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Reader riposte: Middle East nuclear disarmament

7 December 2012 09:27

Dr Tzvi Fleischer, Editor of the Australia/Israel Review, writes:

In his post making the case for 'complete nuclear disarmament in the Middle East' and arguing that such a deal would be in Israel's interests, Sam Roggeveen asked readers to 'focus' on his 'logic and tell me where I'm wrong.' Here's my attempt to do so.

The basic error in Mr Roggeveen's logic is that it is based in a world of billiard ball states and perfectly enforceable treaties which has very little to do with the present day Middle East.

There are three basic reasons Israel would not be better off with 'complete nuclear disarmament in the Middle East' — at least, when talking about the Middle East as it is currently constituted.

1. Perhaps most importantly, Israel's nuclear capabilities are Israel's main deterrent against other non-nuclear forms of WMD, principally chemical weapons. And the Middle East is awash with these.

Readers may be aware that Syria's massive chemical weapons capabilities have been much in the news of late, out of fear that they could be employed in the civil war there. For some details about the program, which includes massive quantities of highly sophisticated agents, including ultra-deadly VX and large numbers of rockets and missiles capable of carrying a chemical warhead, see this report from The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

 Syria is far from the only country of concern. Iran also is believed to have an extensive chemical weapons program as well as the means to deliver it.

Iraq, of course, had a very large program (now presumably dismantled) and there were serious fears, both in Israel and aboard, that during the 1991 Gulf War, this would be deployed against Israel. In the end, of course, Saddam Hussein elected not to deploy these weapons and only fired conventional missiles at Israel. However, it can be argued that Israel's nuclear deterrence may have played a role in his decision not to do so.

Egypt also is believed to have chemical weapons, and Libya also is thought to still have had some when the Gaddafi regime fell last year. God only knows what has happened to those weapons now.

Iran and Syria have not fired chemical weapons against Israel, but it is easy to imagine scenarios, like the Gulf War, where it could happen unless Israel was in a position to credibly deter such attacks.

A summary of what is publicly known about the various programs believed to exist in various countries is available from the Arms Control Association.

Moreover, Israel's most significant enemies, Iran and Syria, have been supplying massive quantities of rockets and missiles to two terrorist organisations on Israel's borders: Hamas and Hezbollah. Neither have fired chemical weapons at Israel, or is known to have received such weapons from Iran or Syria; Israel's nuclear deterrence is likely to be a major reason why. Iran And Syria have been deterred from supplying such weapons out of fear that Israel might retaliate directly against the supplier.

Needless to say, the use of the chemical weapons in their rockets on a large scale by either Hamas or Hezbollah would massively increase the strategic threat they represent to Israel.

So it would make no sense for Israel to dispense with its nuclear deterrence unless chemical weapons were also verifiably banned from the region.

2. Now someone may point out that at various times it has been declared that the Middle East should be a region 'free of WMD'. That would solve Israel's chemical weapons concerns, wouldn't it?

Actually no, because Israel is, with good reason, concerned that most of its enemies will likely cheat. And history shows this is not that hard to do, as it has happened repeatedly in the Middle East. Major elements of the Iranian nuclear program — including both the Fordow and Natanz enrichment facilities — were built secretly and only exposed through opposition efforts. Similarly, Syria had a fairly advanced nuclear program centred on a plutonium-based nuclear reactor which absolutely no one in the West knew about at al-Kibar, until Israel found out about it through good spy work in 2007 (the New Yorker recently published the details) and destroyed the reactor in an air raid in September of that year. Then there is Libya; its program was much more advanced than anyone realised when Gaddafi decided to come in from the cold and agree to dismantle it in 2003.

And that's just nuclear work. Chemical weapons work is even easier to carry out secretly. If you look at the NTI database, it's clear that what is publicly known about regional chemical weapons stocks is very limited. Moreover, many countries, including Iran, are believed to have extensive programs despite ostensibly being signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and in disregard of the safeguards contained therein.

And then of course there is the danger of terrorist groups getting chemical weapons. With Libya still pretty chaotic and Syria even worse, who knows what such groups are picking up. And that's without even including the possibility of a state sponsor (or a faction within a state security apparatus) giving chemical weapons to a terrorist client.

In fact, the cheating problem is not limited to the Middle East. The noted American political scientist Amitai Etzioni recently pointed out that, in general, the nuclear zero goal is unrealistic because of the possibility of cheating. Etzioni writes that, in the event of a global ban, 'if any one nation hides a few nukes, it would lord over those who do live up to their disarming commitments'. This is doubly true in the Middle East, where transparency is mostly very limited, and where a record of cheating by regimes is well established.

3. Finally, I'd like to confront the claim that Israel does not need nukes because of its conventional superiority, or as Roggeveen argues, 'Israel has a formidable advantage in conventional weapons over its regional adversaries, so nuclear abolition would actually restore Israel's military advantage'. This is a view that takes insufficient account of the possibility that things could change in future in this respect. After all, Israel's neighbours have vastly greater populations and land masses than Israel. If any of them could achieve an economic 'take-off', they could likely match or exceed Israel's conventional military might in the future. One neighbour which looks like it could possibly head this way over the next decade or two is Turkey, given the huge economic growth there over the past decade. Moreover, the AKP regime there today has changed Turkey's long-standing friendly orientation to Israel to one of intense hostility over recent years, and there seems little sign of this hostile stance ending any time soon.

Furthermore, there is a strong case to be made that Israel's nuclear capability has contributed to Israel's conventional superiority. Israel has enjoyed what some strategic analysts call a 'forty-year truce' or 'forty-year peace' since 1973, the last time it had to fight a major war with a coalition of Arab conventional armies. As Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy put it in the New Republic recently:

Don't blame yourself if you didn't realize that the Middle East has enjoyed four decades of peace. But that is precisely what has transpired between Israel and Arab states since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. In its first twenty-five years of independence, Israel was characterized by multi-state war with intermittent bouts of unsuccessful diplomacy. Six Arab armies invaded Israel in 1948; Israel fought four Arab armies in June 1967; twelve Arab armies participated in the 1973 war. In the forty years since, Israel has fought no wars against an Arab state, and its history has been characterized by frequently successful diplomacy with intermittent bouts of terrorism and asymmetric war against non-state actors.

The difference between these two realities may not be great to the grieving mother, the widowed wife, or the orphaned child, but the difference is profound in strategic terms. For the past forty years, Israel knew no active state-to-state attack on any of its borders; its main local threats came from a guerrilla organization, Hezbollah, and from the intra-state challenge of rebellion, terrorism and insurrection known as the first and second uprisings (popularly known as 'intifadas').

Why did that strategic change occur in Israel's threat environment after 1973? Well, at base, because the Arab states finally came to the conclusion that conventional war against Israel was futile, and had no chance of achieving anything. Why? Part of the answer is because they had been beaten repeatedly, and because Israel did have a superior conventional army. But arguably, a clinching consideration was that, even if the Arab states could get the better of Israel on the conventional battlefield, Israel still had its nuclear 'last resort' to fall back on. Otherwise, some regional leaders might have simply concluded that they needed to continue their efforts to improve their collective conventional capabilities until they could match Israel.

As a result of the decision taken after 1973, Arab states have stopped trying to match Israel in conventional capabilities, so Israel has never had a problem maintaining its qualitative edge. Take away the nuclear 'last resort' and these calculations might change, and lead to efforts that might genuinely erode Israel's conventional superiority. Satloff, in the article noted above, suggests it is already changing, given the recent changes in the Middle East.

In conclusion, an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would be a terrible result for Israel. I am much less sanguine than Roggeveen that deterrence would automatically work against the Iranian regime, and even if it does, the strategic consequences would be awful in other ways, in terms of an emboldened and invulnerable Iran, the local revisionist power, gaining vast regional influence, and being seen as the wave of the future across the region, and in terms of the likely proliferation of nuclear capabilities to other places. However, if the only choices are MAD with Iran and any plan for 'complete nuclear disarmament in the Middle East' that is achievable in the real, current Middle East, any sensible Israeli leader would, reluctantly but inevitably, have to choose the former.

If things changed — if there could be confidence that there was no cheating on either nuclear or chemical weapons, or if Israel could feel it was not going to be the main target for any cheating that did occur — then yes, it might make sense to agree to such a deal. But that is just what Israeli leaders have always said: they are prepared to discuss nuclear disarmament only in the context of a comprehensive peace with all of Israel's neighbours. In other words, when we have a different sort of Middle East than the one we have now.