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Iran, Israel and Nuclear Elephants

By Nadia Hijab, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies

Beyond the histrionics of US foreign policy, the real issue concerning an Iranian development of nuclear weapons is international nonproliferation – and, indeed, a world free of all nuclear weapons, argues Nadia Hijab.
Whatever else it is, Iran’s nuclear quest is not short on drama. Israel and Iran have just flexed their military muscles in highly publicized exercises and tests. The P5+1 - the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China, all permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany - just brandished another acre of carrots and rainforest of sticks at Iran.

In the US Congress, resolutions to impose a naval blockade against Iran, among other measures, have been cosponsored by nearly half the House and a third of the Senate, in complete disregard of the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate that says Iran no longer has an active nuclear weapons program.

These histrionics have cloaked the elephant in the room -- indeed, whole herds of the ivory-tusked beasts are hidden from view, each carrying its own weight again in loads of hypocrisy. Take just three of the elephants: Israel’s huge nuclear arsenal and the more modest stores of India and Pakistan.

Israel’s nuclear stockpile is said to include between 100 and 200 nuclear devices, according to the Federation of American Scientists; other sources put the figure as high as 400. India and Pakistan are each believed to have 35 nuclear devices. None has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Yet the United States and Europe have taken little action. For example, Israel has been conspicuously absent from the semi-annual reports the US Congress requires from intelligence agencies on the acquisition by foreign countries of technology for weapons of mass destruction.

And even as it was turning up the heat on Iran back in 2006, the US Administration was lobbying Congress hard for an agreement on nuclear cooperation with India despite US legislation prohibiting such cooperation with a country that has not signed the NPT.

The deal, which received preliminary Congressional approval, may not take effect because of lack of time to secure final approval before the end of 2008. If it does, it would allow India to open civilian facilities to inspection while keeping military ones closed. Pakistan, which wanted the same deal, was rebuffed, but has not received anything like the treatment of Iran.

These nuclear powers dominate Iran’s neighborhood. As the CATO Institute soberly noted in a 2006 briefing, "Iran is located in a volatile region, surrounded by hostile neighbors. Russia, Israel, Pakistan, and India all have nuclear weapons already, so regional deterrence issues probably loom large for Iran."

Given this reality, one would have thought that the best way to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be to work on Israel, India, and Pakistan to give theirs up and make the Middle East a nuclear free zone.

And in fact the P5 voted for such an approach in 1991. Article 14 in UN Security Council Resolution 687, part of the cease-fire arrangements ending operation Desert Storm that expelled Iraq from Kuwait, solemnly sets out the goal of "establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction."

Article 14 has never been acted upon, in spite of frequent pleas by Arab states for a nuclear free zone. Why not? Here the NPT emerges as one of the biggest elephants in the room. Under the NPT, which entered into force in 1970, the original five nuclear powers -- the selfsame P5 -- were supposed to reduce and eliminate their nuclear arsenals. In exchange, other countries pledged not to acquire them.

Because the P5 have not done so, they have faced the other 183 NPT signatories with the choice of living under their nuclear shadow or trying to acquire their own nuclear weapons. The countries that are trying to bring Iran to heel are the ones responsible for eroding the treaty that would have prevented the pursuit of such weapons. Indeed, France and Russia are lining up behind the United States to sell India nuclear technology.

Some argue that Iran is driven by ideology rather than by state interests, and cannot be dealt with “rationally.” However, its president’s rhetoric aside, Iran has not demonstrated excessively aggressive behavior in the past 30 years. It has not, for example, invaded other countries to control their land, water, or oil resources. Rather, it was itself invaded, in 1980 by Saddam’s Iraq, with the active support of the then US Administration.

The best way to stop Iran from going nuclear is to forge ahead with the reduction and elimination of all nuclear weapons. But for that to even begin to happen, we need a far bigger spotlight on the elephants in the room.


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