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18 April 2024

The missiles of April

The conflict between Israel and Iran confirms the enduring importance of nuclear deterrence.

By Patrick Porter

“Power,” said Mao Zedong, “flows from the barrel of a gun.” Yet using power to achieve deterrence (dissuading others from attacking via the threat of punishment or failure) is a more fraught process, even if the “gun” is a nuclear weapon. Iran’s missile strike on Israel on 13 April is a reminder that nuclear deterrence is never guaranteed to work. For those of us who advocate retaining nuclear weapons, it requires explaining. In most instances when nuclear deterrence has failed, adversaries have attacked non-essential peripheries, be they disputed territories (the Falkland Islands in 1982, the Sinai and Golan Heights in 1973, or Yeonpyeong Island in 2011) or lands outside of a nuclear state’s defence perimeter (South Korea in 1950). This time, a non-nuclear state has made a close-to-major attack on the territorial heartland of a nuclear state. Iran assailed Israel’s territory directly with drones, cruise missiles and 120 ballistic missiles.

This was not an all-out attempt to inflict as much damage as possible. Iran gave Israel time to prepare after it notified nearby states of its attack first. It launched most of the missiles from its own territory rather than from Syria and Iraq, which are closer to Israel. It didn’t urge Hezbollah to mount simultaneous attacks from the north. It didn’t attempt a larger rain of steel, to saturate Israel’s defences. And it called for de-escalation afterwards. Iran calibrated and telegraphed the operation, suggesting Israel’s nuclear deterrent may have exerted some restraining effect.

But none of this means the assault was merely theatre, designed to signal intent while minimising fallout. Iran cannot have known in advance that Israel and supporting states would intercept 99 per cent of the missiles before they reached the targeted territory. And consider the targets: defenders intercepted missiles over Jerusalem and Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear facility. Targeting the vicinity of a reactor and the seat of government is not mere signalling, but a strike on Israel’s vitals. Iran’s ballistic missiles are not precision instruments suited to signalling, but less discriminate in their blast radius. As for notification, Iran had alternative reasons to give advance warning to nearby states, given the threat of accident in their airspace. And according to the Biden administration’s analysis, cutting against its own express wish for Israel to avoid retaliation and a wider war, Iran’s intent was “highly destructive”.

If so, this returns us to an old question. As the historian Vincent Intondi asks, “How can anyone with a straight face still argue that nuclear deterrence works?” Some proponents of disarmament, or global “zero”, seize on this case to generalise that deterrence is a myth, unreliable at best and fictitious at worst. If the absolute, genocidal weapon does not dissuade aggression, the basis for maintaining it collapses. Worse, a false confidence in deterrence emboldens possessors to take greater risks.

[See also: Israel and Iran’s deadly game]

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But the historical record contains multiple crises where we can track the worries of decision-makers, from Berlin to Zhenbao to Kuwait to Kargil, where regimes opted for restraint given the existential risks. Policies and public discussion about how far to support Ukraine militarily reflects a concern to avoid the nuclear precipice with Moscow.

The stronger argument is not that deterrence is a myth. It is that deterrence depends on something more than arms, upon a certain reciprocity. Iran’s missile attack was a response to Israel’s strike on the Iranian consulate annex in Damascus on 1 April, to kill plotting officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran is homicidal but not irrational. It had previously attacked Israel, including sponsoring those who carried out the October pogrom, but its retaliation this time set a new precedent because the circumstances had changed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Israel bombing a diplomatic building, it put Iran in a predicament. Not to retaliate to a bombing of an inviolate state institution may be riskier to the regime than running the gauntlet. It would invite suspicion at home and abroad that its embattled theocracy is a hollow power, or a “paper tiger”.

For deterrence to work, it must be paired with self-restraint. To persuade an enemy not to attack what it most cares about, a state must convince them that it won’t attack either. But if an adversary is deterred and you strike them anyway – as Israel did in Damascus – then deterrence loses its rationale and easily breaks down.

By bombing the consulate annex, Israel inadvertently made Tehran feel that its hand was forced. Iran’s rulers crossed a cognitive threshold where they felt they “must” act even in the face of serious risks. The size of its missile strike suggests it decided to attack Israel violently enough to establish its credentials as a regional power, but not so violently as to provoke Israel to do the unthinkable. It calculated – perhaps hopefully – that Israel’s response would be strong but not maximal.

Nuclear deterrence demands something that is hard to accept: no matter how righteous one believes oneself, and how wicked the other side, the act of deterring requires a disciplined forbearance. The instinct that Israel and its supporters voice now and after 7 October, that they should retaliate to send a powerful message, is similar to how Iran’s regime probably felt on April Fool’s Day. Two years ago, Ukraine faced a similar crisis on a larger scale. Against a nuclear-armed invader that was trying to destroy it, choosing to be deterred made no sense.

Israel, like Iran, does not want all-out war. But it believes it must manipulate the risk of war, in order to survive, using violence to communicate to a range of audiences but without going over the brink. It believed it could deter Iran unilaterally, hitting it hard, and confident that Iran would not dare mount a major response. But Iran – ruthless, insecure and now more resolved – calculated it must. As Benjamin Netanyahu’s predecessors grasped, Israel has survived because it practised deterrence with discipline. It’s something that we in the West, with our talk of a “nuclear deterrent”, also must relearn.

[See also: Why Iran’s attack on Israel failed]

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