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The Middle East arms race

October 15th, 2009

In Obama’s speech to the Muslim World in Egypt this past summer, he spoke about how a nuclear Iran could trigger “a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.”

But here’s the unfortunate truth: the Middle East nuclear arms race has already begun. It was started by Israel in the late 1960s when it developed its first nuclear weapon. And although they have refused to either confirm or deny possessing nuclear weapons, most experts estimate that they currently have anywhere from 60 to 100 warheads.

Since the inception of the Israeli nuclear arsenal, a number of states in the region have attempted to secretly develop their own nuclear programs. Iraq under Saddam Hussein tried until its nuclear facility was destroyed by Israel in 1982. Syria tried until its secret nuclear reactor was destroyed by Israel in 2007. Now it’s Iran’s turn. Will Israel use military force to take out yet another nuclear program of a Middle Eastern state?

The probability is high. But Israel needs to understand that the reason these states are trying to develop nuclear weapons is in large part because of its historically aggressive military policy towards its neighboring Arab states which, combined with its nuclear capabilities, has persuaded other Middle Eastern states to pursue a nuclear weapons program for defense and deterrence purposes.

This goes for Iran as well. However, as a Persian, Shiite Muslim country in a predominately Arab, Sunni Muslim region, a nuclear Iran would add fuel to the fire of the arms race that a nuclear Iraq or Syria wouldn’t have. Weary of a newly empowered Iran meddling in Arab or Turkish affairs, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or even Turkey would likely embark on their own quests for nuclear weapons to counter Iranian influence.

But there’s a simple solution that would put an almost immediate end to the Middle East nuclear arms race: Israel has to give up its nuclear arsenal. This would eliminate the need (or excuse) of other Middle Eastern countries to develop their own nuclear weapons programs, which would also strengthen the international community’s efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Such a solution, if accompanied by the planned gradual reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, could be a plausible and promising step towards achieving President Barack Obama’s goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Of course, Israel isn’t the only state that has to give up its nuclear arsenal. There are other states out there that have secret or unchecked nuclear weapons programs, such as Pakistan, India, China and North Korea. And Obama, along with the rest of the international community, need to get them to give up their nuclear weapons also.

But as one of the closest allies of the United States, a nuclear-free Israel would have the complete protection of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. And in addition to having the most developed economy in the Middle East, it would still have the strongest military in the region, so its security would not be compromised.

However, if Israel fails to act, it can be sure that Iran won’t be the last Middle Eastern country to pursue nuclear weapons.