Iran and Israel: Chain Reaction

To avert a nuclear showdown, Israel may need to give

In an official trip to Jerusalem this week, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency was able to have Israel reaffirm its willingness to eventually support regional talks aimed at turning the Middle East into a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Nonetheless, Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), delivered a starkly clear message to a nuclear-armed Israel: With more nations in the region trying to build or buy these weapons, and with a greater risk that international terrorists will obtain them, Israel's atomic arsenal serves less and less as a viable deterrent to its enemies.

What's more, an unexpected opportunity has opened up. Two Arab nations - Libya and Iraq - are currently being stripped of their nuclear-weapons capability, while Iran could face strong economic sanctions by Britain, France, and Germany if it doesn't give up its nuclear ambitions.

In other words, the region is ripe for diplomacy to create a nuke-free zone - if Israel, as the only nuclear power in the Middle East, would begin the long process of taking small, confidence-building steps that could eventually lead to putting those weapons on the table.

Understandable reluctance

Israel's reluctance to even acknowledge it has had such weapons for decades, let alone make the weapons negotiable for elimination, is understandable. While Israel's conventional forces could overwhelm any combination of Arab militaries, its "weapon of last resort" has long provided an added layer of security. This weapon also reduces Israel's reliance on the United States for security.

Israel also doesn't want to end its deliberate policy of ambiguity about whether it possesses such weapons. While Arab leaders know Israel has them, openly flaunting that fact might further rile anti-Israel passions on the Arab street.

Israel insists that creating a nuclear-free-zone can be achieved only in the context of lasting peace pacts with all its neighbors, including the Palestinians. Without strong guarantees safeguarding its existence, Israel doesn't want to give up its nuclear weapons.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reaffirmed that policy - first made at the 1991 Middle East peace talks in Madrid - to Mr. ElBaradei Thursday. The fact that an Israeli prime minister looked forward to such talks provided some hope for the IAEA's efforts to create a Middle East nuclear-free zone.

Israel is a member of the IAEA and a signatory to conventions on biological and chemical warfare, but it has not joined the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The problem for the IAEA is that it has little chance of persuading Iran to give up its weapons-grade nuclear capabilities without Israel doing so at the same time. "As long as you continue to have countries dangling a cigarette from their mouth, you cannot tell everybody not to smoke with a high degree of credibility," ElBaradei told journalists last month.

If Iran gets close to making a nuclear device within a couple years, as some experts predict, it could quickly destabilize the region. Saudi Arabia might go nuclear, or Israel could bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, as it did Iraq's in 1981.

IAEA needs some sort of real gesture from Israel that would encourage regional talks now before Iran gets any closer to making a bomb, and the region is put on the brink of proliferation, if not war. Israel could, for instance, freeze some operations at the Dimona nuclear facilities, if such a step doesn't jeopardize its security.

Also at stake in this debate is the NPT itself. If Iran, as an NPT member, flouts the treaty, it would join other nations that have ignored or left the pact, further unraveling attempts to prevent nuclear proliferation.

The US, after decades of looking the other way while Israel developed these weapons, needs to start showing Iran and others in the Middle East that it can be even-handed, asking both Iran and Israel to join talks that would lead them and other regional players to forgo nuclear defenses. Even as the US pushes its "road map" for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, it might find a way with the IAEA to open a parallel track of talks in the Middle East about nuclear weapons.

Without progress on this front, the US risks a nuclear device falling into the hands of Al Qaeda agents. For both Middle East and global security, talks on a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone should begin soon.

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