Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Nuclear Differences Between Israel and Iran

Avner Cohen, whose research into Israeli nuclear weapons created quite an uproar and controversy in Israel a few years ago, has an interesting op-ed in Haaretz today. The piece, titled "Why Israel can and Iran Can't" in the Hebrew version, answers all those who claim the attitude towards Israeli and Iranian nukes represents a double standard. He also says Israel should let go of its nuclear ambiguity, so it can answer its critics. I'm not that sure about that part. Ambiguity has its pros and cons.

Here's the English version:

Time to come clean on the bomb
By Avner Cohen

Every time the subject of the Iranian nuclear issue comes up in international forums - as happened over the weekend when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) decided to transfer the issue to the United Nations Security Council - there is someone who raises the issue of the exceptional Israeli nuclear issue. Every time Iran suffers condemnation for its nuclear conduct, its spokesmen accuse the Western world of a double standard: How is it that the West, according to them, turns a blind eye and permits Israel to develop nuclear weaponry whereas Iran - a country that only wants to realize its legitimate right to develop atomic energy for peaceful purposes - is not left alone?

Among the Arab states as well, including those that truly do oppose and are afraid of the Iranian atom, this double standard argument also comes up. Why is the West dealing only with the Iranian atom and ignoring the Israeli atom, ask the Egyptians. Softer versions of this line of thinking are also common in Europe, where many argue that only anti-nuclear norms that apply to the entire region, including Israel, will prevent a nuclearized Middle East.

Even in the United States there are those who argue that only if Israel is brought into the Iranian equation in some way is there a chance of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And indeed, the United States has made possible the introduction of a connection in this spirit, though softer and diluted, into the IAEA decision of this weekend, which also included a mention of the commitment to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

The attempt to put Israel and Iran on the same level, or even to create a concrete political connection between them, is ignorant, unfair and biased. First of all, from the point of view of international law: whereas Iran is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and is committed to comply with it, Israel, like India and Pakistan, is not a signatory to the treaty and therefore is not beholden to a formal commitment. Whereas Iran has been caught in flagrant breach of its international commitments, Israel has not broken such commitments. In other words, like the seven other nuclear states in the world, and in stark contrast to Iran, Israel has never relinquished the right to develop nuclear weaponry.

However, beyond the formal plane there is a profound historical difference between Israel and Iran. Israel began its nuclear program in a world in which there were not yet explicit international norms against the possession of atomic weapons. When - according to foreign publications - Israel completed the first phase of the research and development of its nuclear activity around 1966, the NPT had not yet been completed. Had Israel decided at that time to realize its nuclear potential, and not to elect a policy of ambiguity, its nuclear status would be no different today from the status of the five other recognized nuclear states.

Beyond these differences there is also a profound difference between the two countries at the existential level. According to foreign reports, Israel began to develop its Samson option in the 1950s, while it was establishing a state for a people still in the shadow of conflagration, in a hostile geopolitical environment that was opposed to its very existence. It found itself committed to the creation of an insurance policy within the pre-1967 borders, without external guarantees for its existence. In the political climate of that time, a decade after the Holocaust, Israel had perhaps the strongest strategic and moral justification for turning to the nuclear option, certainly no less than France or China, which also began the atomic journey at that time.

Not only is Iran not under existential threat - its nuclear aspirations are an issue that puts it on a collision course with the world. Even the leaders of North Korea are not daring to declare their aspirations to wipe countries off the map, as the president of Iran has declared with respect to Israel.

From the Israeli perspective, it is essential not to leave the charge of double standard unanswered, but official Israel finds it difficult to answer the Iranian argument that it is permitted what Iran is forbidden. Official Israel finds it difficult to tell the world that its right to the atom is no less than that of France or India. The reason for this difficulty lies in the constraints of the policy of ambiguity that it has created of its own volition, a policy that traps it into not being able to clean up its nuclear position. Ambiguity is perceived in the world, with a certain amount of justice, as international deviation, as something sinful.

Israel's prime ministers have always refused to reopen the question of the exceptional nature of Israel's nuclear policy. The bureaucratic and diplomatic convenience of the ambiguity and the vast consensus behind its success have afforded Israeli prime ministers the luxury of not entering the atomic paradise. But the price of this exceptionalism is that the issue remains taboo, not arranged in an orderly manner, at home and abroad.

The need to deal with the Iranian nuclear capability strengthens the notion that the time has come for the state of Israel to find intelligent ways to clean up its nuclear status, at home and abroad.

Israel's nuclear policy was created as part of a chain of improvisations in the 1960s and the 1970s. But over the years the ambiguity has become a deviant anachronism, a kind of Israeli wink. Perhaps a fresh prime minister, who is open to innovative thinking, will be able to deal with the complex challenge of formulating a more transparent and democratic Israeli nuclear policy appropriate to the 21st century.

The writer, author of Israel and the Bomb and The Last Taboo, is a senior researcher at the University of Maryland.

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  1. Avner Cohen's piece is intelligently written and quite insightful but the arguments remain more of the same:

    1. Israel's ambiguous nuclear state will continue to be used as a proof of double standards towards Iran, even if Israel's Bomb came out of the cold.
    2. Israel's past justification (by the author) for its development of nuclear weapons cannot be invoked anymore today.
    3. The reasons for denying Iran nuclear capability remain very subjective and based on past statements. Cohen invokes the past geopolitical situation of the emerging state of Israel to justify its attitude to the nuclear issue, yet conveniently brushes under the carpet the fact that for a long time, Israel's birth was rather traumatic for the region. To say so is often perceived as anti-Semitic but so be it (I'm not in any way so please don't go there).

    No, as hard as you might try, Iran's claims to the nuclear realm will remain, will not go away and will have to be dealt with. The question is how. By military force? That is an option which may seem attractive to some but would almost certainly cause massive problems. It must be the last possible resource. I strongly believe that it's the equivalent of getting out of the frying pan and into the fire.

    But if we allow Iran to slowly get into the nuclear fold we should be able to create a situation which we may be able to keep under control.

    And let's not forget something else here. If Iran for pragmatical reasons sets aside some of its national pride and accepts the Russian compromise, the spectre of Iranian nukes will still be there. Reactor grade Pu-239 is generated as a by-product of nuclear energy production (in rather large quantities too) and can be used to produce low yield nuclear weapons, as a British experiment not so long ago proved conclusively with a test detonation.

    We can of course with careful diplomatic efforts buy some time and increase our control over the situation but to hope that we can totally prevent Iran's nuclear future is about as optimistic as trying to build a time machine.

  2. Israel's creation was definitely traumatic for the Arab and Muslim middle east. It's a fact, not something anti-semitic. But it's irrelevant, since Cohen writes about the 1950's when Israel developed its weapons. Iran is developing its nukes now - 58 years after the trauma.

    I don't think military force is a good option here. It's too complicated. I agree that preventing a nuclear Iran may no longer be possible, but it is sill worth trying. The second best option would be diplomacy that would delay the nuclearization of Iran till the reformers take over Iran and throw out the Ayatollahs.

    But if it is impossible to delay the production of nuclear weapons there and Iran is still in dangerous hands - military force should be used. To paraphrase what John McCain said recently - there's only one thing worse than war - the Ayatollahs and Ahmedinijad with nukes.

  3. digital spy: worrying maybe, frightening maybe, but sad?!?

  4. "Iran is developing its nukes now - 58 years after the trauma."

    That's simply a disingenuous thing to say. ElBaradei has clearly stated there is no evidence whatsoever of a weapons program at this point in time.

    Nor would it make any sense for Iran to try and run before it can walk: the nuclear learning curve is steep and fraught with danger. Taking unnecessarily hasty steps would rather endanger than help their situation.

    It's an important point to note because the Internet is full of warmongers who claim, neither helped nor hindered by any real knowledge of the subject of atomic weapons, that Iran may be as little as six months/twelve months/eighteen months (delete as you see fit) away from the Bomb and that is completely wrong and designed to create fear and swing the mood to bombing-mode.

    Iran is more than likely at least five years or more away from nuclear weapons capability (if we don't manage to buy some time). So, to say that there is a clear and present danger is nothing but beating the war drum. Rather than bomb now, let's use the available time for some constructive thinking (see end).

    "I don't think military force is a good option here. It's too complicated. I agree that preventing a nuclear Iran may no longer be possible, but it is sill worth trying. The second best option would be diplomacy that would delay the nuclearization of Iran till the reformers take over Iran and throw out the Ayatollahs."

    Too complicated?? Too dangerous for the whole world is the expression you're looking for.

    Firstly, I don't believe in the US and UK the political will to start another war in the Middle East exists. Surgical strikes? They're an act of war too. I don't see the military option as a real, deployable one.

    When waging war we must always bear in mind it is at best an educated gamble and we should try at least to imagine the trade-off. Here we would almost certainly throw the Middle East and world at large in to the kind of pandemonium that would make the cartoon wars look like a picnic, and all to prevent a country that hasn't even got a running reactor yet to acquire nuclear weapons in the future. This situation wouldn't in any way benefit Israel either. As the great ally of the US, Israel would be found guilty by association by the entire Arab world.

    "But if it is impossible to delay the production of nuclear weapons there and Iran is still in dangerous hands - military force should be used. To paraphrase what John McCain said recently - there's only one thing worse than war - the Ayatollahs and Ahmedinijad with nukes."

  5. Sorry, due to a cut and paste error the last part of my comment isn't there. It went like this:

    McCain is just one of the many politicians who are convinced that "Ayatollahs and Ahmedinijad + nukes = magic mushrooms". It's a belief system which I simply don't buy into. And Americans have a knack for seeing an enemy behind every tree

    The situation could also be defused in a longer term manner. The current Middle East flash-points are Iraq and the Roadmap.

    Regards Iraq, the West needs to start planning towards an orderly withdrawal of Iraq. To Iran all these US/UK troops can be perceived only as a threat (Digital Spy's last post makes interesting reading on that subject, although I don't concur). From a perspective point the West is seen as the bully of the Middle East and Iran sees itself as the Muslim nation that stands up to it. National self-perceptions are real and strong (even if they're wrong).

    And better steps towards implementing the roadmap could also take some wind out of Iran's arguments.

    Some politicians in the UK are suggesting than the whole nuclear bartering process could also be used to obtain a no-first-strike (conventional or nuclear) guarantees from Iran, in return for Western concessions. That would be a positive step forward.

  6. And you might want to have a look at this. It shows what a load of misconceptions there exist in the public mind regarding nuclear technology, weaponization of "plutonium" and such like. It further confirms to me that any kind of military action against Iran would be irresponsible, if not downright criminal.