Andy GrottoExtend the Umbrella to Israel?

A new CFR/Brookings study, Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President, recommends that the United States “enhance Israel’s deterrent and defensive capabilities by offering it a nuclear guarantee” (p.16). The study is edited by Richard Haass and Martin Indyk. The recommendation is broached in their introductory chapter, and echoed by Bruce Riedel and Gary Samore in their chapter on nuclear proliferation (p.116).

The 288-page study recommends a very compelling new strategy of diplomatic engagement with Iran, but assumes that Israel will oppose it and take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities at some point in the near future. Thus, the goal of the nuclear guarantee is to “persuade Israel not to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities” and buy time for the proposed new U.S.-led diplomatic initiative to unfold.

The overall study is quite good, but the sloppy, casual logic underlying the nuclear guarantee recommendation is rather breathtaking. The authors note that “the United States, with its thousands of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, has a ready fallback to a posture of nuclear deterrence while it works to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities” (p.15). True, but Israel already possesses a very capable nuclear deterrent of its own, which, remarkably, is acknowledged with merely a passing reference (p.116). It is simply not clear to me how or why a U.S. guarantee would make any difference in an Israeli calculation whether to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities. Maybe it would, but for a recommendation this bold, the authors really should have presented some specific evidence (a poll, perhaps).

Moreover, the study is strangely silent on key details and trade-offs associated with extending the umbrella to Israel. For example, would we station weapons in Israel like we do for NATO? And would the guarantee be public or private? Presumably, it would have to be very public, because otherwise it couldn’t affect Iran’s behavior or political debates within Israel over whether to support America’s new diplomatic initiative. But a public guarantee would almost certainly create severe political problems for the United States in the region and beyond. I think it would be the kiss of death for efforts to attract robust Muslim country support for addressing regional proliferation concerns such as Iran and Syria, fuel cycle reform, strong export controls, and other key nonproliferation priorities.

Besides, isn’t it already reasonable for Iran (or any country) to assume that the United States would use every tool of national power at its disposal to protect Israel if its existence were credibly threatened? It seems to me that all a public guarantee would do is introduce a new set of contentious, complicated issues into an already troubled region.

Addendum: Check out my colleague Peter Juul’s insightful analysis over at Wonk Room.


  1. yousaf (History)

    It would serve the authors of that “study” to read the previous studies on the subject — specifically the excellent work by the folks at the National Defense University.

    The point is this: the US is now on both sides of Iran, and Israel has nuclear weapons in the region. For the purposes of deterrence it is not wholly surprising that Iran would choose to try to obtain some form of nuclear armament for itself.

    As the NDU study points out, a nuclear-armed Iran would not be the end of the world (however undesirable that may be), and that it would be deterrable.

    The NDU study concludes that Iran desires nuclear weapons mainly because it feels strategically isolated and that “possession of such weapons would give the regime legitimacy, respectability, and protection.” In other words, Iran desires nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterrence, just like every other nuclear-armed nation. The NDU study continued, “[W]e judge, and nearly all experts consulted agree, that Iran would not, as a matter of state policy, give up its control of such weapons to terrorist organizations and risk direct U.S. or Israeli retribution.” And it said the “United States has options short of war that it could employ to deter a nuclear-armed Iran and dissuade further proliferation.”

    However unimaginable it may be, the experts who know about Iran and the middle east agree that a peaceful deterrence with Iran is possible. Apparently, that is not good enough for some neocon types in the US (and Israel) who demand to have free rein in the Middle East.

    The solution? Confidence building and the elimination of nuclear weapons from the entire Middle East, including those in Israel.

  2. Yossi (History)

    Andy G, nice analysis!

    A possible interpretation to the enigmatic phrase: “enhance Israel’s deterrent and defensive capabilities by offering it a nuclear guarantee” may be a US official promise that the old and deteriorating Dimona reactor will be replaced by a similar facility. In the current diplomatic climate it could be done without much opposition.

    We can calculate how much Tritium can be produced by the new SARAF particle accelerator and if it’s sufficient to maintain the Israeli arsenal. Even if the answer is positive, this is only a partial solution.

    A brilliant 2003 study shows that common perceptions about Israeli nuclear weapons are wrong. However, things have changed since in the Middle East and if Iran will go for nuclear weapons it may be wise to ensure Israel keep such a capability. The SARAF could still serve as temporary backup in case the production reactor is destroyed, a fairly common occurrence in the Middle East.

  3. Bill

    You asked:

    “Besides, isn’t it already reasonable for Iran (or any country) to assume that the United States would use every tool of national power at its disposal to protect Israel if its existence were credibly threatened?”

    That’s the wrong question. This suggestion is being offered not to influence Iran, but to influence Israel.

  4. MarkoB (History)

    A case can be made that the US does in fact already extend deterrence to Israel.

    My understanding is that during the Clinton administration Bill signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Bibi Netanyahu that contained language that could be easily interpreted as extending deterrence to Israel. A lot of that came out publicly in a big way during the debate following the Dolphin submarine spat; if Israel has an assured second strike deterrent why extend deterrence?

    This understanding of the Bubba-Bibi MoA would tally with the Schlesinger report on the Air Force deterrence mission and safety following the B-52 incident; that report spoke of the US extending deterrence for “up to 30” countries and it really only makes sense if you count Israel.

    Interesting question of course is what role this MoA had on al-Kibar in Syria and Natanz and IR-40 in Iran.

    The link for the MoA is

  5. Alex (History)

    Bill is right. The flip of deterrence is self-deterrence; NATO membership implies both a commitment to defend the alliance and a duty to take part in maintaining the deterrent balance.

  6. Andy (History)

    I agree with you completely, Andy. I would add that there doesn’t seem to be much in the deal for the US. I am not opposed to formally extending the US nuclear umbrella to Israel (it’s already informally extended), but I want something in return and in my mind, that something should be Israel verifiably destroying its nuclear arsenal and joining the NPT.

    But that scenario is a fantasy. For all the closeness between the US and Israel, Israel does not trust the US enough to make good on any nuclear pledge, so getting rid of Israel’s weapons is a non-starter.


    Israel has stated several times over a period of decades that it would agree to a verifiable NWFZ in the middle east but would not do so until those other nations enter peace agreements and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Isreal believes (with some justification, I think) that entering into such a NWFZ without those preconditions would be giving up something for nothing, particularly since Israel believes those nations will continue to pursue a covert nuclear capability regardless. We have to keep in mind the reason Israel developed nukes in the first place – it’s lack of strategic depth, which became obvious after 67 and 73.

    In short, Israel will never let go of its weapons while it still has so many enemies who are legally (in some cases) and rhetorically (in most cases) committed to its destruction.

  7. anon (History)

    I agree with Andy, in that a U.S. extended deterrent to Israel would have little effect on anything. Its a promise to retaliate in support of an ally after an attack. If Israel is worried about Iran having nuclear weapons, then waiting for a U.S. response after an attack is accepting that U.S. will make the rubble bounce in Iran after it starts bouncing in Israel. Not much of a promise, and, in no way a fair exchange for the preemptive destruction of Iran’s nuke (which I don’t think is possible, but that’s beside the point.)

    Also, a small point to MarkoB, you don’t need to count Israel to get to 30 recipients of extended deterrence. The U.S. officially extends its nuclear guarantee to all the NATO allies, South Korea, Japan, and Australia. That’ll get you to 30.

  8. SJP

    Not to nitpick, but I believe NATO is 26 nations. Depending on how you interpret “extended deterrence” (does the USA “extend” its deterrent to itself?) there could be room for all of NATO, RoK, Japan, Australia and Israel in the cited number of 30. Does Taiwan fall under the American umbrella?

    That being said, NATO does have a number of partner states and states in the process of acceding.

  9. Oliver Meier (History)

    With a further twist, the idea to extend the nuclear umbrella to Israel has been used in Germany to justify NATO’s outdated nuclear sharing arrangements. In a June 25 Parliamentary debate (triggered by Hans Kristensen’s revelation of a U.S. air force report about security problems at European nuclear weapons bases) Eckart von Klaeden, foreign policy spokesperson for the Conservatives, extended the extended deterrence argument to nuclear weapon possessor Israel. Von Klaeden painted the scenario that a nuclear-armed Iran could threaten Israel with nuclear attack and declare war on Germany, as reaction to Germany supplying missile defense systems to Israel. Then, von Klaeden argued, Berlin would become party to that conflict and “would have to have an answer to that strategic threat.” (My translation. For the German speakers among you, the transcript of the debate can be found here He implied, of course, that NATO’s nuclear deterrent (which includes not only the U.S. nukes deployed under nuclear sharing in Europe but also the national arsenals of NATO NWS) would provide such an answer and that nuclear sharing gives Germany a say in countering a possible nuclear threat from Iran.

    As in the CFR/Brookings study, von Klaeden did not provide details on the practical implications of his scenario. Would NATO issue an explicit security guarantee for Israel? Would dual-capable aircraft, carrying B61s be sent across the Mediterranean to be deployed in Israel as a visible sign of Alliance solidarity? Von Klaeden also did not say what impact such a scenario might have on Israel’s nuclear weapons policies. But it would be interesting to know whether such desperate attempts to justify nuclear sharing are part of the secret discussions on “Deterrence Requirements for the Twenty First Century” that have been going on in NATO’s High Level Group for some time now.

  10. MarkoB

    The US does not really extend deterrence to Australia. No obligation to defend Australia appears in the ANZUS Treaty and there really isn’t any statement from Washington to the effect that deterrence is extended to Australia.

    It does appear in Australian Defence White Paper documents and it seems that the US allowed that to appear there upon the basis of a private letter. I myself don’t think that is enough to constitute a deterrent.

    If the US extends deterrence to Israel likely the objective is to maintain Israel’s nuclear opacity. The objective would not be to deter others in as much as it would be to deter Israel from formally “introducing” nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

    That’s my hunch.

  11. Distiller (History)

    Of course it is primarily a message for Israel, not for the Persians.

    Principally it’s a bad idea to extend the umbrella. Entanglement and such. Really: What are the chances that political promise is actually fulfilled? It’s just a question of who is the other side. Would such a U.S. promise also stand against the Russians, should they launch against Israel?

    Maybe a few U.S. troops in Israel as “speedbumps” would be an idea? Isn’t there some doctrine regarding retaliation to NBC attacks on U.S. troops?

    The first step has already been taken with the FBX radar!

  12. kerbihan

    MarkoB, the nuclear umbrella to Australia is an official US stance. See DoD/DoE, National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (September 2008): “Nuclear forces continue to be a key element in U.S. alliances with other countries, for example, NATO
    allies, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.” If you wanted to get to 30, perhaps you would need to add Thailand and the Philippines to the mix, as well, arguably (but the picture is more complex from a legal standpoint) New Zealand. Otherwise, you would have to add whatever private assurances may or may not have been given to Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Israel. The point is, you don’t necessarily need to add Israel to get to 30. And in any case, the USAF document is hardly authoritative for such a highly political matter.

  13. Ataune (History)

    Why not say “it is primarily a message for the Ashkenazis, or the WASPs, not for Iran.”

  14. not_anon_is_non

    Distiller raises an excellent point: formally extending the deterrence umbrella to Israel may mean we have to protect it against other foes besides Iran. This is dangerous. The Israelis have their own nuke deterrent, so what does the additional deterrent mean?

    A lot of the discussion is premised on the assumption that Iranian nukes would be used in a first strike, whereas this would imply national suicide for Iran. As the NDU study Yousaf pointed to outlines, we had better get comfortable with a nuclear armed Iran, else take all nukes out of the middle east.

    We are paying for our double standards in the region.

    Israel is not the 51st state and I don’t approve of my tax dollars subsidizing its bad policies. As Roger Cohen recently pointed out we need to take a firmer stance with Israel — show some real tough love . Similar views have also been espoused by other well-respected academics before — it about time we started to heed them.

    There is no need to coddle Israel by extending our deterrence to them at 0 cost.

  15. MarkoB

    Kerbihan,I agree with what you say about the DoD/DOE September 2008 paper, but you have to be careful about that paper. I have dismissed this paper, maybe that’s wrong headed, but let me explain my reasons. The statement on extended deterrence states, “nuclear forces continue to be a key element in US alliances with other countries, for example, NATO allies, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.” At first blush that appears to extend deterrence to Australia, but it is not really an endorsement as such. The US and Australia have a number of Joint Facilities. These Joint Facilities are undoubtedly involved in STRATCOM planning so these Joint Facilities could be what is meant by “a key element”. A key element need not necessarily mean a deterrent. It is true that the Joint Facilities are a “key element” in the US-Australia strategic relationship.

    At the top of this paragraph the report also states that from the get-go the US arsenal has also defended “US allies in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.” That “elsewhere” is important. Consider the Schlesinger Report which states, “Despite these trends, many allied and friendly countries—roughly 30, including NATO and our Pacific allies—continue to depend on the security provided by the nuclear umbrella of the United States.”

    If we have NATO at 26, RoK and Japan at 28 where does the “elsewhere” and “friendly” but not “allied” countries come from? Which would be 29? Australia or Taiwan? It cannot be both for then you don’t have any “elsewhere.” You can’t then add in even further Thailand etc for “elsewhere” and “includes” strongly implies that the last state to sit under extended deterrence has to come outside of NATO and the Asia-Pacific.

    I can only think of Israel. However, we need to consider maybe even Iraq. The SOFA and the Dec of Principles does suggest deterring outside attacks. Does that include WMD?

    I’d be inclined to stick my neck out and speculate that we have NATO, RoK, Japan, Israel and Iraq.

    The other thing about the DoD/DOE report that we need to be careful about is that it was supposed to be a “nuclear triad” report. State was supposed to sign-off on it (and did on a earlier much smaller document) but in fact did not do so at the end. So, we should be very, very careful about this document.

    I think, then, that the Schlesinger USAF document is better than a RRW sell to Congress that the State Department was supposed to be a part of but pulled out off. This is especially so because it was this document that brought in extended deterrence and non-proliferation as a selling point for RRW in a really big way, much more than before.

    My apologies for the length of this comment. If you like, send us an email and we can continue the discussion like that if you prefer.

  16. yousaf (History)

    OK, so here is a radical idea: in order to encourage Iran to stop enriching and give up its nuclear-arms aspirations, extend the US (…or Russian or Chinese) nuclear deterrent umbrella to Iran , not Israel.

    The cost to Iran could be intrusive inspections and no enriching beyond LEU levels.

  17. kerbihan


    I think you make a confusion. The US cannot formally and in a legally-binding way commit itself to defend a country without a treaty (and thus Senate approval). So you have to make a distinction between countries formally protected by a treaty and those who are not. The first category certainly includes, among others, Australia (through ANZUS). And it certainly does not include Iraq.

    However, some political commitments can be made by the executive branch, in a more or less formal and/or public way. Whether or not they amount to a formal security guarantee (possibly including a nuclear dimension) is in the eyes of the protected party (and of the deterree, of course).

    I’d be happy to continue the discussion by e-mail as you suggested, but you did not provide an address.

  18. Yossi (History)

    Haaretz have a very interesting article on this subject.

    The Obama side:

    U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s administration will offer Israel a “nuclear umbrella” against the threat of a nuclear attack by Iran, a well-placed American source said earlier this week. The source, who is close to the new administration, said the U.S. will declare that an attack on Israel by Tehran would result in a devastating U.S. nuclear response against Iran.

    The Bush side:

    A senior Bush administration source said that the proposal for an American nuclear umbrella for Israel was ridiculous and lacked credibility. “Who will convince the citizen in Kansas that the U.S. needs to get mixed up in a nuclear war because Haifa was bombed? And what is the point of an American response, after Israel’s cities are destroyed in an Iranian nuclear strike?”

  19. FSB

    I like the idea of a nuclear umbrella to Iran from China or Russia. Iran is weaponizing (most likely) because it feels threatened by Israel and U.S.