Resolving the Mideast Nuclear Crisis

“Crisis” is a popular word, but there really is a Mideast nuclear crisis: the risk of a nuclear attack that would kill thousands, destroy land permanently, and spread fallout around the globe. The threat is not from Iran or al Qua’ida or even Pakistan, as far as I can see, though at least Pakistan does have nuclear arms…the threat is from Israel. Iran and al Qua’ida do not (presumably) have nuclear arms and thus cannot pose an immediate nuclear threat. The nuclear-armed rogue entity in the Mideast is Israel. Stop it, and the world gains some time to deal with mid-term, potential threats from other sources.

As always, understanding must flow from facts, not prejudices. The Israeli nuclear threat is the first, crucial point that must be absorbed to understand Mideast affairs.

Resolving the Mideast nuclear crisis requires not a full-court press against one actor (for Americans…on Monday, Iran; on Tuesday, al Qua’ida; on Wednesday, Pakistan) momentarily accused of posing a nuclear threat. Rather, resolving the crisis requires a balanced approach.

  • First, balance means balance between principle and details.
  • Second, balance means balance among all the actors.
  • Third, balance means balance among all the issues.

Some have argued that a “grand bargain” with Iran is unnecessary. I disagree for two reasons.

  • The absence of a grand bargain that fairly accommodates Iran’s interests and accepts it as a legitimate player is a sufficient reason to explain Iran’s interest in nukes (there may be additional, perhaps irrational reasons, but we don’t know that and have no reason to assume it without clear evidence)
  • To focus on nukes (our concern) to the exclusion of all Iran’s concerns merely proves that Iran needs nukes to get respect – exactly the wrong message to send from the perspective of US national security.

Thus, vis-a-vis Iran, we should work toward a grand bargain that addresses all concerns on both sides. I would certainly agree that to set up some artificial timetable and mindlessly insist on progress on all fronts simultaneously would constitute little more than a set-up designed to ensure failure. But Washington should make crystal clear its willingness to negotiate sincerely across the board to achieve a genuine and mutual accommodation. Moreover, Washington should not assume that resolution of the sensitive nuclear issue will by any means be the first success in this effort. Iran has already renounced nuclear weapons. Genuine accommodation will provide the best context for helping Iran keep its promise.

But a deal with Iran alone seems highly unlikely to work, no matter how well balanced between the nuclear issue and other bilateral U.S.-Iranian concerns, e.g., U.S. military presence around Iran’s borders, whether or not the U.S. treats Iran with respect and welcomes it at regional diplomatic gatherings. Iran’s interest in nuclear technology must be understood as well in the context of the Israeli nuclear threat. This is the second meaning of “balance:” balance between global policy toward Iranian nukes and the nukes of other states. We should get in the habit of creating rules for world governance that as many countries as possible can sign up to. For example, a rule that says “no nukes in the Mideast” would be tough to implement, given the Israeli and Pakistani nuclear establishments. But a rule that says “the IAEA has the right to inspect any building without warning” would be easier. Would Israel like Iran to submit to such a rule? Fine, then it need only submit itself…

Finally, a balance should be sought between short-term deals and fundamental principles. Calling for a nuclear-free world may not accomplish anything in and of itself, but the more loudly and officially it is stated, the easier it is for a peace-loving politician to support a practical deal to minimize the nuclear threat. Conversely, the more threats of nuclear aggression that are thrown around, the easier it is for an extremist politician to take advantage.

A nuclear crisis exists in the Mideast. It promises, given the current approach, to get only more and more serious. Discriminatory treatment of any particular actor, the assumption that any actor understands only the language of force, singleminded focus on only the nuclear issue are the failed tactics of the past. A balanced approach guarantees nothing, but logic suggests that it is our best hope of resolving the Mideast nuclear crisis.

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