benjamin.joffe-walt.com (Link) - Benjamin Joffe-Walt (May 4, 2010)
Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity seems to be dying a slow death titled ‘nuclear free Middle East.’
On first glance, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday were rather innocuous.
Speaking to the month-long review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the pact meant to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, Clinton accused Iran of attempting “to evade accountability” regarding it’s nuclear program; pointed out that Iran was the “only country in this hall that has been found by the IAEA board of governors to be currently in noncompliance with its nuclear safeguards obligations”; and made a litany of heartwarming remarks about preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
But the ‘sea change’ comment, as some are calling it, came buried in the second part of the secretary’s speech:
“We support efforts to realize the goal of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East,” Clinton said. “We are prepared to support practical measures that will move the U.S. toward achieving that objective.”
The announcement was coupled with the revelation, first reported in The Guardian, that the U.S. and Russia have drafted an initiative to create a nuclear-free Middle East, with details to be worked out in a future regional conference.
Part of larger U.S. efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program, the initiative carries with it one tricky quandary: a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction would, by inference, involve the complete nuclear disarmament of a United States ally: Israel.
Arms experts believe that Israel has more than 200 ready-to-launch nuclear warheads, but for decades Israel has maintained a policy of nuclear ambiguity — neither confirming nor denying whether the country possesses nuclear weapons. Israel is the only country in the Middle East not to have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and, along with North Korea, Pakistan and India, is one of four nuclear countries outside the treaty.
Most Arab leaders have walked a tightrope regarding Israel’s nuclear arsenal, preferring to defer to Israel’s policy of ambiguity out of fear that public acknowledgement of Israeli nuclear weapons would force them into developing their own nuclear weapons programs, war, or both.
While the United States was never pleased about Israel’s nuclear arsenal, it too has adhered to Israel’s policy of deliberate ambiguity, avoiding a confrontation with the Jewish state over its nuclear status.
But that began changing last year, when in a preparatory meeting for this month’s conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller called on Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Gottemoeller said that “Universal adherence” to the Non-Proliferation treaty “remains a fundamental objective of the United States.” She specifically named India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea.
Over the ensuing months it became clear that the new U.S. approach was to promote “universal adherence” as a strategy towards curbing Iran’s nuclear program. American officials are understood to have discussed the idea of a nuclear free Middle East with Egypt, Israel, Turkey and leaders of the Arab League.
“The proposal for a nuclear weapons free zone has a reasonable course is actually not new,” Hans Blix, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and current chair of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, told The Media Line. “Arab states have always been concerned about the Israeli nuclear program and while that concern remains today, added to it is the concern in the region about Iran’s nuclear program.”
“So in a way this proposal has the advantage of not pointing at any one particular country, be it Iran, Israel or the many Arab nations that now want to develop nuclear programs,” he said. And “while Israel certainly regards its nuclear arsenal as a sort of life insurance policy, that life insurance policy may be less useful if other countries in the region also have nuclear weapons. It’s a long shot, but Israel might find it preferable for no one in the region have nuclear weapons than for everyone to have them.”
Dr Mustafa Alani, Director of Security and Defense Studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, said that while there has been a shift in the U.S. approach, it was unlikely to work.
“This administration is clearly sincere in their pursuit of nonproliferation and they realize that the question of Israel is major here,” he told The Media Line. “In a way regional cooperation with the U.S.’s nonproliferation efforts has become dependent upon the condition that Israel is part of the system.
“But actual disarmament is a long way away,” Dr Alani said. “The U.S. will try to convince Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but I don’t see it happening now. The conference will probably end with a compromise ‘calling on’ all parties to observe the principals of the treaty but without any action. That’s what we saw in 1995 and that’s what we’re going to see again here.”
American officials deny there has been a sea change in the U.S. approach to Israel’s nuclear ambiguity policy, but acknowledge a shift in tactics.
“It’s safe to say there’s been at least a small shift in some of the actions we’re taking,” a U.S. State Department official told The Media Line on the condition of anonymity. “But I wouldn’t be so bold as to say its a major change.”
“For a long time we have had a position that we think all nations should be party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and we work in different nations in different ways to get them into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” he said of the U.S. call for Israel to sign on to the treaty. “So it doesn’t seem much of a shift to be saying that we want all nations to be part of it. Obviously this is a consensus process so how far this might go remains to be seen.”
Senior Israeli officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to Israel’s policy of ambiguity regarding its nuclear program, argued it was important to frame Israel’s nuclear program and the country’s relationship with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, against a background of historical nuclear threats.
“If one looks at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the Middle East, one sees an extremely problematic track record,” said one source close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “There are a number of countries that have developed aggressive, military, nuclear programs under the auspices of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Libya, Iraq, Syria and now Iran. So before one talks about extending the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty we have to make sure that it works.”
Dr Eytan Gilboa, author of “The United States and Israel” and a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said the change in U.S. approach represents a significant strategic threat to Israel.
“As far as Israel is concerned this is very problematic,” he told The Media Line. “The fact that the U.S. is pushing this along with Egypt could threaten our vital national security at a time when relations with the U.S. are tense and the threat from Iran is becoming more and more serious every day.”
“Everyone knows that Israel has some nuclear capability,” said Dr Gilboa, a former director of International Studies at the National Defense College of the Israeli Defense Forces. “But the policy of ambiguity has helped in terms of preventing other countries in the Middle East from acquiring nuclear weapons. Countries like Egypt said, ‘well, we don’t know if Israel has nuclear weapons or not,’ so they were not forced to develop nuclear weapons… Now the new American position is going to be seen in the Arab world as another source of disagreement between Israel and the United States and may signal to them that they can exert more pressure on Israel to reveal what it has; join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; or even disarm.”
“You need these kinds of weapons if you don’t have real peace,” he continued. “If things get really bad, these kinds of weapons are the only things we would have to defend ourselves, and when you have Iran calling for the destruction of Israel the justification for keeping these weapons is even greater.”
“It’s of course very rational not to have nuclear weapons in the Middle East,” Dr Gilboa said. “So I understand where it comes from: a lot of good intentions, idealistic foreign policy that’s extremely naive. But rationality doesn’t work in the Middle East, and if the U.S. thinks that this is going to persuade Iran to abandon their nuclear program then they are really living in the world of Oz, in a complete illusion.”
“The question is not really what country has nuclear weapons or not, the question is who is holding it and for what purposes,” he concluded. “Israel is a responsible country. Israel has adopted a very cautious nuclear strategy and even under severe conditions during the Yom Kippur War Israel did not even think of using the ultimate weapons. But Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons to deter Israel; Iran develops nuclear weapons because it wants to dominate the entire Middle East and challenge the West. It has nothing to do with defense or deterrence.”
Iran maintains that as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it is entitled to develop a civilian nuclear program. But Western nations accuse Iran of flouting treaty requirements to disclose its nuclear activities and developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, charges Iran vigorously denies.
Regardless of Iran’s intentions, the Islamic republic seems to have mastered at least two of the three steps needed to effectively launch a nuclear weapon. The first step is developing a medium-range rocket capable of striking Israel and Arab nations allied with the West. The second step is to acquire highly enriched, weapons grade uranium, a process Iran has already begun at its Natanz nuclear facility. Iran’s progress on the final step — developing a warhead capable of being attached to the missile — remains unclear. Western governments believe Iran halted its warhead research program in 2003, but there is little consensus among intelligence agencies on the issue.
Gulf states, fearing the encroachment of Iranian power throughout the region, have urged Iran’s leadership to comply with international demands regarding the development of its nuclear program.
Israel, most directly threatened by a potential Iranian nuclear program, has been vociferous in calling for limiting negotiations with Iran and has refused to rule out taking unilateral military action against the country.