WASHINGTON — A new study commissioned and partially funded by the Pentagon urges Israel to take the first step in launching a nuclear disarmament process in the Middle East, arguing that such a move is the only way to block Iran’s development of weapons of mass destruction and head off a regional arms race.
The report, titled “Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran” and published last week by the U.S. Army War College, argues that Tehran’s march toward nuclear weapons cannot be stopped by any of the military or diplomatic options currently on the table. Nuclear nonproliferation expert Henry Sokolsky and Iran specialist Patrick Clawson edited the 314-page document.
“Iran is now no more than 12 to 48 months from acquiring a nuclear bomb,” wrote Sokolsky, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. He added that Tehran “lacks for nothing technologically or materially to produce” such a weapon.
The report, which states that it doses not necessarily reflect the official policy or the position of the Department of Defense, argues that America and its allies should prepare for a long-term “competition” with Iran, which will resemble Washington’s Cold War against the Soviet Union and hopefully end with the emergence of a more open, less belligerent Iranian regime.
The report all but rules out the most commonly discussed policy options for stopping Iran’s nuclear quest: bombing or bribing the Islamic Republic. Both options are likely to fail and could backlash with disastrous repercussions, the study concludes. Instead, the report recommends that the United States encourage Israel to “mothball” its Dimona nuclear reactor and agree to international monitoring. If other Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt or Algeria, reciprocate, a regional halt to the production of fissile material could isolate Iran, the report suggests.
The report argues that once other countries in the region take similar steps to suspend their own nuclear-related activities, Israel could offer to close the Dimona reactor and place the nuclear material produced there under the supervision of a trusted international ally. If Israel’s neighbors — including Iran — reciprocate, Jerusalem would dismantle the Dimona reactor and hand over its weapons-usable fissile material to a third party, under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Sokolsky told the Forward that this proposal is based on the assumption that Iran’s current efforts to develop nuclear weapons would lead other countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, to consider similar steps.
“You would have a whole neighborhood of folks poised, at any time, to go nuclear,” Sokolsky said. He acknowledged that the call for Israel to suspend activity at the Dimona reactor was controversial, but he said, “We know what the alternative is, and you don’t win that one.”
A Middle East with yet more nuclear powers could turn into “a big, big death bath,” he warned.
The idea, Sokolsky said, is not for Israel unilaterally to give up its nuclear weapons, hoping that others will, too. Instead, he said, Israel simply would take a small, reversible first step in an effort to promote a reciprocal process that would de-escalate the region’s nuclear arms race.
Israel never confirmed officially that it has nuclear weapons, but numerous credible reports indicate that it has a sizable arsenal of nuclear bombs as well as the missiles and aircrafts to deliver them to any destination in the Middle East. The Israeli nuclear program is commonly seen as deterring conventional attacks from hostile neighbors, but some observers say it may also have motivated other countries to pursue a nuclear option.
Sokolsky said that he has discussed the idea with Israeli officials, who rejected it.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed the idea that Israel would lead a regional nuclear disarmament process in reaction to a nuclear-ready Iran. Israel’s position, the official said, is that a nuclear-free Middle East could be achieved only through comprehensive regional peace treaties.
Shlomo Brom, the former director of strategic planning in the Israeli army’s general staff, also dismissed the idea. “Knowing what the Israeli establishment thinks, there is no chance for this to be considered,” said Brom, who is a guest scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The institute is a think tank funded by Congress. “Israel will always be on the losing side when a disarmament agreement is signed, simply because we adhere to agreements and the other side does not,” Brom said.
Despite such comments, Clawson, the co-editor of the recent report, told the Forward that Jerusalem has signaled it does not reject the proposal completely.
According to Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it is important for Israel to find ways to be seen as striving for a peaceful Middle East, “where nuclear weapons are not necessary in order to preserve the security of the State of Israel.”
Earlier this year, Israel agreed to participate in a U.N.-sponsored seminar to discuss what Middle Eastern countries could learn from the success of other nuclear-free zones worldwide. The seminar, a brainchild of the director general of the atomic agency, Muhammad ElBaradei, ended up failing because of conditions posed by Arab governments.