Faced with the possibility of United Nations sanctions, in late 2003 Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program and allow nuclear inspections. A few weeks later, Libya renounced its WMD aspirations and began to provide information to U.S., British and U.N. officials about its suppliers. Arms control specialists say the outlook for a nuclear-free Middle East is much better than it was one year ago. But as VOA’s Serena Parker reports, complicating matters is a double-standard in the region: Israel’s possession of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
While noting that much work remains to be done, arms control analysts say the outlook for curbing weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East is much better than it was a year ago. In Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi surprised the world when he announced his country would give up its nuclear weapons ambitions and reveal its WMD programs. Iran, faced with the possibility of U.N. sanctions, agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program and allow short-notice inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
However, implementing Libya’s disarmament decision and persuading Iran’s government to abandon its nuclear weapons program permanently may be complicated by what is considered a double-standard in the region: Israel’s possession of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Robert Einhorn, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation, says that in the past Iran and the Arab nations have expressed their disdain for this double standard. We can expect more of that in the future.
“Now in the period ahead, Israel can clearly expect to become the focus of increased attention,” he says. “Already Libya, Syria and Egypt have raised the question of a double standard in the Middle East, and they have urged Israel to relinquish its nuclear weapons capability.”
Defense analysts say it’s unrealistic to expect Israel to do very much at the present time. While the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and the end of Libya’s WMD programs are comforting to Israel, Iran remains an issue.
Avner Cohen is a senior research fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and author of the book Israel and the Bomb. He says as long as Israelis regard Iran as a basic threat to their survival, they will be reluctant to surrender what they see as an ultimate guarantor of their security.
“The nuclear weapons issue deals with an existential sense of security,” he says. “There are still states in the Middle East, particularly Iran but also Syria, that see themselves in a state of conflict with Israel. There are still groups who have avowed to pursue the destruction of Israel. As long as that kind of situation continues, I do not expect to see Israel giving up that kind of national insurance policy, especially given Israel’s history and Jewish history itself -- the Holocaust.”
Israel has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons. However, few doubt that it indeed possesses such an arsenal. The Federation of American Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group, estimates Israel has 200 nuclear warheads, making it the world’s fifth largest nuclear power. Israel also possesses chemical and biological weapons, according to a U.S. government report.
Avner Cohen says Israel’s nuclear weapons are a deeply ingrained national security policy. No government at the present time would be willing to give them up. The Israeli public wouldn’t stand for it. But he believes Israel should acknowledge its nuclear program and abandon its other non-conventional weapons.
“It wouldn’t completely resolve the issue, but it would make the issue easier,” he says. “So I would like to see Israel come clean, but coming clean doesn’t mean giving up all those weapons. On the question as to whether Israel can take some steps on the issue of chemical or biological weapons, I published a piece in which I called for Israel to consider ratification of the chemical weapons convention. Israel has signed it but not ratified it. And on the biological weapons convention, which is largely symbolic, I think the time has come for Israel to put itself on the right side of this issue and to sign the biological weapons convention.”
Other defense analysts are less certain Israel would follow such a course. Al Venter is Middle East correspondent for Jane’s International Defense Review and author of a forthcoming book The Iraqi War Debrief: Why Saddam Hussein Was Toppled. He says as long as Israel is at war with its neighbors, there can be no progress.
“Israel has, in the proverbial sense, its back to the wall and it is facing annihilation if it weakens in any sphere,” he says. “I am not a protagonist of Israeli militarism, and I don’t like a lot of what is going on in Israel today, but by the same token it’s a survival game. They’re not going to give up anything they don’t have to.”
And if Israel refuses to budge, will Iran’s hard-liners be willing to give up their nuclear program? Al Venter doesn’t think so. Iran’s decision to allow U.N. inspections reminds him of the way Saddam Hussein would invite inspectors one day and order them out the next. The danger, he says, is that Iran’s nuclear program is far more advanced than Saddam Hussein’s.
“Iran will have a nuclear weapon in the not too distant future,” he says. “A lot of fissile material has disappeared from the former Soviet Union. Those instances where the West has uncovered, or even the Turks have uncovered clandestine shipments, are the ones that are caught. There are a hell of a lot more that aren’t caught. And we have no idea how far ahead the Iranians are. They’ve been working now for some years. Their nuclear program, we discovered the other day, is 18 years old. And they’ve had the help of all sorts of people. So Iran could very well have an atom bomb within the next three years, personally, I think sooner.”
Mr. Venter says Iran’s first nuclear test bomb will change the balance of power in the Middle East. In turn, this might prompt an Israeli military strike like the one that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation Robert Einhorn agrees that Iran presents more of a challenge than Libya or others in the region. Still, that doesn’t mean the United States should avoid dealing with Iran. Mr. Einhorn says that with proper diplomacy it may be possible to convince Iran’s leaders that nuclear weapons are not in their national interests.
“The key to bringing them to this conclusion is for the United States, Europe and Russia to stick together and to confront Iran with a very stark choice,” he says. “Iran can be a pariah with nuclear weapons or it can abandon its ambitions to get nuclear weapons and become a politically and economically well-integrated member of the international community.”
Robert Einhorn says Iran’s principal motivation is security, with particular concerns about U.S. threats to its theocratic regime. Until U.S.-Iranian relations improve he doesn’t expect much progress on curtailing Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Given the complications, analysts don’t expect the Middle East to become a nuclear free zone anytime soon. Considering the rivalries and hostilities, the region then remains a very dangerous zone.