In a much-publicized report this week, the Brookings Institution recommends that the United States extend to Israel a nuclear “shield” that would guarantee US nuclear retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack on its ally Israel. Most everyone I’ve talked to agrees that this argument makes little or no sense, which is surprising coming from an esteemed think tank like Brookings.
Israel already has its own nuclear arsenal of 100-200 weapons, with sufficient second-strike capabilities to protect its interests from any foe. Plus, it is already well understood that the US will take any and all measures necessary to ensure the survival of its closest ally in the region, Israel. So what does a US nuclear umbrella give to Israel’s strategic position that it doesn’t already have? At best, nothing. At worst, such a policy would lead to an unnecessary US involvement in nuclear war in the Middle East. Sound promising?
Furthermore, as two very bright arms control experts argue, such a move would be hugely damaging to the US politically with all the Arab states in the region. From Jeffrey Lewis’ Arms Control Wonk:
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 Muslim country cooperation on Iran, Syria, fuel cycle reform, robust export controls, and other key nonproliferation priorities.
With a relatively glib assessment, here is Peter Juul’s conclusion of where things stand:
In sum, a U.S. nuclear guarantee to Israel makes little strategic sense. It would not help Israel, and could harm the United States politically in the region. Israel will likely maintain nuclear superiority over Iran for the foreseeable future, enabling it to hold both Iran’s population centers hostage to a retaliatory strike and its nuclear forces hostage to a first strike. This capability likely creates an incentive for Iran to use its nuclear forces first or lose them altogether, leading to an unstable nuclear relationship between Israel and Iran. A U.S. nuclear guarantee to Israel does not fundamentally alter this situation.
I agree with the last part, but not necessarily with the premise that an eventual Iranian nuclear weapon would be a “use it or lose it” scenario. In fact, I think it would be relatively easy to contain a nuclear Iran, just as we are currently doing with North Korea. Obviously, though, this remains a hypothetical since I firmly believe that the US and its allies can negotiate a way to guarantee that Iran’s nuclear program remains for peaceful purposes and that Iran can be convinced to forgo developing a nuclear weapon (see the Pickering Plan).Back to top