Apr 12th 2010

Nuclear Nonsense

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

With the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed by the U.S. and Russia, a Nuclear Summit about to begin in Washington, and pressure mounting to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions, a few troubling issues need to be addressed.

In negotiating and then signing a new arms reduction pact with Russia and in announcing a new U.S. posture on the use of nuclear weapons, President Obama has come under withering attacks from the right wing. Accusing the President of unilaterally disarming or weakening the U.S. position in the world is sheer nonsense.

What START provides is that both the U.S. and Russia will each dramatically reduce their nuclear weapons arsenal to 1,550. A few decades ago we and the then Soviet Union had a combined total of over 70,000 such weapons, a perfectly bizarre amount. As we all understood, back then, using these weapons was unthinkable since they would result in "mutually assured destruction". And yet we continued to build and deploy. Unwinding this insanity was the right thing to do and it still is.

The president's vision of a nuclear free world (one he shares with former President Reagan) is the correct stance. START represents movement in the right direction. His critics are dead wrong.

The Nuclear Summit is designed to promote the control of nuclear weapons and to secure world wide buy-in. Israel's decision to send a low level representative in order to avoid criticism of their nuclear program and U.S. silence on Israel's stance are both disappointing and dangerous. It is nonsense to assume that Israel can be given a free pass. Despite the efforts of apologists, Israel's claim of exceptionalism doesn't hold up to regional scrutiny. As a result of U.S. guarantees, Israel has a conventional military capability that exceeds that of all of its neighbors combined. And they have rather freely used this force in successive wars that have dealt devastating blows to all their neighbors. Despite this, Israelis have not found peace, since peace and security will only come through a negotiated just settlement with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese.

And so of what use is Israel's nuclear program (or its silence about that program and its refusal to sign the non-proliferation treaty - NPT)? Possessing nuclear weapons has not created a deterrent. Nor can Israel use these weapons, if in fact they possess them. Can Israel bomb Gaza or the West Bank or Lebanon, without endangering its own population with the resultant radioactive fallout? And what would be the human and international consequences of Israel's use of nuclear weapons? It remains unthinkable to use such weapons and therefore nonsense to stockpile or hide them.

In fact the only purpose served by Israel's stubborn insistence that it maintain silence about its nuclear program, and the U.S. continuing to provide cover for Israel's behavior in this regard, is to impede progress toward establishing the Middle East as a "nuclear free zone". When Egypt first raised this idea years ago, its consideration was blocked by Israel and the U.S. That was a mistake then and it still is now.

A further complication of the U.S. giving Israel a pass on nuclear weapons is that it raises the charge of "double standard" -one so clear that even the most hardnosed defenders of Israel cannot deny it. With growing concern over Iran's nuclear intentions, this "double standard" has become more than an embarrassment, it has become self-defeating and dangerous. Why give Tehran an easy argument to defend their indefensible behavior? When every Arab and Muslim knows that the US is turning a blind eye to Israel's nukes (and will immediately raise this issue whenever the question of nuclear disarmament is discussed), why continue to ignore the elephant in the room?

And finally to Iran. Iran is a regional problem, to be sure. Its meddling in Iraq, the Gulf region, and in Lebanon and Palestine pose real concerns that must be addressed and, one hoped, might have been addressed by President Obama's early promise to engage the Islamic Republic. Instead of focusing on the broad range of issues that define Iran's troubling behaviors in the Middle East, the US zeroed in on the nuclear question - the one where we hold a weak hand. In doing so we played into Tehran's game allowing that government to pose as victim of a double standard (as we argue that they are not in compliance with their obligations under the NPT, which they have signed; while we work with Israel, Pakistan and India who have nuclear programs and are the only three countries in the world who have not signed the NPT - not a strong case, by any measure).

Iran is playing a dangerous and nonsensical game of "chicken". But we have not responded smartly.

Surely no one wants to see an Iran with nuclear weapons - weapons they also can never use without insuring that massive devastation be visited upon their country. But the best way to insure that a dangerous arms race does not occur in this region is to move towards a nuclear free Middle East. The way forward is to drop the shield of secrecy that surrounds Israel's program, insist that Israel join the world community and sign the NPT, and negotiate a comprehensive peace with its neighbors. This is how to end nuclear madness and advance the president's vision.

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