Loose Nukes

An arms race more unstable than the U.S.-USSR standoff during the cold war is fast becoming the reality in the Israel-Iran atomic confrontation.

One reason the United States and the Soviet Union were able to negotiate reductions in their nuclear-weapons arsenals during the cold war was because they first reached an agreement on the precise inventories of weapons they had deployed in their strategic nuclear forces. In other words, transparency was a necessary precondition to meaningful arms control.

The most dangerous arms race today is the nuclear standoff between Israel and Iran. Israel's formal policy is to deny it has nuclear weapons-the policy of "opacity." As recently as Sunday, August 15, Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was subjected to intense scrutiny on CNN by Fareed Zakaria. Oren continued to insist that Israel's position is that it "will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weaponry to the Middle East." Zakaria then followed up, "So you are denying that Israel has nuclear weapons?" Oren repeated that "Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weaponry." Zakaria: "When you say ‘introduce,' you mean ‘use'?" Oren: "I mean ‘introduce." These statements go against a wealth of evidence that Israel has, in fact, deployed a fully-fledged nuclear arsenal. The authoritative Military Balance, published annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, states in its 2008 edition that Israel's nuclear warheads number up to two hundred.

Likewise, Iran's leaders unceasingly insist that they are not interested in developing nuclear weapons. They argue nuclear weapons are anti-Islamic and immoral. However, they do insist they have an absolute right to develop nuclear technology for use in generating electricity. Yet anyone remotely familiar with Iran's nuclear activities knows that it has spared no effort to get the technology necessary to build a nuclear weapon, which could be fitted to its growing inventory of surface-to-surface missiles that can reach many targets in the Middle East, including Israel.

Why do both countries lie about their capabilities? In the case of Israel, the concern always has been that if they were to fess up to their nuclear program, it would be much more difficult for their Arab neighbors, especially Egypt, to continue to be members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and not develop nuclear weapons themselves. In Iran's case, since they are already fully-fledged members of the NPT, they cannot tell the truth about their nuclear-weapons program, for to do so would put them in violation of their NPT commitments and make it more difficult for Russia and China to avoid supporting UN Security Council sanctions against them.

Given the lack of transparency concerning both the Israeli and Iranian programs, it is difficult to have a dialogue about curbing nuclear proliferation and address the realistic security needs of the states of the region. Israel will never contemplate any serious discussion of its nuclear program until a new regime in Tehran emerges and an era of protracted and stable peace descends on the Middle East. Iran's leaders will never agree to a verifiable end of their nuclear program so long as they feel besieged and surrounded by countries who have nuclear arsenals, including the United States, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Israel. For this reason, it is unlikely that Tehran will ever agree to limits on its program that are acceptable to the United States, let alone Israel.

In the absence of a more honest dialogue about the nuclear challenges in the Middle East, the Obama administration will have to resort to a contain and deter strategy, which will require a more explicit enunciation of American nuclear policy, including actions the United States would take in the event Iran were to threaten, or in last resort, use nuclear weapons. This step may be necessary to prevent a preemptive Israeli attack, which although unlikely to succeed in ending the Iranian program, would certainly set it back while creating mayhem for everyone in the region.


Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.