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Attack Iran or more sanctions? A third option: Israel and Iran forsake nukes

An attack on Iran and sanctions are both unworkable. A third option is to create a nuclear-free Middle East. Yes, it sounds far-fetched. But it actually meets the strategic needs of both Israel and Iran. One idea is to relocate Israel's nukes elsewhere, rather than destroy them.

By Boaz Atzili / March 9, 2012

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as President Barack Obama speaks during their meeting March 5 in the Oval Office. The two leaders need to consider a third option besides sanctions or a military strike: a nuclear-free Middle East, says commentator Boaz Atzili.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Washington

For half a century now, Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly has been its “Samson option,” the one weapon it can threaten to use if all else fails and Israel faces a real existential threat. As a scholar concentrating on the Middle East conflict, and also as a native of Israel, I am not comforted by the nuclear security blanket under which I was born.

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Now that this monopoly is facing an increasingly possible challenge from Iran, Israel should reconsider its nuclear supremacy – as far fetched as this may sound. The argument in favor of such a radical shift is not moral, but strategic. Israel may well be better off in a Middle East with no nuclear powers than in one with – potentially – several of them.

Iran, too, would have its own reasons to support such an arrangement. And a secure path to a “no nukes” zone may be found not in dismantling Israel’s arsenal, but in relocating it.

In the face of an apparently fast-advancing Iranian nuclear project, the two options mostly discussed are sanctions and military attack. Neither is very appealing. The first is unlikely to halt the Iranian program and the second will only postpone it temporarily while possibly creating a regional conflagration on a large scale. 

When Israel developed its own nuclear program, apparently in the late 1950s, it made much strategic sense. Israel was a small country, with very limited human and material resources, surrounded by hostile neighbors. Nuclear arms could provide the ultimate guarantee of security.

But Israel is no longer so vulnerable. True, much of the region is still hostile (despite peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan). Yet Israel  holds a profound conventional superiority over any potential rivals – a superiority that makes a nuclear-free Middle East a strong and effective second-best option after a nuclear monopoly.

Moreover, it’s unclear that Israel would sacrifice much in a nuclear-free Middle East. Its nuclear arsenal has not deterred Arab countries from launching conventional attacks against it (as in 1973) and it has not deterred asymmetric campaigns by nonstate actors.

The only role Israel’s nuclear arsenal may have played so far has been to deter attack from unconventional weapons, as in Iraq’s nonuse of chemical weapons against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. But Israel’s air superiority and precision weapons could do that just as well.

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