Analysis & Opinions - -- Middle East Roundtable

Confronting Iran: A US Security Guarantee for Israel?

| July 6, 2006

The United States is now pursuing a long overdue attempt to engage Iran diplomatically, as part of a concerted international effort to end that country's nuclear weapons program. If this effort fails and coercive measures short of direct military action (e.g., a blockade) fail as well, the US and Israel will face a momentous decision: whether to strike militarily or adopt a defensive posture. This critical decision may be just months away.

For Israel, the prospect of even one Iranian nuke getting through its defenses is totally unacceptable. A possible defensive posture would thus have to be based primarily on deterrence, through the threat of massive retaliation. Although Israel's own deterrent capabilities are significant, they could be greatly strengthened through "extended US deterrence", i.e., a formal guarantee of Israel's security in the form of a defense treaty or memorandum of understanding. The US is already committed, de-facto, to Israel's security and President Bush has reaffirmed this in recent statements regarding Iran. The question is whether a formal guarantee would significantly add to this de-facto one and give Israel the confidence to rely on a deterrent posture.

Assuming US willingness to provide such a formal commitment—a significant "if"—Israel would come under an explicit American nuclear "umbrella", meaning the concrete Iranian knowledge that in threatening Israel it would be taking on the US as well and face "assured destruction". Furthermore, a US security guarantee might enable Israel to reduce its defense expenditures, much as NATO and other US allies have long done and, like them, allow it to focus more on domestic and economic issues. A treaty would also serve as a long term foundation for US-Israel relations and ensure Israel's standing in the US in the future, at a time when the pro-Israel community may be less influential and the administration and Congress less friendly than they are at present.

Such an arrangement would seem to be a "no-brainer" for Israel. Yet Jerusalem might in fact be quite reluctant to conclude one. This, for three primary reasons, each deeply entrenched in Israel's national security thinking. First, it would fear a loss of freedom of action, due to the contractual requirement to consult on the means of addressing the threat. Second, it would be concerned lest the US demand that Israel divulge and even forego its independent capabilities. And third, it might worry that the US would not live up to its nuclear commitments, much as NATO allies feared during the Cold War.

In reality, Israel has long consulted with the US on virtually all strategic matters, including Iran, and few decisions of consequence have been made in recent decades without first doing so. However, no Israeli leader would wish to have his/her freedom of maneuver restricted, even by the US, hence would be willing to act unilaterally, formal commitments notwithstanding, if the US did not come through in a crisis. If that occurred, it would probably be too late for the US to "punish" Israel anyway. Moreover, prior US defense treaties, e.g., the Polaris Agreement with Britain in 1962, have included exemptions in cases of "supreme national interest"; Israel could include a similar clause.

What good, then, is a security guarantee, if the presumption is that it may be circumvented precisely when needed? In truth, the primary importance of all alliance guarantees is to deter the potential threat. It can be of great deterrent value, but if actually invoked, this is testimony to failed deterrence.

Israel might also fear loss of freedom in other important if not existentially-threatening situations, such as combating Hizballah and Palestinian terror, or in a military confrontation with Syria. The US, too, would probably not wish to be entangled in these issues. The solution would be to limit the treaty to existential dangers to Israel.

The issue of Israel's independent deterrent capabilities might, of course, be raised by the US. Despite its past diplomatic formulae, however, the US may actually have an interest in Israel's retaining these capabilities, which would thereby obviate the need for the US to come to its aid. It is, therefore, doubtful that the United States would actually insist that Israel divulge/dismantle them. Moreover, if the treaty represented an alternative to an attack on Iran (assuming US opposition to any such strike, American or Israeli), the treaty would achieve a new and useful deterrent result.

The concept of extended American deterrence should be considered solely as an addition to Israel's independent deterrent, not as a substitute for it. The time to begin consideration of this option, however, is near. Failure of current diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Iran may soon make it a pressing issue.

Chuck Freilich is former deputy national security advisor of Israel and a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School. Richard Rosecrance is distinguished research professor of political science at UCLA and senior fellow of the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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For Academic Citation: Freilich, Chuck and Richard Rosecrance.“Confronting Iran: A US Security Guarantee for Israel?.” -- Middle East Roundtable, July 6, 2006.