Rajiv Sinha discusses the ways that two powers have shaped the nuclear situation in the middle east.
By the end of 1967, a state in the middle east had finally succeeded in its long, secret mission to create the ultimate weapon. That this roughly coincided with the Summer of Love is ironic to say the least, given that it created an existential threat to the region. The quantity of nuclear weapons that a country possesses is less important than the very fact of their existence, yet it says something that this particular country might by now have amassed one of the world’s largest collections of nuclear warheads. This sounds like the kind of unnecessary, bellicose activity that we have been taught to associate with our supposedly unpredictable enemies in the region. However, the country in question is our close ally, Israel.
The pursuance of nuclear weaponry is an aggressive act, despite also being a defensive one, and its clandestine nature in this instance complicates matters hugely. Some see this event as the point of emergence of the nuclear threat to the region, but this is not quite the full picture. In any case, finger-pointing is not helpful and the West should address Israel’s nuclear project as much as it does Iran’s.
To be clear, Israel’s motives for developing nuclear weapons were reasonable and justified – the country was surrounded by neighbours who either did not accept its statehood or actively opposed it. Interestingly, this did not include Iran, which maintained good relations with Israel until the 1979 Iranian revolution. Complications arise, however, due to Israel’s policy of strategic ambiguity. The fact that its nuclear status is officially unknown creates mystery, which may bring about mistrust, paranoia and difficulty with decision-making. Just as in interpersonal relations, those that shroud themselves in secrecy arouse suspicion. Multiply this up to the state level and the stakes are far higher.
Whilst many are aware of Israel’s nuclear status, the policy of ambiguity nonetheless signals potential danger, even if Israel actually harbours no bad intentions. It also sets a concerning precedent that the way to conduct nuclear operations is in secret. Having said that, it is rare for a state to enjoy the political protection that comes with having a powerful ally in the international scene, such as the US is to Israel. Still, in the coming decades of great power reformulation, nuclear weapons might multiply with global political shifts to produce a situation unimaginable today.
Given tentative relations in the region, it is impressive that Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly lasted so long. It is also astonishing that despite the numerous illegal acts committed along the way to the completion of its nuclear project – including theft, smuggling, bribery and black-market trading – it is not Israel whose motives and lack of clarity have elicited scrutiny but those of Iran. Some go further and even question the rationality of Iran’s leaders, distastefully and inaccurately labelling them “mad mullahs”. This is as far off the mark as it is bigoted. Indeed, many argue that Iran’s nuclear aspirations are quite reasonable.
Iran has been cast as a rogue state that threatens peace and order in its neighbourhood when its nuclear ambitions should really be seen as an attempt to correct an imbalance in power that was created around fifty years ago. A logical response to a threat is to level the playing field, thus deterring both sides from using mutually harmful weapons. Evidence to support this includes the fact that no two nuclear countries have ever gone to war with one another, despite a few close calls. Granted, nuclear weapons have not existed for long, but so far there seems to have been agreement that using them is not in anyone’s interests. I don’t see this changing any time soon. Policy influencers would do well to dust off their copies of the great Kenneth Waltz, author of publications such as The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better. Whilst a world without nuclear weapons is the ideal scenario, Waltz’s argument is that universal disarmament is highly unlikely and we should be open to more countries going nuclear so that fewer are left defenceless. One could even argue that disarmament will become more likely as nuclear weapons spread and lose the power of sparsity. It is unlikely than any country would give up a technological advantage, with all its offensive and defensive implications, until it is no longer an advantage. Therefore, counterintuitively, more nuclear weapons could lead to more peace and security.
Concerning the issue of dishonesty, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Iran ‘lied’ about its nuclear activity. This is remarkable given the secrecy of Israel’s own nuclear project. Perhaps Netanyahu’s problem is really with the Iranian development of nuclear weapons, but to avoid hypocrisy he focusses instead on their dishonesty. Yet this accusation is also hypocritical: as well as the Israeli state’s record, there is a string of legal issues surrounding Netanyahu himself. He has been investigated for fraud, breach of trust and bribery with significant evidence of his guilt, including testimony from close affiliates such as his former chief of staff.
Let me make clear that I am not extolling or vilifying anyone – more often than not there are no “good” or “bad” sides, there are simply competing interests. Iran has given cause for concern via its less-than-liberal internal state of affairs, support for “terrorist organisations” support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and such invective stances as pledging to “annihilate” Israel and questioning its right to exist.
History is a fundamental component of international affairs and must account for both sides of the story otherwise we risk needlessly escalating tension and conflict. My understanding of history tells me that Iran is not the unpredictable, irrational agent that many would have us believe, despite its belligerent rhetoric, and that the completion of its nuclear project is a necessary balancing of power in the region.