in 2007, nuclear weapons and/or infrastructures could eventually have fallen into the hands of Shi’ite Hezbollah or perhaps even Sunni ISIS.

The latter scenario could strain operational and tactical credulity, but if martyr-seeking Jihadists could somehow have gotten their hands on such weapons it might have slowed or stopped ISIS' very recent territorial defeat.

Israel's first use of "anticipatory self-defense" against a potentially nuclear adversary in 1981 was directed at Saddam Hussein's developing reactor near Baghdad. Significantly, it has been the international community's failure to act in a similarly timely and decisive fashion against North Korea that now enlarges our expanding security woes with Kim Jung-un. Ironically, North Korea – which had secretly built the Al Kibar plutonium-producing heavy water reactor destroyed by Orchard in 2007 – is now sending assorted assembled non-nuclear arms to Syria, thereby enhancing Shi’ite Iran's destabilizing influence in the region.

More precisely, in documentation periodically provided by UN experts to the UN Security Council, panels are investigating prohibited chemical, ballistic missile, and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK.

Iran could sooner or later become another North Korea. This ironic but distinctly worrisome development would result from similarly missed world legal opportunities to halt Iranian nuclearization.

Plainly evident today is that America's current nuclear crisis with Pyongyang is not some momentary event to be "won" or "lost," like a baseball game. Rather, the US will almost certainly have to live indefinitely with a steadily nuclearizing North Korea, just as it may soon have to live with a fully nuclear Iran. In essence, this means that because no legal and cost-effective preemptions were ever launched against North Korea, the US and its relevant allies will be obliged to dig in stoically for well-managed and long-term nuclear deterrence.

Inter alia, the success of any such patently "sub-optimal" policy option will be contingent upon uninterrupted enemy rationality. But what if this adversary should sometime prove to be irrational? More than anything else, this is an intellectual question, one to be approached analytically and not as just another banal opportunity for narrowly partisan political witticism.

There are further nuances. Whatever Washington might choose to assume about Pyongyang, it will also be necessary to prevent Kim Jung-un from undertaking any future aggressions in the form of North Korean attacks against Japanese or South Korean nuclear power plants. In any such eventuality, in extremis atomicum, an additional danger would surface: Unlike the Israeli preemptions against Osiraq and Al Kibar, which were directed against nonoperational reactors, these prospective North Korean targets could suffer a nuclear core meltdown. This catastrophic event could produce a calamity far worse than what was caused by accident in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

In absolutely all matters concerning preemption, international law would warrant serious attention. Accordingly, during the attack on Osiraq, Israeli fighter-bombers destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor before it was ready to go "online." Nonetheless, immediately following the attack, the general global community reaction had been preponderantly hostile. The UN Security Council, in Resolution 487 of June 19, 1981, indicated that it "strongly condemns" the attack, and that "Iraq is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered."

Largely forgotten, too, is that US President Ronald Reagan (a celebrated "friend of Israel") took multiple steps to ensure that the United States would vote in favor of this resolution of condemnation.

International law is not a suicide pact. In jurisprudential terms, the UN and the United States were tangibly mistaken back in 1981. Israel did not act illegally at Osiraq, or still later (when there was to be no official UN reaction) at Syria's Deir ez-Zor. Instead, under the long-standing customary right known as "anticipatory self-defense," every state is entitled to strike first (within the boundaries of humanitarian international law) whenever the danger posed is "instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation." If anything, this standard, which dates back to 1837, in a naval incident known formally as "The Caroline," is substantially more compelling in the nuclear age than before.

It was the United States, not Israel, which issued a 2002 unilateral policy statement declaring that the traditional right of anticipatory self-defense must be expanded. Then, Washington's strategic and jurisprudential argument hinged correctly on the expectedly unique dangers of any nuclear-endowed adversary. Significantly, in 2002, The National Security Strategy of the United States was issued by the most powerful country on earth. In comparison, Israel, which in 1981 had claimed a considerably more limited and moderate view of anticipatory self-defense, is small enough to fit into a single county in California or twice into America's Lake Michigan.

For Israel, there are correctly conceived doctrinal foundations of pertinent policy. In express regard to the 2007 Israeli Operation Orchard, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert conspicuously reasserted the 1981 "Begin Doctrine." Several years later, in April 2011, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) authoritatively confirmed that the bombed Syrian site had indeed been the start of a menacing nuclear reactor. Indisputably, therefore, Olmert's decision, like Begin's earlier on, turned out to be "right on the money."

In a continuously anarchic world system, one that began at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, international law is often a "self-help" arrangement.

There is more. Israel's 1981 and 2007 defensive strikes against enemy rogue states were both not only lawful, but manifestly law enforcing. In the obvious absence of any centralized global enforcement capability, international law must inevitably rely upon the willingness of certain individual and powerful states to act forcefully on behalf of the greater world community. This is what took place in June 1981 and September 2007 in the Middle East.

Anticipatory self-defense is grounded in years of refined military theory. "Defensive warfare.... does not consist of waiting idly for things to happen," counsels Carl von Clausewitz in On War: "We must wait only if it brings us visible and decisive advantages." Israel chose not to wait in 1981 and again, in 2007. As a welcome result, the world need not have any of the same nuclear fears for Syria and Iraq that it must still harbor concerning North Korea and Iran.

The existential dangers posed by the Shi’ite nuclear enemy in Iran could be more-or-less effectively balanced by a new Sunni Arab nuclear capability in Cairo or Riyadh. In that glaringly ironic circumstance, Jerusalem might conclude that certain expressions of selective Arab nuclearization would represent a helpful or even benign development. In the longer term view, however, Jerusalem would be forced to decide which particular adversary or pair of adversaries was potentially more intolerable, and whether or not some form of preemption might sometime once again be required.


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to IsraelDefense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.

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