May 13, 2010

The Radioactive Elephant in the Room (UPDATED)

With the NPT review conference in New York and the international community increasingly focusing on Iran’s nuclear program, a variety of media sources have picked up on what other countries in the Middle East have been saying for decades.
“Israel’s nuclear arsenal stands like the radioactive elephant in the room,” blogger and journalist Khaled Diab told the BBC.
Israel today is widely believed to have between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads, but it has never declared them, signed on to the NPT, or opened its nuclear facilities to inspection. In turn, the United States has for the past 40 years looked the other way, pursuing a public policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity has been a major point of contention for many nations throughout the Middle East, including Iran. With the US and the international community directing their attention to the potential nuclear proliferation risk posed by Iran, Arab and Islamic states have increasingly raised their voices on the potential threat of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.
In connection with President Obama’s ambitious nuclear nonproliferation agenda, there has been renewed interest in the 1995 proposal of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Egypt has recently circulated a proposal to the NPT’s 189 signatories calling for a conference by 2011 with the participation of all Middle Eastern countries on ridding the entire region of nuclear weapons.
Israel’s nuclear arsenal is of course a sticky aspect that would have to be resolved in order to achieve this vision. For the first time, though, Israel’s nuclear arsenal is set to undergo review by the IAEA after having been voted onto its provisional agenda for the June 7 board meeting with the support of many Arab and Islamic states.
The response made by Israel as well as the US is that realistically there must first be peace with Israel’s neighbors and in the Middle East. At a time when Iran calls for the destruction of Israel, it makes sense that Israel views a peace agreement as a precondition for any discussions on its nuclear arsenal.
Last Wednesday, U.S. Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher told an audience of delegates and reporters that it was hard to imagine negotiating “any kind of free zone in the absence of a comprehensive peace plan that is running on a parallel track.”
Of course the question of whether peace in the Middle East is actually possible is an entirely different debate. What is interesting to note, however, is the interdependence between Iran and Israel on the possibility of disarmament in the region.
While it is obvious that Israel will not disarm with the threat of a nuclear Iran and calls for its destruction, the other side of the equation should not be wholly ignored.
Progress toward a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East would directly coincide with progress toward ensuring Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon itself.  In this respect, Israel has a huge role to play — and can actually be its own best friend in stemming the possibility of an Iranian bomb.
This of course is not to discount the very valid point that Israel has. Israel has no obligations to get rid of its nuclear program as it is not a member of the NPT and with calls for its destruction by its neighbors, among them Iran, a nuclear weapons program is likely seen as vital to its national security. Nonetheless, the international community, and Israel among them, should not overlook the role that the sole nuclear arsenal in the region plays in Iran’s calculations. One of Iran’s biggest motivations for possibly developing nuclear weapons is a military threat from Israel. Israel happens to have nuclear weapons. It’s as simple as that.
Update: For evidence of this theory being put in practice (albeit with Russia, rather than Israel), check out what Rose Gottemoeller said about the positive externalities of the new START Treaty on pressuring Iran.

While there is no “direct” link between the [arms reduction] treaty and the sanctions debate on Iran, Gottemoeller said that the boost in the US-Russian relationship helps other efforts in which the two countries are involved…
“Therefore there will be beneficial influence on issues of mutual concern. Certainly Iran is one of them.”

Thanks to our friends at Nukes of Hazard for catching this.

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