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Reader riposte: More on a N-free Middle East

21 December 2012 09:26

Tzvi Fleischer goes another round in our debate about a nuclear-free Middle East:

I thank Sam Roggeveen for his thoughtful reply to my points, responding in turn to his original post, but I believe he elides my most important point: lack of faith in compliance with a 'regional agreement banning all nuclear weapons.'

He admits that players will cheat but does not follow through on the implications of this, which could be an Iran (or other existentially hostile power) with nuclear weapons, and Israel without even the fallback of an ability to attempt to deter a nuclear strike. Iran and other hostile players can cheat on a non-nuclear commitment, even 'an IAEA-monitored regional agreement banning all nuclear weapons.' History with respect to Iran, Syria, Iran, Libya and North Korea clearly show that the IAEA offers no guarantee against such cheating.

Israel, a country much smaller and more open to media scrutiny than its hostile neighbours, would have a great deal of difficulty in cheating. In other words, Israel would be pledging to effectively give up any nuclear deterrence forever, without any expectation that Iran and other hostile neighbours would reliably do the same.

Against a situation where there is 'a nuclear stand-off between Iran and Israel at which either could destroy the other at a moment's notice', you are positing a situation where Israel, at some time in the future, will likely face a situation where a hostile power can 'destroy Israel at a moment's notice', with Israel having very little ability to do anything about it. In this situation, the former, bad as it is, clearly is not 'the lesser of two evils', even if you are unsure, as I am, whether Iran can reliably be deterred over the long term.

While some analysts may argue that Israel can rely on an American 'nuclear umbrella' to protect them in the case of cheating, Israel's decision-makers will be extremely reluctant to place themselves forever at the mercy of Washington in any existential crisis. Furthermore, the same people who argue for a nuclear-free Middle East generally link this idea to global nuclear disarmament (including Roggeveen, who mentioned the idea in the context of calls for a global nuclear zero put forward by certain global statesmen). In other words, the plan is actually that there will soon be no American nuclear umbrella for Israel to rely on.

Moreover, the danger to Israel of facing a nuclear enemy without its own deterrence is not confined to simply an unprovoked nuclear strike. Such a power, behind its nuclear shield, could effectively attempt to harass Israel to death through conventional attrition and terrorist means, without Israel being able to effectively respond, sending much of the population fleeing, and destroying the economy, the basis of Israel's conventional superiority. This is openly canvassed among the radicals in the Middle East as their preferred method of achieving Israel's destruction through what has been called the Muqawama ('resistance') doctrine, originally articulated mainly by Iran's client Hezbollah, then by Iran itself but since adopted by most of the more radical forces across the Middle East (here's an example from Egypt). Iranian leaders openly boast that this strategy will lead to Israel's collapse.

At the moment this claim is a fantasy. Backed by a nuclear-armed power able to operate with impunity, including by firing long range weapons, it probably would cease to be one. And a US nuclear umbrella, even if Israel was prepared to rely on one and there was one available, would not be useful against this use of unilateral nuclear weapons capabilities as a shield for an all-out strategy of societal attrition, especially since America seems to be gradually reducing its conventional power in the region. And even if a post-disarmament Israel was prepared, perhaps out of desperation, to risk nuclear retaliation from a unilaterally nuclear Iran and use conventional weapons to retaliate, Israel's ability to hit back at Iran is very limited given the distances involved. Again, this gets worse if US power in the region fades, which seems to be the trend.

On Israel's need to deter potential chemical attack, I am aware that some analysts minimise the danger from chemical weapons, but the truth is that no one knows what the effect of large-scale sophisticated chemical weapons attacks on urban areas would be. The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s saw reasonably extensive use of relatively primitive CW agents and dispersal methods on the battlefield, especially by Iraq, but cities were not targeted (see this article for more complete discussion). Nonetheless, it has been convincingly argued by Robin Wright and others that CW use and the military successes they helped achieve for Iraq was an important factor in forcing Iran reluctantly to agree to end the war in 1988.

A ballistic missile barrage armed with advanced chemical weapons against Israel’s large cities (something Syria is certainly capable of and possibly Iran as well) could severely disrupt Israel's ability to respond in a military crisis, as well as kill, at the least, thousands. No, its not as existentially dangerous as a nuclear strike, but it is still something you would strongly like to deter. Furthermore, again, conventional deterrence would be limited against more distant enemies like Iran, which Israel's air force can hit only with difficulty, even if such a power does not have a nuclear shield.

I would also like to strongly disagree with Roggeveen's contention that '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.' This is not at all how Israeli military planners see the current moment (it perhaps describes the mid-1990s) and in my view, they are right to do so. Between rising Iranian power, and the rise of Sunni Islamists across the region, they view the peace treaties as desperately uncertain and a renewal of a re-united rejectionist front against Israel — in abeyance since 1973 — as more likely than ever. Meanwhile, Hamas is acquiring unprecedented international recognition and support from major Arab players, including Egypt and Turkey.

Roggeveen's argument that, as a matter of 'balancing risks', it might be the 'lesser of two evils' for Israel to call for a nuclear free Middle East might make sense if the Middle East looked like it was heading in the direction Roggeveen seems to be suggesting: more stable, more democratic, less prone to constant conflict, more regulated by stable treaty regimes, and one where Israel was just another actor, not one whose very existence is vehemently opposed by a majority of actors as well as majorities of the populations in most countries. In that case, the risks for Israel of future nuclear cheating by other actors would be greatly reduced.

Unfortunately, I do not see matters looking at all like they are moving in this direction at the moment, though of course I hope I am wrong.

Finally, can I say that I fully endorse the argument Roggeveen suggests, taking up a point implied by Rodger Shanahan, 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.' I think that is certainly the case. Iran's nuclear plans are primarily related to its own revisionist ambitions, particularly for the Gulf region, and sense of its rightful place in the world. Israel is but a tiny part of these, but one especially convenient as a means of building Arab support for Iran's power bloc.

I do not believe the sort of announcement Roggeveen wants Israel to make — 'declare in good faith that it would dismantle its nuclear arsenal if there was an IAEA-monitored regional agreement banning all nuclear weapons' — would have the slightest impact on Iran's nuclear calculations. Furthermore, I expect if Israel did make such an announcement, whatever happened with Iran, Jerusalem would be forever harassed at the UN and other world bodies to agree to a treaty the Arab states would propose which would force Israeli nuclear disarmament in exchange for essentially nothing on their part except a toothless paper pledge. And it would come under great American and European pressure to comply, given that Israel had publicly promised it would agree to such a deal. Moreover, Iran would claim a great victory, bolstering its claims to be the rising regional hegemon able to intimidate Israel into submission.

So contrary to Roggeveen's view that such a pledge would not 'be all that radical or risky', I view it as likely to achieve nothing on the Iranian nuclear front, but cost Israel dearly in exchange.

Finally, I would like to respond to the three points Rodger Shanahan made in taking issue with my previous post on Israel, Iran, and a nuclear-free Middle East, responding to Sam Roggeveen's challenge on the subject.

1. Shanahan is unhappy with my reference to 'cheating' as a worry for Israel in any future deal for a nuclear free Middle East. He says it is 'somewhat hypocritical to accuse other states of "cheating" by seeking to develop a nuclear capability in secret, given that this is what Israel itself did.' Unfortunately, this comment completely misses the point. My argument was not in any way a moral one, it was a strategic one. In fact, if anything, Shanahan's point actually strengthens my argument.

Sam Roggeveen seemed to simply assume that you could get an agreement that would guarantee that everyone in the Middle East would verifiably and completely eschew nuclear weapons. By implication, we would have to assume the same about chemical weapons. If you were an Israeli strategic planner — or for that matter one in Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Iraq or wherever — there is every reason in the world to question this assumption.

We know that many Middle Eastern countries have clandestinely built nuclear weapons programs; Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya are the ones I cited, but Shanahan is right to add Israel to the list. However, it is worth pointing out that Israel, like India and Pakistan, violated no international treaty in building its capabilities; they were never signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as the others I cited were. We also know that Mideast states have built chemical weapons capabilities despite being signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The cases I cited (though not Israel's) show that there is little reason to believe that treaty signatures guarantee that one's enemies will not build WMD, which greatly diminishes the attractiveness for regional leaders of any proposal to create 'complete nuclear disarmament in the Middle East.'

On chemical weapons, I agree with Shanahan that non-state actors would have difficulty weaponising them by themselves. However, these are already weaponised by numerous state actors, and these state actors are the primary suppliers of very extensive military hardware to non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah. Hezbollah units are actually reportedly under the direct control of Iranian military advisors, and the organisation has shown impressive capabilities in deploying and firing tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, some reasonably large and advanced. Their arsenal allegedly includes some Scud missiles, which Syria uses as one of its own chemical weapons delivery systems. I see no reason to doubt Hezbollah could use chemical warheads supplied by Iran or Syria, should the latter decide it is in their interests to supply them.

Hamas also has an extensive rocket infrastructure. Again, given access to ready-made chemical warheads, appropriate missiles and the chemicals to put in them, I see no reason to see why they could not use them. Al-Qaeda's various sub-branches might find this harder, but I suspect they would still find something highly unpleasant to do with chemical weapons if they got hold of them.

2. I agree with Shanahan that population and land are not the sole or even primary measures of underlying military power, which is why I stressed that a more equal conventional military balance was a future possibility based on an economic take-off in neighbouring countries. Nonetheless, all else being equal, a country with a larger population and land area will generally have greater underlying military potential than one with a smaller population and land area. Fortunately for Israel, up until now, all things have been far from equal. But over time, the natural trend is for things to equalise, and this is something an Israeli military strategist would have to take into account, as long as the large majority of Israel's neighbours remain in an actual or potential state of war with it.

3. Again, I agree that Turkey is a democracy, and change in Israeli-Turkish relations remains possible in the future, but I do not believe that it is accurate to say relations with Israel today are merely 'cool' or 'distant'. It is more accurate to say, as Turkey specialist Soner Cagaptay wrote, that Turkey has sought to 'become like the old Egypt under Nasser — positioning itself as the regional center of opposition to Israel', admittedly with less than complete success.

Turkey's government refers to Israel as a 'terrorist state', recently rejected any dialogue with Israel and has become a major financial backer of Hamas (see also here). Turkey has also called for UN sanctions on Israel, and last year proposed to send its warships to escort aid flotillas into Gaza, a move that could well have led to clashes with Israeli warships enforcing Israel's maritime blockade of Gaza. Another potential spark for future military conflict is the natural gas resources being developed near Cyprus.

Furthermore, I think there is good reason to believe that the AKP has largely succeeded in permanently transforming Turkish politics — see Soner Cagaptay or Israeli academic Barry Rubin, former editor of the journal Turkish Studies, on this — in a more Islamist and more Middle Eastern-oriented direction. While there will doubtless be ups and downs, most of the Israeli experts I consult and read believe the same, and do not expect a return to good relations with Turkey for the foreseeable future.

In any case, Turkey's future trajectory as such is not central to my argument. It is just one example of how Israel's much larger neighbours have the wherewithal to become militarily powerful enough to have the capability to present a genuine conventional threat, which Israel's strategic planners must be concerned about as long as they cannot be confident that these powers will lack the intention to attack Israel.

Finally, can I say that I wholeheartedly agree with Shanahan's point that it is unlikely that a nuclear Iran will lead to a stable Iran-Israel bipolar configuration, and that other players will quickly seek their own nuclear capabilities (the Saudis have strongly hinted they have arrangements in place to draw on Pakistani capabilities to get their own quick deterrent) leading to a much less stable and more dangerous multipolar arrangement.