By Khaled Diab
5 May 2010
It is a welcome change that US President Barack Obama is not only committed to halting the spread of nuclear weapons but realises that non-proliferation begins at home. In contrast with his predecessor, George W Bush – whose administration tore up many of the treaties Washington signed on the subject and announced, in 2003, that the US would start developing a new generation of small ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons which could actually be used during battle – Obama has already signed a landmark nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
This treaty has peculiar counting rules and the United States does remain home to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and is the only country to have actually used atom bombs in warfare. Yet Washington’s renewed commitment to get its own house in order were behind the relative success of the Nuclear Security Summit earlier this month, which was attended by leaders from more than 47 countries.
Noticeably absent was Iran, which held its own alternative meeting on disarmament. Although this meeting highlighted the hypocrisy of the nuclear powers in their unwillingness to commit clearly to nuclear disarmament, the gathering did little to alleviate Western fears regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Though Tehran claims that its nuclear programme is exclusively for civilian use, the strident rhetoric of the regime, particularly towards Israel, has fuelled fears among some actors that Iran is clandestinely trying to build a bomb.
Israel’s leader was another noticeable absentee from Obama’s summit. The Israeli premier Binyamin Netanyahu had refused to attend citing fears that his country would be singled out for criticism by Arab and Muslim nations, especially Turkey and Egypt. In addition, Defence Minister Ehud Barak resisted renewed calls for Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is the only country in the Middle East that is not a signatory.
In the event, neither Egypt nor Turkey mentioned Israel, although the Saudi delegate did describe the Israeli nuclear arsenal as “a fundamental obstacle to achieving security and stability in the Middle East”.
And he has a point. Although Israel still maintains an official policy of ambiguity, experts estimate that the country acquired a nuclear capability shortly after its 1967 war and today possesses up to 200 nuclear warheads, putting it among the top six nuclear nations, just behind the UK.
Israel’s nuclear arsenal stands like the radioactive elephant in the room, hindering efforts to transform the potentially explosive Middle East into a nuclear weapons-free region, and provides its neighbours with a motive to acquire their own capabilities.
In fact, it’s not exactly rocket science figuring out that Israel’s nuclear arsenal makes the Middle East a more dangerous and explosive place – even Israel’s friends recognise this. For example, a 1963 CIA report predicted that a nuclear Israel would polarise and destabilise the region and would probably make “Israel’s policy with its neighbours … more, rather than less, tough”.
The report also touched on the attendant dangers, such as a possible Arab quest for their own “deterrent”. An example of this dynamic in action is Libya’s clandestine nuclear programme, which Tripoli agreed to dismantle in December 2003. As early as the 1970s, Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi expressed his desire to obtain a nuclear capability partly in order to counteract Israel’s.
And, as long as Israel holds on to its nuclear arsenal, the shadow of proliferation will not go away. For at least 30 years, Arab governments, as well as Iran, have been pushing for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. Of course, it cannot be dismissed that some governments are motivated by a lack of ability rather than principle, or may find the nuclear question a useful diplomatic tool against Israel.
Nevertheless, if Israel is concerned about a nuclear Iran, or the possibility that other regimes in the region will acquire the bomb, the best way it can avert this is to set in motion a virtuous circle by offering to phase out its nuclear arsenal and to sign up, along with all the other countries in the region, to a WMD-free Middle East Treaty, in return for cast-iron Iranian assurances under international supervision.
Towards this end, a pre-treaty regional platform – under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN, and possibly the EU and the US – could be set up to agree a transparent, consistent and fair mechanism for opening up the region’s nuclear facilities to impartial international supervision. This initiative would negotiate a timetable for the phasing out of the Israeli arsenal and any other suspect dual use programmes, while providing diplomatic and security support to assuage the fears of Israelis and other regional actors.
This article was written for the Common Ground News Service and was published on 29 April 2010.