Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Will the United States sell out its strongest ally in the Middle East to cozy up to its worst enemy? The Washington Times reports today that the Israeli government is increasingly worried that the Obama administration will break a 40-year understanding between Washington and Tel Aviv to keep Israel’s clandestine nuclear program a secret.

Iran has long complained that Israel is given a pass on the nuclear issue. The Jewish state is suspected of possessing a small atomic arsenal, but it has never officially admitted to having a nuclear-weapons program and is not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (nuclear states India, Pakistan and North Korea have also declined to sign). The United States has officially remained silent. Iran says it is a double standard.

On the contrary, we say it shows the United States has standards. America treats Israel and Iran differently because they are fundamentally different. Israel is a dependable U.S. ally and a free liberal democracy. Iran is a long-standing enemy of the United States, is directly or indirectly responsible via Iraqi insurgents and others for more deaths of U.S. service members than any country since the Vietnam War. Its people suffer under an oppressive theocracy. We approve of an Israeli nuclear force for the same reason we approve of a British, French or American nuclear force: We know it will serve peaceful purposes. We oppose an Iranian nuclear force for the same reason we oppose a North Korean nuclear force: We know it will not serve a peaceful purpose. Any attempt to establish parity between Israel and Iran on the nuclear issue is dangerous and naive.

The United States has adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity on the issue, which is a useful tool in the hands of skilled diplomats. Our fear is that the current romantic fascination with the notion of a Grand Bargain - a comprehensive diplomatic agreement that will solve all outstanding issues in the Middle East - will push the Obama administration toward opening the question of the Israeli nuclear force. Pressing Israel to make its suspected nuclear arsenal into a bargaining chip only weakens our allies without defanging our foes.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration sounds Iran’s talking points. Last month during his European trip, President Obama pledged to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” In 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demanded that “the Middle East be free of nuclear weapons, not only the Middle East, but the whole world should be free of nuclear weapons.” In 2005, the Gulf Cooperation Council called for a Middle East nuclear-free zone and urged Israel to “adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to open all its nuclear installations for international inspection.”

Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the United States, recently told The Washington Times that, ideally, the U.N. Security Council would enforce such a nuclear-free zone and authorize military action against states that refused to denuclearize. Noting that Israel would never agree to such a framework, he shrugged: “So what? It’s still a good idea.”

We respectfully disagree. The notion that a nuclear-free world would be peaceful and secure is fatuous. The world was certainly not a nonviolent paradise before the advent of nuclear weapons. If anything, the Israeli nuclear arsenal has been a force for peace in the region. Arab conventional armies attacked Israel four times between 1948 and 1973. Since the suspected arrival of an Israeli nuclear capability, no country in the region has mounted another such invasion and Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel.

Meanwhile, Iran has underwritten continued terrorist attacks and pledged to wipe Israel off the map. For this reason alone, Tel Aviv should never be asked to give up its nuclear deterrent. It is a matter of national survival. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told then-President Clinton in the 1990s when asked to sign a treaty that would restrict Israel’s access to fissile material, “We will not sign the treaty because we will not commit suicide.”

If the Obama administration is genuinely interested in achieving durable peace in the Middle East, it will renew the policy of strategic ambiguity. Now is not the time to hit the reset button on one of the most successful strategies in U.S. diplomatic history.

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