U.S. Nuclear Guarantee To Israel Makes No Sense

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

In a recent Brookings Institution report on Middle East strategy for the new administration, editors Richard Haass and Martin Indyk propose extending a nuclear guarantee to Israel in order to buy that country’s acquiescence for a lengthy period of engagement with Iran to bring Tehran’s nuclear program under international control. Along with Haass and Indyk, Bruce Reidel and Gary Samore, authors of the report’s chapter on non-proliferation, posit that Israel cannot abide by a nuclear Iran despite having adequate deterrent forces. Setting aside this debatable assumption about Israel’s own internal foreign and nuclear policy debate, there is little rational reason to believe that a U.S. nuclear guarantee would prove more reassuring to Israel than its own nuclear deterrent.

The United States has extended nuclear deterrent guarantees to other states — most notably NATO members and Japan — but these commitments existed in most cases to discourage allies from developing their own nuclear weapons programs. This is hardly the case with Israel, which it has its own highly developed, if undeclared, nuclear weapons program. A United States nuclear deterrent guarantee to Israel would be irrelevant to Israel’s overall strategic situation, and would likely have negative political repercussions for the United States in the region. Israel’s nuclear deterrent is shrouded in secrecy, but it is estimated to have between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads. Like the United States, Israel’s nuclear delivery forces are structured to form a “triad” of air, land, and sea-based systems. Israel’s long-range F-15I and F-16I strike aircraft are believed to be nuclear capable, and have the range to reach targets in Iran without refueling. More central to Israel’s nuclear forces are its Jericho-series of ballistic missiles. Israel is estimated to have between 50 and 100 Jericho II missiles with a range between 1,500 kilometers and 3,000 kilometers, and in January tested a new 4,000 kilometer-range missile. This new missile puts all of Iran in Israel’s nuclear reach. Finally, Israel’s three Dolphin-class submarines are reportedly capable of firing Harpoon missiles modified to carry nuclear warheads, and in 2000 Israel reportedly tested a 1,500 kilometer range cruise missile from one of its submarines. Two more submarines are on order from Germany. Israel therefore has a mature nuclear deterrent likely capable of launching a second strike against adversaries. Iran, on the other hand, is not believed to possess nuclear weapons at this time and has very limited options for delivering a bomb. Its current long-range missile systems (the Shahab-3 family) have ranges comparable to Israel’s solid-fuel Jericho system, but are liquid-fueled and require greater time to launch. Tehran recently claimed to have developed a solid-fuel missile with a 1,900 kilometer range, but questions remain as to exactly what kind of missile was actually launched. Even if Iran does develop nuclear weapons, its ballistic missile force remains relatively undeveloped, and Iran will likely not have a second strike capability similar to Israel’s for several years. In addition, there are reports that Ukrainian smugglers transferred nuclear-capable cruise missiles to Iran.  What does all this mean? For one, it means that both current circumstances and a potential Iran-Israel adversarial nuclear relationship are and will remain highly unstable for the foreseeable future. The current and possible future nuclear balance between the countries is such that Israel has incentives to either prevent Iran from developing a nuclear capability or disarm its rudimentary nuclear force (should it be developed) through either conventional or nuclear strikes on Tehran’s delivery systems. In other words, Israel should be able to take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities with minimal probability of effective Iranian nuclear retaliation. (If any Iranian nuclear weapons survive an Israeli first strike, Tehran is sure to use them.) For Iran, a nuclear balance that favors Israel gives it a “use it or lose it” incentive in a crisis — that is, it tilts Iran’s calculus in favor of using nuclear weapons in a confrontation with Israel.  A U.S. nuclear guarantee to Israel does nothing to prevent the instability resulting from a comparatively strong Israeli second strike capability and a comparatively vulnerable Iranian nuclear force. It does not change Iran’s “use it or lose it” strategic logic in a crisis situation, and therefore cannot serve as much of a reassurance to Israel. While low-end estimates of the range of Israel’s Jericho II missiles do not include all of Iran, Iran does not yet possess a missile capable of reaching Israel from beyond the Jericho II’s range and many of Iran’s population centers are within its range. Further, Israel has successfully tested a longer range Jericho capable of reaching all of Iranian territory. A U.S. nuclear guarantee based on the premise that Israel cannot strike all of Iran is without merit. A U.S. nuclear guarantee to Israel might have a reassuring effect were Israel not a nuclear state. But Israel is a nuclear state, and it is unlikely to place its perceived existential security in the hands of an outside power –- even one as friendly as the United States. Regardless of what the United States does, Israel is likely to increase the security of its second strike capabilities in the event Iran acquires a nuclear weapon –- which will in turn likely drive Iran to develop its own secure second strike capabilities. An Iranian bomb, then, appears to augur an arms race between Israel and Iran until both sides reach the stable equilibrium of mutual assured destruction. Since a U.S. nuclear guarantee is strategically worthless to Israel, it serves no purpose beyond signaling. The United States should therefore consider the regional political consequences of a nuclear guarantee to Israel. It will likely reinforce regional popular perceptions that the United States is biased toward Israel in local disputes while providing no appreciable strategic benefit to the United States or Israel. If a nuclear guarantee is provided solely to Israel, Arab states aligned with the United States will wonder why they were not deemed important enough to be included. Diplomatic ruptures between these states and the U.S. could result.

In sum, a U.S. nuclear guarantee to Israel makes little strategic sense. It would not help Israel, and could harm the United States politically in the region. Israel will likely maintain nuclear superiority over Iran for the foreseeable future, enabling it to hold both Iran’s population centers hostage to a retaliatory strike and its nuclear forces hostage to a first strike. This capability likely creates an incentive for Iran to use its nuclear forces first or lose them altogether, leading to an unstable nuclear relationship between Israel and Iran. A U.S. nuclear guarantee to Israel does not fundamentally alter this situation.