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.
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.
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.
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).