If Iran violates the deal taking shape with the world powers and insists on obtaining nuclear weapons, Israel’s response must be the opposite of its traditional line. Israel shouldn’t keep threatening to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities; this would produce short-term gains. Instead, it should warn that it will obstruct an Iranian nuclear monopoly in the Persian Gulf by helping Saudi Arabia obtain a nuclear capability.
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This runs contrary to the traditional approach, in which Israel fears a chain reaction of a nuclear Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia once Iran gets the bomb. It’s a nightmare for strategic planners in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (and Washington).
A different tack would aim to convince the Iranians that it’s better to forgo the bomb. Incentives so far have centered around economic sanctions (and the lifting of them). The Israeli and American threat of military action remains in place, but its operational and political credibility is a problem.
Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons, which arose during the shah’s regime, stemmed from a mix of motivations: the ethos of Iran as an ancient and proud regional power, prestige and a fear of falling behind in the race — not with Israel but with Iraq, the enemy next door that was pursuing a nuclear program. The first-ever assault on a nuclear facility (a failed assault) was a sortie of Iranian Phantom jets against the reactor on Baghdad’s outskirts in October 1980.
Nuclear weaponry comes into the world arithmetically. The Americans had it, so the Soviets needed it, and then the Chinese, who were afraid of the Soviets. But a nuclear China triggered a nuclear India, then a nuclear Pakistan. And if the Americans cooperate with the British, you can be sure France isn’t about to forgo a nuclear weapon.
The key question is when the nuclear club gets closed to new members. Any candidate wants to be the last one in and adopt the veterans’ opposition to new members.
That has remained the main argument for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty since it became a key effort of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and in the 45 years since its passage: closing admission to the club and keeping tabs on anyone forgoing the treaty’s rights and responsibilities — India, Pakistan and Israel. The treaty also envisions oversight of signatories trying to play tricks — Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and in the past South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa.
So far, regional nuclear arms races have been scuttled in two ways: through an agreement between two competitors of equal power (Brazil and Argentina) or through American guarantees to defend allies (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) against nuclear aggression (from North Korea or China). In addition, there is a general commitment to NATO members that have kindly eschewed nuclear weapons, notably Germany.
Without a reliable American nuclear umbrella, including defending the kingdom from the Iranian regional power, Saudi Arabia might go the complicated path of acquiring a nuclear weapon. There have been signs of this in recent years; it could buy a finished product, particularly from Pakistan. Israel would see this as a negative, but there are positives.
Israel, as an observer at the nonproliferation treaty’s review conference in New York, could announce that it will not let Iran have a nuclear monopoly (or duopoly with Israel, as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would have it). Instead, it could help the Saudis achieve parity.
In the process, Iran would have to reexamine the advantage of going nuclear. It would face a new choice. Its huge investments would be offset; it wouldn’t be the nuclear club's only member in the region.