Nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East: Why not now?

A new military showdown in the Middle East is horrendous to contemplate. Beyond the inevitable loss of life and human suffering, we could expect economic and political turmoil that would roil the region - and the world beyond, for months if not years. What could restrain rising gasoline prices when oil flows are disrupted? What would prevent the targeting of American troops and civilians in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq? Even worse, how could we be sure that nuclear weapons would not be used?

President Obama has made nuclear security a priority. The Washington Conference he chaired in 2010 and the recently-concluded Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul focused on the prevention of illegal trafficking of nuclear materials. North Korea’s recently announced plan to launch a missile in mid-April put denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula on the Seoul conference agenda.

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Yet the Middle East appears off the radar screen when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation. That is unfortunate, because a region militarily dominated by one nuclear armed state is inherently unstable. An example of that instability is the rising tension between Israel and Iran. When one power in a region acquires weapons of mass destruction, neighboring countries naturally seek to acquire the same capacity on the ground of national security.

To date, the Israel-Iran nuclear issue has been a one-way conversation. The unverified assumption that Iran is about to have nuclear bombs, has fueled a politico-media campaign in support of a preemptive strike.  At the recent AIPAC meeting in Washington, Republican senators and presidential candidates fell over themselves in calling for U.S. solidarity with Israel should it launch an attack. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell promised to introduce authorization for the use of “overwhelming military force” against Iran if American intelligence shows that Tehran has decided to build a nuclear weapon or has started to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level.

In his remarks to the pro-Israel gathering, President Obama stated his preference for diplomacy, but emphasized that he would “take no options off the table.”

Given the increasing Israeli and U.S. calls for a military response to Iranian threats and the country’s presumed weaponization, the legal limit of self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter is unlikely to restrain the parties. If economic sanctions and diplomacy fail to resolve the current impasse, we could soon find ourselves again on a slippery slope to war. 

An Israeli attack on Iran would galvanize regional support for Tehran and incite international condemnation of Israel. In a recent interview, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei said that Israel would be “totally crazy” to launch an attack against Iran. He said it would not deter Tehran from pursuing its nuclear energy program and that it would diminish Israeli security. He added: “There is a sense of insecurity in the Middle East. You need to engage in good faith and establish a Middle East free from weapons of mass destruction”.

So how to avoid a lose-lose outcome and turn a potential nuclear arms race into regional nuclear non-proliferation? Here is a proposed even-handed solution: Israel could offer to subject itself to full IAEA scrutiny if Iran would do likewise. For Iran, that just might be an offer it couldn’t refuse.

L. Michael Hager is the former Director General of the International Development Law Organization in Rome, Italy.