A Not So New Nuke Race in the Middle East
The Iran nuclear deal sparked an intense debate among experts, commentators, and U.S. officials about whether such a deal will ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The argument suggests that the nuclear deal essentially green-lights an Iranian nuclear bomb, and that the emergence of a regional power with a nuclear weapon—particularly a Shia power in a Sunni dominated region—will prompt other regional powers to pursue nuclear weapons. While there is merit to this line of thinking, it is narrow-minded when considering the nuclear history of the region. A Middle Eastern nuclear arms race isn’t starting; it has been going on for the last fifty years.
In some ways, the nuclear history of Middle East began during the Cold War. The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stationed their nuclear weapons in Turkey due to the short flight time to the U.S.S.R. The first Middle Eastern state to acquire a nuclear weapon for itself, however, wasn’t a dictatorship run by a mustachioed Arab autocrat or a Muslim theocracy run by a wide-eyed cleric. It was the Jewish state of Israel. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, launched its nuclear weapons program in the 1950s, believing that nuclear technology would prove the ultimate defense for Israel in its war against the Arab states. By the advent of the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel had constructed three crude nuclear bombs, unofficially becoming the first nuclear power in the Middle East.
Since then, Israel’s nuclear program has evolved. By the Yom Kippur War, Israel was equipped with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. With this new arsenal, Israel adopted a new philosophy known as “nuclear opacity,” meaning that the country wouldn’t incorporate its new capability with military and political doctrine and most importantly, it wouldn’t directly acknowledge the existence of its nuclear capabilities.
That however, mattered little to neighboring states, such as Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Syria and Iraq’s programs were stalled by war (the Syrian Civil War and the First Gulf War) and precision airstrikes launched by Israel in 2007 and 1981, respectively. Mu’ammar Qadhafi dismantled Libya’s nuclear weapons program in a diplomatic deal brokered with the West. Of utmost importance is that each weapons program shared one commonality: they were launched in the late 1960s and early 1970s shortly after Israel gained its nuclear capability.
There are many reasons why the Arab states sought nuclear weapons. The Assad regimes desired to cement their hold on power. Qadhafi sought international sovereignty from outside influence that is associated with leading a nuclear-armed state. Saddam Hussein wanted nuclear weapons as deterrence against Iran. Saddam privately explained to his military advisors that the goal of Iraq’s nuclear program was to neutralize the threat of an Israeli nuclear response to another Arab offensive. In 1996, Qadhafi escalated further and stated publicly that Arab states should develop nuclear weapons for the same reason. With Syria, Libya, and Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs disabled, Iran stood as the only adversarial Middle Eastern state with the potential to challenge Israel on the nuclear stage.
Iran’s nuclear weapons program has now effectively been frozen. The previous (conservative) Defense Minister of Israel Moshe Ya’alon said as much recently. If you don’t believe him, believe the fact that Iran’s centrifuges have been reduced by two-thirds, its uranium stockpile has been reduced by 98 percent, and each nuclear facility is now monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Gulf states may have anxieties about Iran’s continued support for Shia militarization in the region, but the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has been nullified for the near future.
The risk that a Sunni power may misjudge Iran’s nuclear capabilities or the United States’ loyalty to its Arab allies and launch their own nuclear weapons program is a real concern, but it remains speculation for now. Sunni allies can and should be reassured of Washington’s resolve, but the fact that the Sunni-Shia conflict is heating up should not fool anyone into believing that the Arab-Israeli conflict has cooled down. This conflict’s proven track record of spurring nuclear aggression should only redouble the international community’s efforts to solve this conflict, especially now that the threat of a nuclear Iran has been neutralized. Put alternatively, having blocked one nuclear tumor from growing in the Middle Eastern body, the United States should attack the cancer at its source.
This should be done in two ways: first, by working to solve the root of the Middle Eastern nuclear arms race, the Arab-Israeli conflict; and second, by bringing Israel’s nuclear program in line with international norms. That the U.S.-led international community has virtually ignored Israel’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) fuels criticism of the United States as a biased enforcer and validates Arab leaders’ decisions to meet nuclear fire with fire. Moreover, while the peace process has been stalled in recent years, peace is not unattainable. Both sides understand that land and refugee resettlement will need to be traded for security assurances, yet they lack the political courage to sit down at the table and make concessions. The United States needs to apply a combination of pressure and cover in order to bring both sides back to the table while the two-state solution is still a viable option.
While it may be fashionable to express fear of an Iranian spurred nuclear arms race, policy-makers need to consider the reality that the region has been engulfed in a nuclear arms race for more than fifty years. That race, spurred by the Arab-Israeli conflict, has led to countless military actions and diplomatic crises in the past and will only lead to more in the future. Only by fairly applying international law and working to solve the underlying motivation for Israel’s decision to go nuclear can the Middle East end its longstanding arms race.