Lately one gets the impression that the process of the Middle East's transformation into a multinuclear region is inevitable and that it is just around the corner. There has been a proliferation of reports, some deliberately leaked and without any substance and others based on real and credible information, saying that apparently an increasing number of countries in the region are on the verge of acquiring nuclear capabilities. Two American researchers, James Goodby of the Brookings Institute and Kenneth Weisbrode of the Atlantic Council went so far as to claim in an article last week that it is not inconceivable to say that a Middle East with five or six nuclear powers, including Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria, will be reality in the first decades of the 21st century.
There are many intelligence experts and researchers in the West who would agree with the vision of that scenario. The large amount of information being published lately about Iran's nuclear plans, Libya's nuclear ambitions and the change in the Saudi regime's approach to the nuclear issue strengthens the sense that indeed something is happening in the Middle East. The process is inevitable and inexorable and it won't take long before Israel is faced with another few countries in the Middle East with nuclear capabilities.
However, a professional examination of the developments in the region shows that as opposed to the impression being created, the vision of horrifying proliferation is not necessarily going to happen and certainly not in the short term as predicted by Goodby, Weisbrode and their colleagues who share their views. Their approach is reminiscent of John Kennedy's, who upon taking up the presidency declared that within a decade and a half, 25 countries would have nuclear weapons. To prevent that danger, the president decided to act decisively against proliferation. Ultimately, the U.S. under Kennedy did not take energetic action against the development of nuclear weapons in other countries, except for the massive pressure on Ben-Gurion to announced the closing of the Dimona facility and an end to Israeli nuclear development. There was no need to do so, and 15 years later, only six countries had nuclear weapons, because all the others decided not to get into the adventure of developing a bomb or tried and failed.
More than four decades have passed since Kennedy was elected president and the number of nuclear powers has reached only eight, or nine, if North Korea did indeed manage to manufacture a bomb. Of course that does not mean the same rate of proliferation will prevail, and that Middle East countries won't undertake energetic efforts in the future to become equipped with nuclear weapons, as Iraq tried in the past and as Iran is now trying to do.
But it is important to emphasize that there is no need to panic because meanwhile, as opposed to the impression created by the media, the trend in the region is actually in the opposite direction. Iraq is out of the nuclear game. Egypt does not have any serious intent to develop nuclear weapons, and neither does Syria. Libya has been trying to acquire a bomb for decades, without any success at persuading potential sellers.
Even Iran is beginning to show signs of surrender to American and international pressure. That does not mean the Iranians have given up the dream of owning a nuclear weapon, but the very change in their hardline, provocative position on the issue is important. Success with Iran will lead to the dismantling of its nuclear program or at least to a significant delay in its completion, and will also lead to a reduced motivation in other countries in the region for acquiring nuclear arms.
That's precisely where the story of Saudi nuclear ambitions, the subject of extensive reportage lately, comes in. Last month a revolutionary position paper was discussed in Riyadh, in which, for the first time, there was reference to a Saudi nuclear option. The reason for the discussion was fear of the Iranian threat, which could turn into a nuclear threat. The Saudi document is very interesting but beyond any practical significance it may have, it is a signal from the royal family to the U.S. to act decisively to prevent Iran from turning into a nuclear power.
Three options are raised in the document: developing or buying a nuclear weapon as deterrence against Iran; creating an alliance with a nuclear power that would provide Saudi Arabia with a nuclear umbrella; and an attempt to reach a regional agreement for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Of all three alternatives, the most realistic is the second. And indeed, according to reports published after the leak of the existence of the Saudi document, the country being discussed as a possible nuclear ally is Pakistan.
However, even if such an agreement is signed, that won't turn Saudi Arabia into a nuclear threat against Israel. It is doubtful the Pakistanis will agree to place nuclear weapons on Saudi Arabian soil, and the chances are very low it will sell Saudi Arabia a nuclear weapon. The Saudi Arabians do not have the technological infrastructure necessary for developing a bomb, and therefore the chance that such a weapon will end up in their hands is very slim. In any case, it is difficult to see how the Saudi Arabians would give up their security alliance with the U.S. - which would certainly not be enthusiastic about any nuclear agreements between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - for an alliance with another country.
There's no doubt Israel must continue monitoring regional nuclear developments with concern but it should be done coolly, without exploiting the developments for unnecessary fear-mongering. It is especially important Israel avoid any steps that could foil the efforts led by the U.S. to prevent states in the region from acquiring nuclear weapons. But even if the U.S. efforts ultimately don't succeed, and another country in the region turns nuclear, it won't mean the end of Zionism. We will have to learn how to live with a nuclear threat, just as the citizens of the U.S., Soviet Union and Western Europe learned to live under its shadow for more than four decades.
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