Defining Ideas

The Tipping Point In The Middle East

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

At first glance, the Middle East does not seem to present a formidable obstacle toward global nuclear disarmament. The region’s sole nuclear power, Israel, does not face a peer competitor that would engender the kind of nuclear competition that is evident in, for example, South Asia between India and Pakistan. Nor does the Middle East figure in the context of the global nuclear competition between the United States and Russia, or the global nuclear balance between the five recognized nuclear-weapon states. The nuclear question in the Middle East seems to play out solely within a regional context.

Moreover, nuclear weapons have not figured prominently in the defense policies or military strategy of the major powers vis-à-vis the region, including the United States, which has only intermittently resorted to nuclear threats to deter its adversaries. Similarly, the United States does not depend on its nuclear arsenal to underpin its long-standing alliance commitments in the region, relying instead on a robust conventional deterrent capability through its extensive military deployments in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

Thus, whatever obstacles the region presents in the context of global nuclear disarmament, they apparently pale in comparison to the complexities entailed in reaching the end state of a world without nuclear weapons. These complexities include negotiating phased mutual nuclear drawdowns between the United States and Russia, bringing the middle nuclear powers (France, Britain, and China) into this process, and calibrating the military balance at the conventional level in various regional settings commensurate with the security requirements of those countries that will give up their nuclear arsenals.

In short, the nuclear question in the Middle East operates in a much less complex regional setting. This reality would seemingly present a less challenging set of circumstances to overcome in order to realize the vision of global nuclear disarmament enunciated by George Schultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. The "joint enterprise" they propose includes a series of “agreed and urgent steps that would lay the groundwork for a world free of nuclear weapons.” Much of the steps envisioned in this agenda are understandably focused on the global level of nuclear disarmament: enhancing and accelerating the US-Russia nuclear disarmament process; relaxing the alert status of nuclear weapons; bolstering the global nuclear security regime; discarding the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) while lessening the reliance on nuclear deterrence as a basis for security; and bringing into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Elements of this agenda can be developed and adapted to the Middle East context by strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); devising a system of international control for the nuclear fuel cycle; creating a system for the management of spent nuclear fuel; and ameliorating regional conflicts in order to foster a more benign security environment. These measures form the basis of a regional process that would realize the long-standing objective of creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East and the more ambitious aim of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

Tailored to the Middle East context, this agenda can be utilized to institute an interim regime of nuclear control to govern all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle for all states that possess nuclear facilities. An emphasis on nuclear transparency can eventually develop into an effort to decrease regional stocks of fissile material. Similarly, a renewed focus on strengthening the NPT can be coupled with a drive toward realizing its universality, along with an effort to encourage Middle East states to join or ratify the other major international treaty regimes: the CTBT, Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

However, a closer look at the nuclear issue in the Middle East reveals that the region is likely to present serious challenges to this vision. The Middle East stands apart as one of the few regions not to have benefited from a viable disarmament or arms control process at the conventional or unconventional level. In the absence of such a negotiated process, the Middle East has witnessed a creeping proliferation of weapons of mass destruction that is beginning to alter the nuclear status quo in the region. As a result, the nuclear order in the region is now in flux, with the Middle East approaching what Schultz, Kissinger, Perry and Nunn referred to as the tipping point where nuclear proliferation will contribute to bringing about “a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence.” Unless this trend is checked and ultimately reversed, the ramifications are likely to be profound, affecting the context that has governed the operation of nuclear deterrence in the region and possibly presenting an insurmountable obstacle to the objective of a world without nuclear weapons.

At the heart of the nuclear question in the Middle East is Israel. As the region’s sole nuclear-weapon state, Israel presents a truly unique case in the annals of nuclear proliferation in terms of its pathway to nuclear weapons acquisition, its posture of nuclear opacity, and its highly conditional approach to arms control and disarmament.

Unlike Pakistan, which pursued a nuclear capability through incremental steps largely in response to India’s nuclear development, Israel’s drive toward nuclear weapons acquisition exhibited a sustained effort from the very inception of its nuclear program dating back to the first decade after its independence, during which it did not face any nuclear adversary. Similarly, whereas India set out to develop an extensive nuclear infrastructure that was designed to support its ambitious plans for civil nuclear power and eventually a military nuclear capability, Israel’s nuclear program was narrow in focus, dedicated solely to the purpose of providing a military nuclear deterrent.

The contrast becomes even more apparent when considering how each state chose to incorporate nuclear weapons into its national military capability. Unlike India and Pakistan, which integrated nuclear weapons into their military force structures, Israel followed a distinctly different model regarding the role of nuclear weapons within its overall military strategy. As far as can be discerned, a decision on the part of Israel’s leadership to separate nuclear weapons from its military force structure meant that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) would operate solely as a conventional military force. Despite the fact that Israel did indeed weaponize its nuclear capability after 1967, the IDF was not assigned a nuclear mission, and consequently did not elevate its military doctrine to the nuclear level.

Important as these differences are, the feature that truly sets Israel apart in terms of its nuclear approach is its doctrine of nuclear opacity. This posture rests on the twin pillars of official non-acknowledgment of nuclear weapons possession, while at the same time conveying the perception, now universally accepted, that Israel is indeed a nuclear-weapon state. Adopting such a posture required Israel to refrain from conducting nuclear tests as a means of declaring its nuclear capability, as did the other nuclear-weapon states. It also required ensuring that the nuclear program would remain shrouded in layers of secrecy both at the official level and in the realm of public debate. While the issue of nuclear weapons is subjected to various levels of oversight and public debate in all of the other nuclear-weapon states (with the exception of North Korea, given the nature of the regime), in Israel it remains insulated from any form of public discussion.

Opacity emerged as an ad hoc response to deal with the competing pressures facing Israel as it embarked on the path toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Under pressure from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to submit to inspections of its nuclear facility at Dimona, and forced to respond to the emerging NPT regime just as its nuclear program was approaching the threshold of nuclear weapons acquisition, Israel opted for a posture of ambiguity entailing neither confirmation nor denial of its nuclear capability. This position was subsequently articulated in the form of a formal pledge not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East, a pledge that stands to this day. Yet the posture of opacity was not simply intended as a means of diplomatic obfuscation to deflect external pressure. In essence, opacity was Israel’s response to the strategic dilemma posed by nuclear weapon possession. While seeking to demonstrate resolve in developing a nuclear weapons capability, Israel’s leadership was also cognizant that this would entail the risk of triggering reactions from regional states to develop a similar capability. Should Israel’s reliance on an overt nuclear weapons capability result in a regional nuclear arms race, the prospect of a nuclearized Middle East would confront it with precisely the type of existential threat that its nuclear capability was intended to avert. Opacity thus enabled Israel to avoid this predicament, or at the very least forestall its consequences, by maintaining what Israeli philosopher Avner Cohen describes as a “nearly impossible and uniquely creative response to its nuclear dilemma.”

Israeli analysts generally characterize Israel’s nuclear policy as an unqualified strategic success. Proponents of this view claim that its nuclear deterrent has not only shielded Israel from threats to its existence over the course of the last half century, but has also exerted a discernible political effect on its adversaries by limiting Arab war aims against Israel and eventually drawing key Arab states into relationships of peace after abandoning the long-held strategic goal of bringing about Israel’s destruction. Furthermore, Israel’s posture of nuclear opacity has met with similar success. It has enabled the United States to provide diplomatic cover for Israel’s nuclear program while shielding it from international pressure to join the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. Similarly, the concern that Israel’s nuclear capability would trigger a regional nuclear arms race has thus far not been realized.

However, the benefits accrued to Israel from its possession of nuclear weapons are highly questionable. Israel’s nuclear arsenal has not afforded it the measure of strategic deterrence that it was intended to provide. Furthermore, its policy of opacity has lead Israel to adopt a highly obstructive policy toward global and regional arms control. As a consequence, the Middle East remains one of the few regions without the benefit of any form of arms control process, a reality that leaves the region vulnerable to further proliferation and the possible emergence of a nuclear competitor, thus prompting the very strategic threat to Israel’s security that its nuclear weapons were designed to forestall. More importantly, nuclear weapons are irrelevant with respect to the cumulative threats Israel faces resulting from the absence of an overall settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a viable two-state solution to the Palestinian question.

Editor's note: This essay is part of a series of pieces about nuclear deterrence that Defining Ideas will be publishing in the weeks ahead. All of the essays are and will be from the new Hoover Press book, The War That Must Never Be Fought. To continue reading this essay, click here.