Saddam, Iran, and the Stability-Instability Paradox: Can Israel's "Samson Option" Hold?

Following a post from a few months back, I was pointed in the direction of an intriguing study by Duke University’s Hal Brands and David Palkki of the National Defense University that is germane to the current debates over a potential Iranian nuclear weapons program and its implications for Israeli security (h/t Zach Novetsky).  “Saddam, Israel, and the Bomb: Nuclear Alarmism Justified?”, published last summer in International Security, is the result of countless hours pouring over documents captured after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The implications of Brands and Palkki’s findings for Israeli security are alarming but should also subject to scrutiny. In particular, the authors use of the stability-instability paradox as the cornerstone of their analysis, when challenged, does not seem to hold up very well.

It is necessary to say right from the outset, Brands and Palkki should be commended for the work they put into this study. Delving into the captured records of Saddam Hussein is no small task, and the authors have touched on a fascinating topic that deserves further analysis. The documentation the authors bring to light is of enormous value, and they provide a wealth of captivating information on Saddam Hussein’s thoughts on nuclear weapons, military strategy, his role in the Arab world, and his bizarre views on Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people in general—despite a grudging respect Israeli military prowess, apparently Saddam believed Pokemon was a Zionist conspiracy to brainwash Arab youths. Unfortunately, the frame of analysis the authors chose for their exploration of the Iraqi leader’s perspective on nuclear weapons and the conclusions they draw for further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East—and, most importantly, its consequences for Israel—is flawed.

The study by Brands and Palkki is an attempt to push back against recent scholarship produced by nuclear proliferation “optimists” like Frank Gavin and John Mueller who are less deterministic in their views of the consequences of nuclear proliferation than many scholars who posit a more pessimistic assessment of the subject.  As the authors ask in the title of their paper:  is nuclear alarmism—against which both Gavin and Mueller have argued—actually justified given the documentation they present on Saddam Hussein’s views on nuclear weapons? The authors think so and present documentary evidence demonstrating that Saddam believed that by obtaining the “main weapon,” as he called it, an alliance of Arab states—led, of course, by Saddam himself—could negate Israel’s nuclear arsenal and conduct a war of attrition that would eventually wrest free the lands occupied by the “Zionist Entity” after the 1967 Six Day War. As the authors describe it:

Iraq…would seek to obtain a nuclear weapon from “[it’s] Soviet friends,” use the resulting deterrent power to counteract Israeli threats of nuclear retaliation, and thereby enable a “patient war”—a war of attrition—that would reclaim Arab lands lost in the Six-Day War of 1967. As Saddam put it, nuclear weapons would allow Iraq to “guarantee the long war that is destructive to our enemy, and take at our leisure each meter of land and drown the enemy with rivers of blood.”

Such a strategy would likely cost Iraq 50,000 casualties by Saddam’s estimation, but he believed it would inflict far greater damage on the Israelis. It is important to note that Brands and Palkki “found no direct evidence that Saddam intended to use his prospective nuclear arsenal for a first strike against the Israel…and he did hope that an Iraqi bomb would lead to the emergence of a deterrent balance with Israel.” He did, however, believe that such a deterrent balance would allow greater conventional freedom of action in the face of Israel’s nuclear arsenal and the authors find this view as providing cause for “both pessimism and alarm.”

The cause for this alarm, they claim, comes in the form of the stability-instability paradox—previously discussed here.  Best articulated by Robert Jervis, the stability-instability paradox posits that stability at the highest levels of violence, for example nuclear war, may facilitate violence at lower levels of violence.  As Jervis observes, “Strategic stability creates instability by making lower levels of violence relatively safe and undermining ‘extended deterrence.’”  He continues later, “[T]he fact that strategic nuclear war would destroy both sides means large conventional forces are required to protect other vital…interests”—a situation where the Israelis maintain a qualitative and quantitative superiority over their potential Arab adversaries.

Brands and Palkki’s use of the stability-instability paradox to evaluate the potential for conflict were Iraq to have acquired nuclear weapons under Saddam Hussein is weak for several reasons.  First, it assumes that a single, or even a few nuclear weapons, would provide for stability in an Iraqi-Israeli nuclear dyad.  Saddam obviously believed that a single nuclear weapon would accomplish this goal, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.  Second, the authors conflate levels of violence below that of nuclear war when they should instead view multiple levels of violence below nuclear war as somewhat distinct from one another as well.  Third, they neglect to make key distinctions between core and peripheral interests that Israel might be willing to use nuclear weapons to defend.  And finally, the authors ignore the necessity Saddam’s ambitions would create to extend deterrence to his allies—a key element in the formulation by Jervis of the stability-instability paradox that the authors cite.

The “stability” half of the stability-instability paradox is a crucial part of the analysis here.  Leaving aside the obvious fact that Saddam Hussein had an inaccurate, to say the least, view of what “deterrent balance” meant, an Iraqi-Israeli nuclear relationship would not be “stable” right from the outset.  In fact, Israel would have held a substantial nuclear advantage over Saddam and would have been likely to maintain that advantage for some time.  This does not mean numerical parity would have been necessary to bring about a balanced relationship, given Israel’s small territory, dense population, and lack of strategic depth—facts Saddam was obviously aware of—a nuclear arsenal smaller than Israel’s still could have offered Iraq significant advantages.  But, at least in the early days of a nuclear Iraq, the chances of a preemptive counterforce strike afforded by Israeli strategic superiority were still very high.  Mutual second-strike capabilities—a requirement for “stability” in Jervis’ formulation—would still be out of reach for sometime.  Whether such a check on Saddam’s ambitions could have been communicated to the Iraqi leader is in question, but the fact remains that the option for the Israelis to act preemptively in a crisis would not have been immediately nullified.

More important than the question of balance is the ambiguity of the authors’ definition of what constitutes “lower levels of violence” under the stability-instability paradox.  Absent an unambiguous definition, anything less than nuclear war seems to be the basis of the analysis offered.  It is difficult to see how the type of warfare Saddam proposed against Israel and described in this study—attrition warfare entailing approximately a 12-month campaign and 50,000 casualties on the attacking side alone—could be seen as being a low level violence.  Certainly conventional warfare of almost any type would be less violent than all out nuclear war, but the strategic bombing of Japan during World War II did not cause much less cumulative destruction than its culmination in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the former only took place over a longer time and larger geographic area.  Warfare can’t necessarily be defined by a spectrum of different levels, but distinctions can certainly be made and attrition warfare of the type Saddam proposed to fight against Israel would have been far closer to the highest level—assumed here to mean nuclear war—than to the lowest.

Which leads to the third point:  the authors do not effectively distinguish between core and peripheral interests at stake in the hypothetical conflict.  At issue here is what Israel might be willing to use nuclear weapons to defend against.  An analysis of the issue at hand assumes that the territories acquired by Israel after 1967 would not be seen as “core” interests worth going to drastic lengths to defend.  This is a rather sizeable assumption to make.  As already noted, Israel is a territorially small, densely populated country—the occupied territories, for better or worse, supply some manner of strategic depth to a state severely lacking in it.  It is unlikely that the Israelis would view an attempt to forcibly dislodge them from land they value as much as the occupied territories as anything but a move against a core interest. To their credit, the authors do not ignore this fact, but they do gloss over an important distinction and only acknowledge it in a footnote:  “If the Arab advance was seen to pose an existential threat to Israel, Israeli officials would presumably have little reason to avoid using nuclear weapons.”  This is important because there is a high likelihood that Israeli leaders would view a massed Arab army on its border as an existential threat instead of merely an action intended to dislodge them from the occupied territories—which the authors recognize later when discussing the flaws in Saddam’s strategic outlook:

Given that Saddam and other Iraqi leaders had publicly called for Israel’s destruction ever since the Baath had first taken power in 1968, would not Israeli leaders assume that an attack on the Golan or the West Bank was the prelude to an assault on Israel proper?

This is a key distinction because Israel is likely to believe it was defending core interests under such circumstances, even if the war were concentrated on the occupied territories and not necessarily Israel proper.  Meanwhile, Saddam would have had to offer extended deterrence to allied governments in Syria or Jordan and would therefore be defending peripheral interests and risking nuclear retaliation by the Israelis on behalf of the interests.

This relates to the final point because the key example Jervis uses in his articulation of the stability-instability paradox is the difficulty it creates in providing extended deterrence.  Essentially, the logic of the difficulty that extended deterrence presents under the stability-instability paradox is that, in a particular nuclear dyad, the ability of two countries to destroy one another theoretically precludes, or at least significantly reduces the chances of, conflict between one another.  However, that same ability to destroy one another makes it far less likely that either side would come to the defense of a third country were its adversary to make an aggressive move against the third country using nonnuclear means because of the risk the conflict could escalate to the nuclear level—even if a security guarantee were in place.  But, by Saddam’s own plans, he would need to extend deterrence to either Syria or Jordan, or likely both, to conduct offensive operations on their territory. Absent Saddam’s ability to guarantee their security, would either Jordan or Syria have allowed the Iraqi army to conduct offensive operations on their soil, let alone provided logistical support and troops of their own to the effort—the problems of which the authors do an excellent job describing—if the consequence was a likely Israeli counterattack on their own territory?  Such a guarantee would likely not preclude Israeli retaliatory attacks against Iraq’s allies given that vital interests would be at stake for the Israelis, and therefore any potential nuclear threat by Saddam to protect his allies would leave him subject to nuclear attack by Israel.

Of course, Saddam is gone now and we do not know how he would have acted had he actually obtained his own nuclear weapons. But the analysis that Brands and Palkki provide has obvious implications for a potential Iranian nuclear arsenal.  As with the authors’ findings about Saddam, most do not believe Iran is seeking nuclear weapons to execute a suicidal, “bolt from the blue” first strike in an attempt to “wipe Israel off the map,” but many contend that even a small Iranian nuclear arsenal will give the Islamic Republic cover from which to unleash its proxies against Israel without fear of retaliation.  This might take the form of increased terrorist attacks or even offensive operations by Hezbollah from its base it Southern Lebanon.  Obviously, Iran could not directly attack Israel by conventional means given its lack of contiguous territory, so any aggressive moves against the Jewish State would have to be executed by non-state proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, state proxies like Syria, or through the use of allied territory as a staging area.  Leaving aside, Syria’s likely inability to undertake offensive operations due both to Israel’s far superior conventional military and the need in Damascus for its military to quell domestic unrest inside Syria, would Iran be able to extend deterrence to any of these groups to effectively protect them from Israeli retaliation?  Based on the logic of the stability-instability paradox, the answer seems to be no.

It is, of course, very possible that Saddam’s plans were less a sign of a well thought-out nuclear strategy—as the authors observe, Saddam only thought about military matters in “broad and superficial terms”—than a severe miscalculation that could have led to tragic consequences had it been allowed to reach fruition.  What then prevents a similar miscalculation from being made by Iranian leaders was the Islamic Republic to obtain nuclear weapons? Mueller would likely argue that Iran and its proxies would likely remain deterred from threatening Israel’s existence by the same qualitative and quantitative conventional military advantage that has made attempts at attacking the Jewish State through symmetrical means obsolete since at least 1973.  Others are not so sure, and for reasons cited above, the Israelis would likely not want to take such a chance. But short of a preemptive attack that in of itself may not fully stop Iran’s perceived pursuit of the bomb, what could Israel do to communicate its intolerance toward a similar strategy by the Islamic Republic?  In a recent essay for Foreign Affairs, Columbia University’s Dima Adamsky suggests that Israel could rollback its policy of “opacity” regarding its nuclear weapons program and establish a deterrent posture—or at least the general outline of one—based on “redlines” that, if crossed, would trigger devastating retaliation against an aggressor.  This is an option with consequences far beyond the bilateral standoff between Israel and Iran, but its exploration may be worthwhile.

If nothing else though, Israel can still maintain its “Samson Option.” This is an unpleasant option no doubt—seeing as it is essentially a last-ditch suicide pact—but there is nothing Saddam could have done, or that Iran can do in the future, to negate it.  The “Samson Option” refers to the Biblical story of Samson who, rather than be humiliated the Philistines pushed down the pillars of a temple, bringing down the structure and killing himself and all inside.  According to journalist Seymour Hersh’s 1991 book, also titled The Samson Option, Israeli leaders have maintained a plan for using its nuclear arsenal were its existence threatened in a manner for which it had no other response. In a way, the policy is not much different than the U.S. Cold War policy of mutual assured destruction.  That said, given its decades-long head start in building a nuclear arsenal, and the diversified delivery systems—such as long-range Jericho missiles and Dolphin-class submarines recently purchased from Germany—at its disposal, Israel will maintain strategic superiority over potential nuclear adversaries and a secure second-strike capability long into the future.  That capability will aid in its deterrence of nuclear attacks far into the future, while its continued maintenance of quantitative and qualitative military superiority will likely allow it to defeat conventional challenges to its core security interests far into the future as well.  This is not to say that these are options Israel should be particularly pleased about, but they are also far superior to the picture of impending doom many have painted about Israel’s strategic position should it lose its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.

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