Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:15 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:15 | SYDNEY

The case for a N-free Middle East


Sam Roggeveen


12 December 2012 15:51

Below is an omnibus reply to Stephen Walt, Tzvi Fleischer, Crispin Rovere and Rodger Shanahan, who responded to my argument that Israel would actually be more secure in a nuclear-free Middle East. Thanks to all of them for laying bare some of the unspoken assumptions behind my argument, though I'm not ready to admit they have found any important weaknesses.

Here's why. I'll begin with what I think is the most revealing statement made in those responses, by Tzvi Fleischer, who says he is 'much less sanguine than Roggeveen that deterrence would automatically work against the Iranian regime'.

That's perfectly understandable. I tend to think deterrence could work with Iran, which is a more rational power than many of its critics grant. But I'm not an Israeli, so I don't have a big stake in that judgment. I can understand why Israelis and their supporters are not prepared to take that chance with the survival of Israel, which is why they are determined to see that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons.

But if that's the over-riding policy aim, Israel should consider every option for achieving it. The sanctions regime has so far not worked, and experts tell us a military strike will only delay Iran's nuclear program, not stop it. So what's left? My argument is that regional denuclearisation is another obvious path, and would in fact enhance Israel's security. Yet no one is talking about it.

Let's get down to some specifics.

Tzvi Fleischer calls the threat of chemical weapons the 'most important' reason for Israel to retain its nuclear deterrent. But chemical weapons are nowhere near as potent as nuclear weapons; in fact, many experts argue that the omnibus term 'weapons of mass destruction', which includes chemical weapons, vastly overstates the lethality of chemical warfare (CW). Dr Christian Enemark, for instance, says 'chemical weapons are so lacking in destructive power that any comparison with nuclear weapons is risible.'

Treating chemical weapons as part of a broader class called WMD distorts policy.The use of CW can arguably be deterred with conventional weapons, which can be more lethal and militarily useful than CW, particularly in the hands of the formidable Israeli military.

Tzvi Fleischer also says a treaty banning nuclear weapons can never substitute for the security of Israel's nuclear weapons because countries cheat on such treaty commitments all the time. Indeed they do, as Iran's behaviour towards the IAEA amply demonstrates. But it's a question of balancing risks. No such treaty will be air tight, but if the alternative is a nuclear stand-off between Iran and Israel at which either could destroy the other at a moment's notice, then a treaty is surely the lesser of two evils, particularly if you believe, as Tzvi does, that Iran cannot be deterred.

My original post put a lot of weight on the fact that Israel has a huge conventional military advantage over its adversaries, and that a nuclear Iran would erode this advantage. Tzvi Fleischer and Crispin Rovere both see this as a weakness in my argument, with Tzvi pointing out that if any of those adversaries 'could achieve an economic "take-off", they could likely match or exceed Israel's conventional military might in the future.'

I fail to see why this logic cannot also be applied to nuclear weapons: an economic take-off could just as easily aid a nuclear program. In fact, Iran quite possibly is developing such weapons even without undergoing an economic take-off. If they actually field a small force of nuclear weapons, Israel would be at threat of complete physical destruction at a moment's notice, with the only consolation being that Israel has the means to strike back with its own nukes. At least if the contest is confined to conventional weapons, Israel could actually fight back rather than just avenge its own destruction.

And although the idea of an Arab economic take-off is plausible, we should not let the possible future blind us to the real present. As I have said before, Israel has arguably never been more secure, thanks not only to its peerless military forces but due to Arab social and economic stagnation, US military aid, Western removal of Saddam and Qadhafi, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and various regional peace agreements. Regional nuclear proliferation threatens to wipe out many of those gains, so Israel is better off living with the potential risks of a de-nuclearised region than the alternative.

The best argument against my proposal is one not explicitly mentioned yet, but which Rodger Shanahan alludes to. It is that Iran would not be assuaged by an Israeli offer of disarmament because Tehran has other ambitions such as regional hegemony and deterrence against the US (see Raoul Heinrichs' post from when I last raised this issue, and Hugh White's endorsement of it).

That's a difficult objection to overcome, and raises a whole host of issues relating particularly to US-Iran relations. But it's not something that needs to be confronted immediately, and contra Stephen Walt, who says Israel is unlikely to take the 'bold step' I propose, the initial Israeli step would not actually need to be all that radical or risky. Israel just needs to declare in good faith that it would dismantle its nuclear arsenal if there was an IAEA-monitored regional agreement banning all nuclear weapons. 

That announcement alone would provide a huge boost to diplomatic efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program, giving it a moral authority which it has hitherto lacked and doing away with at least some of the justifiable Iranian complaints of Western hypocrisy and double standards about nuclear weapons. It's worth a try, isn't it?

Photo of Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor courtesy of Wikipedia.