In the wake of the Syria compromise and news that President Obama has exchanged conciliatory letters with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, which may lead to talks on Iran's nuclear program, I have been interested to see two articles that look at the wider proliferation picture in the Middle East and draw attention to Israel's nuclear arsenal. Andrew Sullivan asks:
...if we are also about to go head-to-head with Iran over its nuclear program, how bizarre is it that Israel’s arsenal of nuclear warheads be completely ignored as well? After all, one of Iran’s strongest arguments for developing nuclear weapons is deterrence against Israel. If we could insist on Israel’s decommissioning of its nukes, wouldn’t our case be much, much stronger with Iran? And wouldn’t a successful outcome render Israel’s multiple nukes redundant?
And on James Fallows' blog, former senior State Department official William Polk writes:
...when Israel moved to acquire WMD in the 1960s, its conventional forces were already stronger than those of its Arab neighbors, but, in the Israeli calculus, only marginally so. Today they are very much stronger and, with American assistance, getting technically more advanced. But at least some of the Arab countries and Iran are moving toward sufficient technological skill and manufacturing capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. Others, like Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states may, potentially, be able to buy what they cannot now build. So, while possession of WMD once gave Israel security, sooner or later emphasis on WMD could be a source of insecurity. Feeling threatened by Israeli power, other states may accelerate their move to match it. And the only feasible or proximate means to do so is by acquiring WMD. In short, more countries could acquire the capacity to destroy Israel. So, while it maintains its overwhelming conventional military power, Israel would be wise to begin to consider some alternative to WMD, just as we have done vis-à-vis Russia.
Regular readers will recall that I have rehearsed similar arguments here on The Interpreter, and the last time we debated this topic, I came to the conclusion that, while nuclear disarmament was in Israel's interests, it won't be contemplated until Iran can be denuclearised (and in truth, probably not even then).
I tend to think (contra Sullivan) that Iran's motivation for moving towards nuclear weapons does not involve Israel (why now, when it hasn't been seen as necessary since Israel developed its arsenal in the 1960s?). But Tehran probably would like the ability to deter the US, which is understandable given the way America has used its power in the Middle East in the last ten years.
In that sense, the Obama Administration's Asia Pacific pivot is probably good news for Middle East nuclear disarmament. If Tehran can be convinced that the Obama Administration really has downgraded the Middle East as a foreign policy priority and that the US is pivoting towards the Asia Pacific, that should reduce Iranian anxieties and create better conditions for Iranian denuclearisation. In turn, that might encourage Israel to think again about its arsenal.