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Israel Rafalovich: A Nuclear Middle East

Analysis: A Nuclear Middle East

By Israel Rafalovich

(Washington) - Against the background of changes in the overall political setting of the Middle East it is important to focus on Israel's nuclear strategy as the former possibilities of the superpowers to control and fence in the conflicts in the Middle East have given way to new power structures.

A significant asymmetry has developed with respect to motivation and determination of some Middle East countries in comparison with Israel and its patron the United States.

During the United Nations conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT) in New York in May 2000, Israel did not take part in the conference and did not send even an observer. The United States prevented the conference from taking any measures against Israel and by doing so fulfilled its commitment to the understanding which was reached between Washington and Israel on the subject.

Over the years, it has become more difficult for the United States to bring its power of deterrence to bear in the Middle East. Despite close relations with the United States Israel is no longer a "bastion" against Soviet communism in the Middle East. Israel's role in context of American foreign policy in the Middle East regained significance in view of the fact that Russia now as a new patron for Iran, and Syria, is engaged in an effort to re-establish its power in the region.

One thing can be said with certainty: The structural transformation on the international scene has led to a clear reduction in Israel's deterrence power.

Modern weapons systems are easy to purchase as former limitations on the transfer of weapons and the needed technology. Apart from China and North Korea, Russia is the chief contact in this field. Motivated by economic and power-based interests, its arms and technology deals with Iran, for example, have contributed towards a renewed rise in the flow of highly sophisticated and strategically important technology to the Middle East.

The drawn conclusion in the Middle East after the Gulf War is that the acquisition of nuclear weapons in the future will confront the United States with a much more awkward situation than in the past. The proliferation of nuclear weapons will - above and beyond the far-reaching missiles already at the disposal of some Middle East countries - lead to new risks.

In view of its extensive and single-minded fostered nuclear program Iran is already in a position to attain the status of a nuclear power in the medium term. Iran had long since embarked on a good neighbor policy in the Gulf and Central Asia. There are different points of view on Iran's intentions regarding nuclear weapons.

Iran's nuclear program began under Shah in 1974, but was abruptly suspended following the Islamic revolution in 1978-1979. It was not until 1984 that Ayatollah Khomeini revived Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Only few experts doubt Iran's intention to develop a covert nuclear program. Iran has sought a nuclear capability as a strategic equalizer. For Iran the nuclear weapons serve an ambition greater than that of a relative deterrence.

With it Israel lost its monopoly on nuclear weapons, and it shouldn't be ruled out that Israel will find it self confronted with several nuclear powers in the Middle East.

The threat of an extension of the geographical limitations of future conflicts can hardly be averted through arms control measures. For Israel the risk of a renewed formation of a hostile coalition has declined since the beginning of the Middle East talks.

In the meantime, Syria's interest in peaceful arrangement has also grown, although the demanded Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights is a difficult problem and Syria's future behavior in the post-Assad era remains an open question. For Israel the loss of strategic depth would not increase its vulnerability with respect to non-conventional long-range missile attack.

The dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Israel's relative military superiority, affects the thinking of all the states in the region. Even without Israel, there are inter-Arab and regional rivalries that provide impetus for proliferation. In view of increasingly transformation of the situation in the Middle East it seems no longer expedient for Israel to stick to the "ambiguity" of its own choice regarding nuclear capabilities.

Israel has never acknowledged having nuclear weapons preferring to leave its nuclear capabilities undefined, although the fact of their existence is not in doubt. For years evidence has been pilling up pointing to a stockpile of nuclear arms, including missile-borne nuclear warheads and tactical bombs for the battlefield. Israel could have thus produced, according to European intelligence sources, enough plutonium for at least 100 nuclear weapons, but according to those sources not significantly more than 200 weapons.

If Israel's current nuclear and missile development plans will continue the unavoidable result will be that the countries in the region will re-evaluate their defense policies. Some will accelerate the existing development projects, and other will revive "forgotten" projects.

With respect to the expected loss of the monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East and the continuing of the peace process it will be difficult for Israel's strategic planners to ensure the action option regarded as necessary, including escalation dominance. If Israel joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT) and linked its expectations with respect to a absolute compliance with other agreements it would give higher priority to the diplomatic peace process.

A full Arab-Israeli peace agreement will rob Israel of its security arguments and the United States of its pretext for applying a policy of double standards. Israel is one of only four nations that have not signed the NPT which was designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and technology. There is every indication that the Israeli government will sustain its engagement for the peace process and at the same time, try to bring its nuclear strategy into accord with new challenges. Especially with respect to the possible political-psychological consequences of the peace process.

Israel will soon find itself in a situation where it has to decide, and this will happen in the near future, whether it openly uses its nuclear capacity as an instrument of threat. The objective of a total nuclear disarmament in the Middle East will not be achieved as long as it excludes Israel. As long as one other country has the potential to make and use nuclear weapons it makes no sense for any country to give up altogether its own nuclear capacity.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has given countries like Iran and Syria greater room to manoeuvre, which finds its expression in a reduced sensitivity towards conventional Israeli deterrence.


- Israel Rafalovich if a freelance European writer based in Washington D.C. He can be contacted at

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