While widely recognized in antiwar circles and on the left, the issue of a nuclear weapons double standard in the Middle East is one of the least appreciated when it comes to the Iran nuclear debate. As President Obama curries favor with Israel and AIPAC, he is heaping punitive sanctions on the Iranian people and continuously issuing public threats of preventive war.
Iran’s crime? Well, it hasn’t committed one, even according to the leadership in both the U.S. and Israel. But they allege Iran is being intentionally opaque regarding the true intentions of its currently civilian nuclear program. This is what people see as a double standard: While Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has publicly pledged its opposition to nuclear weapons development, has subjected itself to thorough international inspections, and in fact has exactly zero nuclear weapons, Israel has done none of the above and has approximately 200 nuclear warheads. Iran is being severely punished and threatened with attack, Israel is supported with unparalleled economic, military, and diplomatic support.
It’s a classic double standard. Fear-mongers who warn against an Iranian nuclear weapon point to the fact that its an oppressive and aggressive regime and would not only use its possession of nuclear weapons to be a regional bully, but would spark a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East. But Israel, who militarily occupies and oppresses the Palestinian people and who has started several wars of late, can have nuclear weapons, need not sign any international agreements or subject itself to international regulation or inspections, etc.
Now, there is currently a consensus in the U.S. military and intelligence community on the status of the Iranian nuclear program. They assess and have held that Iran’s nuclear program is civilian in nature, that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons and has yet to demonstrate any intention of doing so. However, they also assess that Iran is continuing to develop its program to a point that would put them in the range of developing one rather quickly, should they choose to do so. Adm. Dennis Blair, Obama’s former director of national intelligence, told Congress in March 2009, “We judge in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities” but that Tehran “is keeping open the option to develop them.” While Iran is aiming to be “nuclear capable,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in February, “the intelligence does not show that they’ve made the decision to proceed with developing a nuclear weapon.” James Clapper, current director of national intelligence, and others have reiterated this conclusion. This is essentially a defensive posture on the part of Iran, an attempt to have a deterrent without actually having the deterrent. They don’t break their international obligations, but they signal to their adversaries (who consistently make public threats of overt military attack) that they can quickly develop nukes in the case that they are attacked.
But, as Micah Zenko pointed out yesterday, the double standard is even more glaring than this popular narrative suggests. The history of Israel’s development of nuclear weapons is strikingly parallel to Iran in 2012.
It took years, however, for the United States to verify that Israel had developed a nuclear weapon. This uncertainty persisted despite numerous U.S. inspections of the Dimona reactor—carefully stage-managed by the Israeli government to deceive the Kennedy and Johnson administrations—and assurances that Israel would not “introduce” nuclear weapons into the region. On May 1, 1967, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach wrote to President Johnson under the heading, “The Arab-Israeli Arms Race and Status of U.S. Arms Control Efforts:”
“Nuclear Weapons. Concerned that over the long run the Arabs will achieve superiority in conventional forces, Israel is carefully preserving its option to acquire sophisticated weapons, including, we believe, nuclear weapons. We have no evidence that Israel is actually making a bomb, but we believe Israel intends to keep itself in a position to do so at reasonably short notice should the need arise. The Israeli reactor at Dimona is capable of producing enough plutonium to make one or two bombs a year, but thus far our periodic inspections of this facility (most recently on April 22, 1967) have uncovered no evidence of weapons activity.”
If you replaced the words “Israel” with “Iran,” it would largely echo the recent findings of the U.S. intelligence community on the suspected Iranian nuclear weapons program. In a twist of historical irony, Iran’s contemporary playbook mirrors the one used by Israel to acquire a nuclear weapon in the 1950s and 1960s.
Even the intelligence assessments are the same. And as Zenko points out, President Obama warned last week that if Iran had a bomb, “It is almost certain that others in the region would feel compelled to get their own nuclear weapon, triggering an arms race in one of the world’s most volatile regions.” Zenko: “Concerns regarding a cascade of proliferation instigated by an Iranian nuclear weapon are as likely today as when Israel built the bomb forty-five years ago.”
Since the sole claim of Iran’s transgression is based on being slightly opaque (arguably) regarding their true intentions for their nuclear program, perhaps we should consider the reason for that opaqueness. Iran is operating out of a perception of threat, just as Israel was when it hid its weapons program from the U.S. in the 50s and 60s. If the U.S. and Israel stopped making public threats of attack, stopped their covert war on Iran, stopped employing economic warfare, might Iran’s defensive opaqueness begin to disappear? And if Israel, Iran’s main adversary, agreed to dismantling its vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons and to a deal enforcing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East – a deal Iran has repeatedly proposed – might Iran’s defense posture expire?
This is the simplest, most complete diplomatic strategy for peace in this conflict, which could threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people if it actually breaks out one day in the near future. But this peace will not be achieved because there is no political will to dissolve Israel’s nuclear double standard.