Analysis | Israel's Nuclear Deterrence Strategy in a Volatile Middle East

Facing imminent threats from Iran and Hezbollah, Israel's strategic defense measures are under intense scrutiny. Explore the intricate balance of power and the potential scenarios that could reshape the Middle East

Analysis | Israel's Nuclear Deterrence Strategy in a Volatile Middle East

Celebrations in Tehran after the Iranian missile attack on Israel, April 2024. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect

 “The safety of the People,” exclaims Roman statesman Cicero, “is the highest law.” Accordingly, Israel must do whatever possible to protect its populations not only from Sunni Hamas in Gaza but also from Shiite Hezbollah in the north. More precisely, though Israel is being forced to accelerate its conflict with Hezbollah, its ultimate adversary is Iran. In essence, safeguarding the country from a nuclearizing Iran must be Israel’s “highest law.”

What should be expected? If Israel’s indispensable counter-terrorism efforts bring it into another direct military confrontation with Iran, the result would likely be a protracted war. In any such unpredictable scenario, it is plausible that even a still pre-nuclear Iran could elicit a “limited” Israeli nuclear reprisal. 

Foreseeable escalation dangers would lie in the Iranian use of radiation dispersal weapons or in the Iranian conventional rocket attack on Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor. In a conspicuously worst-case scenario, an already-nuclear North Korea would engage Israeli military forces on behalf of Iran. Ironically, in such a scenario, the already-nuclear ally (North Korea) would be acting as a willing surrogate for not-yet-nuclear Iran.

There are multiple details. By definition, all pertinent scenarios would be unprecedented or sui generis. This means, at best, that related strategic predictions could be only superficially scientific. In logic and mathematics, true assessments of probability must always derive from the determinable frequency of relevant past events. But because there has never been a nuclear war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki don’t “count”), nothing science-based could be estimated about an Israel-Iran nuclear war.

Even if Iran were to remain pre-nuclear, Israel could sometimes calculate that it should cross the nuclear threshold vis-à-vis Iran. This would be the case in those circumstances wherein the non-introduction of Israeli nuclear weapons would allow Iran to gain the upper hand in crisis bargaining. In extremis, this means that Israel could decide to “go nuclear” (though presumably at very limited levels) to maintain “escalation dominance.”

These are weighty intellectual matters, not matters for “common sense” resolution. They could never be understood or acted upon correctly by politicians or pundits. Like the much larger United States, Israel needs to guard itself capably from decisions of the strategically illiterate and manifestly unqualified.

For Israel, a country smaller than America’s Lake Michigan, nuclear weapons and strategy remain essential to national survival. Israel’s traditional policy of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” or the “bomb in the basement” goes back to the early days of the state. During the 1950s, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, recognized the need for a dramatic "equalizer" vis-à-vis larger and more populous regional enemies. Prudently, he sought to secure his tiny country’s problematic survival in a region of continuous and rancorous anarchy.

Now, facing a recalcitrant and soon-to-be nuclear Iran, Israel needs to update and refine its policy of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.” The key objective of such urgently needed changes would be credible nuclear deterrence, a goal that will require a sudden or incremental shift to “selective nuclear disclosure.” Though counter-intuitive, Iran will need to be convinced, among other things, that Israel’s nuclear arms are not too destructive for actual operational use.

There will be perplexing nuances. For Israel to fashion reason-based nuclear policies, Iran’s leaders should generally be considered rational. But it is conceivable that Iran would sometimes act irrationally, perhaps in alliance with other more-or-less rational states like North Korea or with kindred terror groups such as Hezbollah.

Unless Jerusalem were to consider Pakistan an authentic enemy, Israel has no present-day nuclear enemies. Still, as an unstable Islamic state, Pakistan is potentially subject to coup d'état by assorted Jihadist elements and is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia. At some point, the Sunni Saudi kingdom could decide to “go nuclear” itself, not because of Israel per se, but because of Shiite Iran’s steadily accelerating nuclear progress.

For Israel’s nuclear deterrence to work longer-term, Iran will need to be told more rather than less about Israel's nuclear-targeting doctrine and the invulnerability of Israel’s nuclear forces. In concert with such changes, Jerusalem will need to clarify parts of its still opaque “Samson Option.” The point of such clarification would not be to “die with the Philistines” (per the biblical Book of Judges), but to enhance certain “high destruction” options of its nuclear deterrence posture.

Though the only gainful and law-based rationale of Israel’s nuclear weapons could be deterrence at different levels of military destructiveness, there will remain circumstances under which Israeli nuclear deterrence might fail. How might such intolerable circumstances arise?  

In partial reply, the following four scenarios should be identified and evaluated. All four could result as a “by-product” of Israel’s expanding war with Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon.

1. Nuclear retaliation

  If Iran were to launch “only” a massive conventional attack on Israel, Jerusalem could respond with a limited nuclear retaliation. If Iranian first strikes were to involve chemical or biological weapons, Israel might also decide to launch a measured nuclear reprisal. This decision would depend, in large part, on Jerusalem's expectations concerning follow-on Iranian aggressions and its calculations of comparative damage limitation. A nuclear retaliation by Israel could be ruled out conclusively only in circumstances where the Iranian aggressions were entirely conventional and “hard-target” oriented; that is, oriented toward Israeli weapons and military infrastructures, and not toward Israel’s civilian populations

2. Nuclear counter-retaliation

 If Israel should ever feel compelled to preempt Iranian aggression with conventional weapons, that enemy state’s response would largely determine Israel’s next moves. If this response were in any way unclear, including “only” radiological weapons, Israel would likely turn to certain calibrated forms of nuclear counter-retaliation. If this retaliation were to involve other non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, Israel could feel pressed to take the escalatory initiative. This decision would depend upon Jerusalem's considered judgment of enemy intent and its corollary calculations of damage limitation.

If the Iranian response to Israel's preemption were limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is unlikely that Israel’s decision-makers would then move to nuclear counter-retaliations. If, however, the Iranian conventional retaliation was "all-out" and directed in part toward Israeli civilian populations, an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not be excluded ipso facto. Such a counter-retaliation could be ruled out only if Iran’s conventional retaliation were presumptively proportionate to Israel's preemption; confined to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits of “proportionality” and "military necessity," and accompanied by verifiable assurances of non-escalatory intent.

3. Nuclear preemption

It is highly unlikely (perhaps inconceivable) that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against Iran. Though circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would still be rational and permissible under international law, it is improbable that Israel would ever allow itself to reach such end-of-the-line circumstances. In principle, an Israeli nuclear preemption could reasonably be expected only: (a) where Iran had already acquired authentic (chain-reaction) nuclear and/or other weapons of mass destruction; (b) where Iran had clarified that its intentions paralleled its capabilities; (c) where Iran was believed ready to begin a "countdown to launch;" and (d) where Jerusalem believed that exclusively conventional preemptions could no longer be consistent with preservation of the Jewish State.

4. Nuclear war-fighting

If nuclear weapons should ever be introduced into a conflict between Israel and Iran, some form of nuclear war-fighting could ensue. This would hold true so long as (a) Iranian first-strikes would not destroy Israel's second-strike nuclear capability; (b) Iranian retaliation for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy Iran’s second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for conventional first-strikes would not destroy Iran’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability. For the time being, any Iranian nuclear capacity would be limited to radiation-dispersal weapons.

Israel is already at the 11th hour of nuclear war preparedness. For the moment, the only reasonable focus in Jerusalem should be on Iranian capabilities and intentions, but this focus ought to include various coinciding intersections with Hezbollah objectives and operations. In the final analysis, the Hezbollah threat to Israel is not “just” a significant terror threat or strategic threat, but one that could “open the floodgates” to nuclear war with Iran.


LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). Born in Zürich at the end of World War II, he is the author of many books, monographs, and articles dealing with Israeli nuclear strategy. Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue, he has lectured on this topic for over fifty years at leading universities and academic centers for strategic studies. Dr. Beres' twelfth book, Israel's Nuclear Strategy: Surviving amid Chaos, was published by Rowman and Littlefield, in 2016 (2nd ed., 2018).  In December 2016, Professor Beres authored a monograph at Tel-Aviv University (with a special postscript by retired USA General Barry McCaffrey), Israel's Nuclear Strategy and American National Security.   In 2003-2004, he was Chair of Israel’s “Project Daniel” (Iranian nuclear weapons/PM Ariel Sharon).

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