Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 13:59 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 13:59 | SYDNEY

More Middle East nukes, or none?


Sam Roggeveen


5 December 2012 10:26

Andrew Sullivan agrees with Stephen Walt that an Iranian nuclear bomb would not be the disaster that many people suggest. Sullivan goes on to say that he's staggered that support for nuclear deterrence, once a mainstream position in the US, is now eschewed by both major parties in favour of the bipartisan policy of preventing Iran from getting the bomb.

I agree with Sullivan and Walt, but what is equally staggering is the almost total absence of argument for complete nuclear disarmament in the Middle East.

On its face, it's easy to see why mainstream political parties and commentators might not want to associate themselves with the kind of argument typically made by Greenpeace and the CND (though having said that, nuclear abolition is pretty mainstream these days; it doesn't get more establishment than Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn). But even if you're suspicious of the ideological case for abolition, consider the pragmatic and ruthlessly realist case for arguing that, if Israel is going to insist Iran not get the bomb, Israel too ought to abolish its deterrent. 

My logic is simple. With regard to Iran's nuclear program, Israel faces one of three possible futures:

  1. Israel has nuclear weapons but Iran does not.
  2. Both Israel and Iran have nuclear weapons.
  3. Neither Israel or Iran has nuclear weapons.

Which scenario is better for Israel's security?

Let's take them one by one. Scenario 1 describes the present situation and also Israel's preferred future, yet it is probably unsustainable. I say 'probably' because Iran may not want nuclear weapons at all or even a breakout capability (the capacity to build deliverable nuclear weapons at short notice), in which case scenario 1 will go on indefinitely.

But let's assume Iran does want nuclear weapons (or at least a breakout capability) and that it will eventually be able to build them. Experts seem to believe that even an Israeli military strike would only delay this eventuality, but cannot prevent it.

That leaves Israel with scenarios 2 and 3 to choose from, and it seems obvious to me that Israel would be more secure under scenario 3 than scenario 2, since it would mean Israel is no longer under immediate existential threat. What's more, Israel has a formidable advantage in conventional weapons over its regional adversaries, so nuclear abolition would actually restore Israel's military advantage, which would be compromised if Iran had the bomb. And an environment in which both Israel and Iran verifiably swore off nuclear weapons would be much more conducive to a regional treaty banishing all WMDs.

As always, I'm open to counter-arguments via blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org. This is a short post on a huge subject, but I tend to think better in response to interrogations rather than laying out all the arguments up front. So have at it, and I will respond. But don't focus too much on likelihood; I concede that for historical and political reasons Israel isn't likely to even consider surrendering its nukes in the foreseeable future. Focus instead on the logic and tell me where I'm wrong.