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Opinion

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.

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A regional denuclearization agreement is in Iran’s interest, as well. Even if it succeeds in building a nuclear bomb, Iran is unlikely to develop a nuclear arsenal even remotely on par with Israel’s. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear developments are exacerbating its political and economic isolation.

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But Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have staked their reputation on defiance in the face of American and Israeli pressure. They are too invested in the nuclear project to turn back without a significant achievement. A regional denuclearization agreement would relieve sanctions pressure and allow them to save face. They could argue to their constituencies (with a degree of truth) that they alone were able to force Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.

The practical obstacles to a deal are formidable, but not impossible. The level of distrust is such that both sides will be extremely reluctant to give up anything before being assured of the other side’s compliance.

Deeply affected by the legacy of the Holocaust and suspicions of the external world, Israel has always insisted on self-help – on developing and keeping capabilities to defend itself. This tendency would make it loath to destroy the arsenal it spent so much building without ironclad guarantees of verification.

One element that could alleviate Israeli fears of cheating would be an agreement to deposit its nuclear weapons in a third country instead of destroying them, to be released back to Israel in case Iran broke the rules.

The agreement could include, moreover, an American assurance to Israel to retaliate against any nuclear attack on Israel if that happened before Israel got its arsenal back. Such a promise would guarantee that Israel would not be vulnerable should Iran indeed defect. The agreement, moreover, would have to include an unfettered right of inspection in both countries to verify implementation.

A nuclear-free Middle East is the best compromise for the current conditions, and it is the strategically rational move to take for both Israel and Iran. A deal like this would require brave, outside-of-the-box thinking in the region – as well as leadership by outside actors. Those qualities may be in short supply, but the danger of the current standoff should encourage it.

Boaz Atzili is an assistant professor at the School of International Service of American University in Washington DC. He is the author of “Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict” (University of Chicago Press, 2012). 

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