Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 22:42 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 22:42 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: A Middle Eastern nuclear arms race


Sam Roggeveen


1 September 2008 15:04

Carl Ungerer writes (my response follows):

Watching Sam and Hugh debate the merits of nuclear disarmament in the Middle East reminds me of a conversation I had with senior Israeli defence officials in the summer of 2006, when the war with Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon was in full swing. In the face of Hezbollah’s growing rocket arsenal (supplied by Tehran) and the command and control systems (run by Damascus), Israeli commanders openly canvassed the possibility that Israel would one day need to declare its nuclear capability – in what one general called ‘the Jericho option’.

Notwithstanding Mordechai Vanunu’s efforts and the long-standing assumption that the reactor at Dimona is more than a power-generator, however, Israel has shown remarkable restraint in downplaying its nuclear weapons capability. Such restraint contradicts our understanding of traditional deterrence theory, in which the communication of capability is the foundation stone upon which any deterrence posture must rest. Tehran and Damascus know the risks, and therefore are toying with nuclear capabilities of their own. The resulting proliferation pressures in the Middle East are getting harder to contain.

The big strategic puzzle for the Middle East is not whether we can find a disarmament solution backed by US extended nuclear deterrence guarantees, but whether Iran and Syria can continue to be deterred by strategic ambiguity. The tipping point is approaching fast. And, as Ronald Reagan knew all too well, the only way to defeat bullies is to bring a bigger bat.

Carl, I'm with you until that last paragraph. It's surprising that both you and Hugh, after noting what a tragedy it would be for the Middle East to stage a nuclear arms race, then dismiss the possibility of progress on arms control. If my argument for Israeli disarmament was built on peacenik utopianism I could see your point, but I really think you can make a solid case that nuclear disarmamament is materially beneficial to all sides.

Oh well, that's realist pessimism for you, I suppose. Speaking of which, that reminds me of a line I once heard from the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who said the story of the modern Middle East could be either a Shakesperean tragedy or a Russian one. In the former, at the end of the last act everybody is lying dead on the stage; in the latter, everyone ends up unhappy and depressed, but alive. Let's hope all sides discover the Russian classics soon.