By Yousef Munayyer
April 9, 2009
It was nearly 25 years ago when Israeli nuclear scientist Mordechai Vanunu exposed his nation’s secret nuclear weapons program to the world through The Sunday Times of London. Now, days before he is due to be released from captivity in Israel, an American president dared to envision a world free of nuclear weapons. In the Middle East, however, things seem to be heading in the opposite direction.
While the Israelis have stuck to a strategy of nuclear ambiguity, neither confirming or denying possession of nuclear weapons, experts around the globe estimate the Israeli stockpile to be in the range of 70 to 300 nuclear warheads, reports the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Israelis have also taken pre-emptive and provocative steps to ensure nuclear dominance in the region by carrying out attacks in Iraq and Syria.
Despite the fact that the Israeli nuclear capability has contributed to the end of conventional interstate war in the region, animosity remains steady as battlefields shift. Increased asymmetrical warfare is on the rise and although Israel remains conventionally superior to its non-state enemies in the region, it has failed in eliminating the threats they pose.
Iran also continues to test Western patience by perpetuating its nuclear program. While Iran claims its nuclear program is peaceful, policymakers here often suspect otherwise.
The Middle East has enough problems and certainly does not need another, deadlier, weapons race. But an Iran-centric non-proliferation policy is myopic and dangerous and will likely lead the region into further destabilizing conflict.
A better approach is reviving an effort for a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction. Recalled in UN Security Council Resolution 687, the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East would go a great distance toward providing security for states in the region and re-establishing faith in the international legal system.
To do this, the international community, led by the United States, would have to put equal pressure on Iran and Israel to open their facilities for full inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency and dismantle all nuclear weapons programs and eliminate all stockpiles.
This will not be easy for Israel to accept considering its history in the region and the solid track record of deterrence its weapons program has had with surrounding states.
However, these concerns can be allayed by strong security guarantees by the United States to retaliate against any state that launches a nuclear attack against Israel. A nuclear attack on Israel by a Muslim majority state is also deterred by the significant, and larger, number of Muslim kin who would be killed in such an attack.
This policy would have to go hand in hand with a resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which has in recent years become a proxy battleground for the United States and Iran and has only resulted in the unnecessary deaths of countless innocents.
The alternatives to a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East are grim. It is unlikely that sanctions will halt a hurting but sustainable oil-exporting Iran, and military options cannot guarantee the desired outcome without the likelihood of ground operations or regional conflagration.
Eight years of disastrous U.S. foreign policy has contributed to the rise of a defensive Iran, the realignment of states in the Middle East, a perpetuated Israeli/Palestinian conflict and an increase in asymmetrical war throughout the region. The U.S. has a responsibility and a major national security and economic stake in setting the Middle East on a different course.
If President Barack Obama envisions a world free of nuclear weapons, he can begin by evenhandedly enforcing non-proliferation policy in the Middle East with Iran and Israel. Obama will get much further with this strategy than an Iran-only approach, which comes off to Middle Easterners as hypocritical, hegemonic and deceitful.