Israel, Iran and Nuclear Disambiguation

Israel’s deterrent policy of nuclear ambiguity is in the spotlight this week, as a result of remarks by Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller at a U.N. non-proliferation meeting, and this resulting Eli Lake article. Andrew Sullivan followed with a sincere post wondering about the logic behind the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Israel’s nuclear status, followed by a reader’s response linking it to U.S. law forbidding aid to a NPT non-signatory that acquires nuclear weapons.

Now, there’s no question that the legal issue raised by Sullivan’s reader is damning, as is the fundamental hypocrisy involved in holding Iran strictly accountable for its NPT obligations, while turning a blind eye to Israel’s flouting of the treaty. Indeed, that hypocrisy plays directly into Iran’s hands on the issue.

But there’s a regional element to Israel’s posture of nuclear ambiguity as well, and one that serves U.S. and global interests. Were Israel to admit to its nuclear capacity, it would put a great deal of public pressure on Arab states, and Iran, to develop their own deterrent. And as things stand, there are already a few Arab states that could probably achieve that sooner, rather than later.

This FAS post speculates that Algeria might just need a few years to assemble the elements of its nuclear know-how into a bomb, should it feel the need. Pakistan’s warheads are sometimes referred to as the Saudi Bomb, in acknowledgement of both who funded them and who might ultimately claim one or two of them against an IOU — again, should it feel the need. And in a case of meaning-laden coincidence, the IAEA has just reported finding traces of weapons-grade uranium in an Egyptian experimental reactor. It’s hard to imagine, at that point, that Turkey would stand idly by, given its regional ambitions.

Sullivan envisages a binary equation of regional deterrence, where an Iranian capacity balances an Israeli capacity, and rightly wonders why that wouldn’t prove as stable as the U.S.-USSR precedent. But should Israel declare its nuclear status, whether because the U.S. outs it or an Iranian bomb forces its hand, the result is very likely to be an inherently unstable, because generalized, regional nuclear architecture. The overlapping and volatile faultlines in today’s Middle East, combined with the short flight times needed for delivery — meaning everyone would be on constant hair-trigger alert — add up to a worst-case scenario.

Any sudden shift of U.S. policy here would be counterproductive. Engagement with Iran should not come at the price of assurances against weaponization. And pressure on Israel should not hastily undo a policy that, despite appearing absurd at first glance, has nonetheless functioned as planned for forty years.

The initial goals here should be an NPT-compliant Iran, and a regionally integrated Israel. End goals should be a regionally integrated Iran and an NPT-compliant Israel. Reversing the order on either is likely to accomplish neither.