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Israel Refuses To Talk About Nuclear Weapons…Again.

October 5, 2008

CNN has just posted a story about a meeting that just happened of 145 nations at the UN. This meeting was a general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA is the main regulatory agency in charge of global peaceful and weapons based atomic programs. After them, there is no internationally recognized organization to go in and check the nuclear status of countries like Iran. Without IAEA inspections, we just have to “take their word for it”. As has happened in years past, a grouping of Islamic nations has attempted to take Israel to task on the issue of atomic weapons. This has again brought up an interesting and commonly ignored aspect of Middle Eastern politics…what I will call the Middle Eastern Nuclear Arms Race (MENAR). Mostly because I think MENAR is fun to say.

To begin with, we need to know what nations in the Middle East possess nuclear weapons. The official answer is India and Pakistan. But there’s an officially unspoken side, too. This is not to suggest that India and Pakistan do not possess nuclear weapons. India began nuclear testing in 1974. Pakistan in 1998. Both have publicly acknowledged their programs, and demonstrated that they have a nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver it within a short range, and possibly more. What is more commonly unknown is the likely nuclear weapons stockpile of Israel. First, let’s look at what is publicly known about atomic weapons development in the Middle East.

Once India started nuclear testing in 1974, it was almost inevitable that Pakistan would follow. After all, the two have been rivals since their creation over 6 decades ago. Not ideal, but neither India nor Pakistan has ever shown much aggression outside of their own conflict with each other. India is on reasonably friendly terms with Israel, leaving Pakistan the only nation of the two which might pose a threat to. But even Jewish global analysis groups have determined that Pakistan’s lack of diplomacy with Israel stems from fear of creating internal tensions and increasing tensions with other Arab nations. There is a possible danger of nuclear technology from Pakistan getting into the hands of other, more dangerous nations. This is one of the many reasons it is important that the US maintain close ties with Pakistan. While it would be wonderful if Pakistan and India would mutually destroy their nukes, there is about as much likelihood of that as there is of the US and Russia destroying our arsenals. As such, the basic policy is to control the situation as much as possible through diplomacy.

The quest of other Arab nations to develop nuclear capability is also known. We know from IAEA inspections after the first gulf war that Iraq at one time had nuclear ambitions. It is now known that Syria had programs for nuclear development that have been at least somewhat destroyed. But Syria doesn’t seem to have gotten any further than attempting to enrich the fuel that would be needed to build a nuke. And Iraq didn’t get close to a bomb either. From everything we have found, they ceased development after the first gulf war, and weren’t beyond enrichment stages at that time. Then there is the unknown issue of Iran. We just don’t know what’s going on there. We know what it could be. But we can’t get in there to check.

But what of Israel? Publicly, Israel has no nuclear arms. Public tests have not been performed. What proof is there? To begin with, Jimmy Carter, the National Resources Defense Council, the Center for Defense Information, and even ousted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert  all say they exist. Even the USAF has published papers about the existence of Israels nuclear weapons. The truth is that Israel has been known to have a nuclear arsenal for years. However, for many reasons, the official policy has been to neither confirm nor deny whether the nukes exist. And the international community has accepted this. Israel’s official statement is that it will not be the first nation to “introduce” nuclear weapons to the Middle East. It could be argued that this has already been done, seeing as how India and Pakistan have publicly held tests and make no secret that they possess nukes. But let’s leave that argument by the wayside for the moment.

What are the possible reasons for not declaring nuclear status? Israel, India, and Pakistan are the only three nations that did not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, so they could not be held accountable for breaking it. For those who wonder about North Korea – North Korea reluctantly agreed to the treaty, broke it, and then withdrew from it. One main reason Israel maintains this “don’t ask, ’cause we won’t tell” policy on its nuclear arsenal is the United States policy towards nations that possess Weapons of Mass Destruction. If Israel announced to the world that it had nukes, the US would be put in a very sticky situation. Our official policy says that we will not give military aid to nations with WMDs. But, according to Israeli reports, the US is giving $2.42 billion in military aid to Israel in 2008. Since Israel is seen as the most important US ally in the Middle East, and Israel relies on US military aid to keep ahead of other nations in the region, it is pretty easy to see why no one wants to be forced to end this relationship. It is, in the view of many, part of what has helped maintain the shaky balance in the region thus far.

However, as usual, this causes me to ask a few questions. Since it is so widely known that Israel has a nuclear arsenal, can we fault other nations in the Middle East who are enemies of the state of Israel from wanting to amass their own nuclear arsenal? The widely held theory of nuclear strategy has always been, in its simplest form, that as long as opposing forces know each side has nuclear weapons, both sides will be extremely unlikely to use them. This is known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). For MAD to work, each side in a conflict has to have enough firepower to assure the destruction of the other. So, since Israel has nukes, aren’t the nuclear ambitions of Iran little more than an attempt to bring about the same balance in the region that fueled Soviet and US nuclear programs during the Cold War? It can be argued that the US never publicly said it would “wipe Russia off the map”. But, since MAD was the operating procedure of both sides, it can just as easily be argued that we simply aimed the gun without rattling the saber.

Maybe it’s time for all sides to sit down with the IAEA and, without fear of penalty, acknowledge the nuclear programs they have and turn them over to IAEA officials for proper dismantling. I know…meetings like that would mean sitting down with the leaders of a lot of nations who don’t like each other. And in order to get everyone to the table, it would probably have to be done without pre-conditions. But pre-conditions does not mean without an understanding that the mutual goal is to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. After all, does either side really want to enter into a world where there is mutually assured destruction of the Holy Land?

Maybe these are merely the thoughts of an idealist who has no real understanding of the deeper undercurrents of the situation. Or maybe, with a lot of behind the scenes work by a lot of lower level dignitaries, and the offering of quite a few “incentives” (as we all know, money talks), we can find a way to ensure a slightly less MAD world. Personally, I’d be happy to see the US spend $100 billion on incentives in a heart beat if it got all these nations to give up their nuclear arsenals and intentions. That, in my opinion, would do far more for the stability of the region and the security of the United States than any nation building we may ever undertake.

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