Iranian nuclear power and the Begin Doctrine dilemma: the risks of a preventive strike

Begin Doctrine, evocative name and perhaps unknown to most. To understand what it consists of, it is necessary to take a leap into the past, more precisely in 1981.

Israel's prime minister that year was Menachem Begin, leader of the Likud party. He ordered Operation Babylon, which consisted of the destruction of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq. Mossad considered the nuclear power plant, still under construction, to be the centerpiece of Iraq's military nuclear program. Begin, a few days after the airstrike, claimed Israel's action as a preventive operation aimed at preventing the enemies of the Jewish state from obtaining the atomic weapon and perpetrating a second Holocaust.

In general, this doctrine stipulates that Israel prevents other Middle Eastern states from acquiring nuclear technology and thus preserves Israeli military superiority. In fact, despite never having confirmed or denied, Jerusalem would have an unspecified number of nuclear warheads available, but it has always chosen a "policy of deliberate ambiguity" . This superiority in the atomic field has always acted as a deterrent also for the natural correlation with the “Samson Option”.

This doctrine was reaffirmed in 2007 by Ehud Olmert. This time a Syrian reactor under construction was destroyed.

This constant policy of the various Israeli governments finds itself in a dramatic crisis in the face of the Iranian nuclear program. We can articulate the reason for this difference in three points.

First of all, the type and number of structures. Both in 1981 and 2007 it was a single power plant, still under construction. This made the attack simple and solving. Iran, on the other hand, has numerous power plants scattered throughout the country, often with underground structures, and above all already functioning.

Another crucial element is the distance. Israeli jets could and can safely reach Iraq and Syria, not so for Persia. Israel should have access to US bases in the Gulf or coordinate airborne refueling operations over the Saudi or Iraqi skies. Very risky option.

Even if the operation were carried out and the outcome was positive, we would be faced with one last problem.

Iran controls militias and terrorist organizations capable of carrying out an asymmetric and unconventional response. In the two historical precedents, Iraq and Syria could have responded symmetrically, with a war between regular armies. In this case, however, Iran has strong control over regional proxies : Shiite militias on Syrian soil, Lebanese Hezbollah and various Palestinian terrorist organizations. They could initiate a military response against the Jewish state, especially by firing hundreds or thousands of rockets and missiles. Air defense systems would surely be saturated and there would be enormous casualties and damage.

The difficult choice made by the Israeli establishment therefore essentially concerns the balance between the immediate consequences of a preemptive strike and the future ones of a regional nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with the risk that an enemy state will use it against Israel. It is therefore a question of choosing the “retirement” of the Begin Doctrine itself, which has substantially guaranteed stability and security for Israel, or of harshly reaffirming it with all the dramatic consequences that follow.

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This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Atlantico Quotidiano at the URL on Tue, 22 Sep 2020 03:31:00 +0000.