Analysis: The nucleus of an opportunity

Teheran's atomic advance provides a chance to finally counter the Iranian threat.

Iran nuclear new 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Iran nuclear new 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The main problem with Iranian nuclearization, National Security Adviser Uzi Arad recently stated, is the danger that it will bring about the nuclearization of several other states in the region. While a multi-nuclear Middle East is indeed a daunting scenario, it is not an inevitable consequence of a nuclearized Iran, while such an outcome might develop even if Teheran's nuclear program stalls. Various Middle Eastern states have been involved in one way or another in nuclear programs over the past decades, including Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. No doubt, the alarming progress of the Iranian program and the ongoing saga between the Islamic republic and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have created a substantial incentive for other regional states to pursue their own nuclear capabilities, yet this precarious state of affairs presents not only a challenge but a critical opportunity. Because of common interests exposed by the threat of a nuclear Iran, there is a precious window of opportunity to finally establish a regional framework that brings together both Israel and moderate Arab states to prevent further regional nuclearization and to counter the Iranian threat. Why is the timing right? The Iranian program is forcing states in the Middle East and elsewhere to reevaluate their core security interests, leaving little room for hardened political positions that have provided too much comfort when threats remained theoretical. With a turbulent and historically belligerent regime at the brink of crossing the nuclear threshold, the necessity of preventing a multi-nuclear Middle East should now be clear, not only to those in the region but in Europe and the United States as well. One must not ignore the plethora of proposals and efforts already made. At the same time, the shifting strategic balance allows understandings to be formed based on the true underlying security needs of potential partners rather than on hardened political positions. Ideas such a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone must be abandoned since clearly Israel will not and cannot accept such a premise because of multiple security interests both within and beyond the scope of purely conventional deterrence. Similarly, solutions within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are non-starters, due primarily to its rigid form and the perceived inability of the IAEA to transcend politics and effectively perform its tasks. Unlike in these past approaches, it is imperative that the needs of both Israel and moderate Arab states be addressed through strong security guarantees which will no doubt require a substantial shift in Israeli thinking about strategic issues and partnerships. While the opportunity to create a regional framework exists, one is unlikely to materialize without strong leadership from the United States and Europe. The kind of "hard" security guarantees that are required here can only be provided by the US, just as its attendant legitimacy and international approval must come from European powers. All of this mandates a substantial change of policy and set patterns. The United States, as over-committed as it is, must prioritize the issue of preventing a multi-nuclear Middle East, and the great powers of Europe must shift to real engagement with the issue and commit resources such as substantial funding for the operations of a potential regional framework - speeches will not suffice. There is more than one way in which such a regional arrangement might be structured. The treaty between the United States and Japan provides one model, though bilateral, for the kind of commitment that is required to truly address the security needs of nuclear aspirants in the Middle East, and the experience of the Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group from the early 1990s can serve as a valuable lesson for what might work - or fail - in constructing a regional framework. Can it be done? It is a tall order for sure; one that requires all partners to transcend considerable political and bureaucratic obstacles, but which might be feasible under current conditions, especially in light of the stark alternative. In the 1960s, President Kennedy is said to have predicted that 20 states would become nuclear within decades. As it turns out, he was wrong, but only because of monumental efforts to address the security interests of nonnuclear states through a number of creative and cooperative frameworks that created incentive structures to move aspirants away from the nuclear option. The principal challenge now is to revive and update these efforts to prevent a multi-nuclear Middle East. Helit Barel is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland and a former director at the National Security Council.