(Editorial comment – This was first published in the ‘Thought Leader’ in March 2008, but seems as relevant today as it was then.)
As changes in the overall political setting of the Middle East have occurred it is important to focus on Israel's nuclear strategy as the former possibilities of the superpowers to control and fence in the conflicts in the Middle East have given way to new power structures.
A significant asymmetry has developed with respect to motivation and determination of some Middle East countries in comparison with Israel and its patron, the United States.
Over the years, it has become more difficult for the United States to bring its power of deterrence to bear in the Middle East. Despite close relations with the United States Israel is no longer a "bastion" against Soviet communism in the Middle East.
Israel's role in context of American foreign policy in the Middle East regained significance in view of the fact that Russia now, as a new patron for Iran and Syria, is engaged in an effort to re-establish its power in the region.
One thing can be said with certainty is that the structural transformation on the international scene has led to a clear reduction in Israel's deterrence power.
Modern weapons systems are easy to purchase as former limitations on the transfer of weapons and the needed technology. Apart from China and North Korea, Russia is the chief contact in this field. Motivated by economic and power-based interests, its arms and technology deals with Iran, for example, have contributed towards a renewed rise in the flow of highly sophisticated and strategically important technology to the Middle East.
France is seeking to cement its traditional sphere of influence in the Mahgreb, penning nuclear cooperation agreements with Morocco and Algeria. France has also signed an atomic co-operation pact with the United Arab Emirates, in an apparent effort to gain a role in a future ‘Gulf Co-operation Council’ (GCC), that proposes a joint atomic program. The proposal also talks about a multinational enrichment consortium in which Iran was invited to participate.
The conclusion drawn in the Middle East after the Gulf War is that the acquisition of nuclear weapons confronts the United States with a much more awkward situation than in the past. The proliferation of nuclear weapons will, above and beyond the far-reaching missiles already at the disposal of some Middle East countries, lead to new risks.
Announcements across the Middle East raised fears of a potential future nuclear race in the Middle East, exacerbated by tensions surrounding the Iranian program.
In view of its extensive and single-minded fostered nuclear program, Iran is already in a position to attain the status of a nuclear power in the medium term. Iran had long since embarked on a good-neighbour policy in the Gulf and Central Asia.
There are however different points of view on Iran's intentions regarding nuclear weapons.
Iran's nuclear program began under the Shah in 1974, but was abruptly suspended following the Islamic revolution in 1978-1979. It was not until 1984 that Ayatollah Khomeini revived Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Only a few experts doubt Iran's intention to develop a covert nuclear program.
Iran have long sought a nuclear capability as a strategic equalizer. For Iran the nuclear weapon serves an ambition greater than that of a relative deterrence.
With it Israel lost its monopoly on nuclear weapons, and it shouldn't be ruled out that Israel will find itself confronted with several nuclear powers in the Middle East in due course.
The threat of an extension of the geographical limitations of future conflicts can hardly be averted through arms control measures. For Israel the risk of a renewed formation of a hostile coalition has declined since the beginning of the Middle East talks. In the meantime, Syria's interest in peaceful arrangement has also grown, although the demanded Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights is a difficult problem and Syria's future behaviour in the post-Assad era remains an open question.
For Israel the loss of strategic depth would not increase its vulnerability with respect to non-conventional long-range missile attack.
The dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel's relative military superiority affects the thinking of all the states in the region. Even without Israel, there are inter-Arab and regional rivalries that provide impetus for proliferation.
In view of the increasing transformation of the situation in the Middle East it seems no longer expedient for Israel to stick to the "ambiguity" of its own choice regarding nuclear capabilities.
Israel has never acknowledged (at the time of writing) having nuclear weapons preferring to leave its nuclear capabilities undefined. Although the fact of their existence is not in doubt.
For years evidence has been piling up pointing to a stockpile of nuclear arms, including missile-borne nuclear warheads and tactical bombs for the battlefield.
Israel could have thus produced, according to European intelligence sources, enough plutonium for at least 100 nuclear weapons but, according to those sources, not significantly more than 200 weapons.
If Israel's current nuclear and missile development plans will continue the unavoidable result will be that the countries in the region will re-evaluate their defence policies. Some will accelerate the existing development projects, and other will revive "forgotten" projects. In mid-November (2007) Egypt confirmed that it will seek support from the United States and the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for restarting its moribund nuclear generation program, that the Egyptians shelved in 1981 after intense pressure by the United States following the Chernobyl tragedy.
Egypt had, in the past, a nuclear power program and European intelligence sources believe that in fact Egypt had a nuclear weapons program. The country has a well established atomic research program utilizing two small research reactors and rapid, far reaching progress would be required to build the knowledge and technological base required for a full nuclear generation program.
With respect to the expected loss of the monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East and the continuation of the peace process it will be difficult for Israel's strategic planners to ensure the actions or options regarded as necessary, including escalation dominance. If Israel joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and linked its expectations with respect to an absolute compliance with other agreements it would give higher priority to the diplomatic peace process.
A full Arab-Israeli peace agreement will rob Israel of its security arguments and the United States of its pretext for applying a policy of double standards. Israel is one of only four nations that have not signed the NPT which was designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and technology. There is every indication that the Israeli government will sustain its engagement for the peace process and at the same time, try to bring its nuclear strategy into accord with new challenges. Especially with respect to the possible political-psychological consequences of the peace process.
Israel will soon find itself in a situation where it has to decide, and this will happen in the near future, whether or not it openly uses its nuclear capacity as an instrument of threat. The objective of a total nuclear disarmament in the Middle East will not be achieved as long as it excludes Israel. As long as one other country has the potential to make and use nuclear weapons it makes no sense for any country to give up altogether its own nuclear capability.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has given countries like Iran and Syria greater room to manoeuvre, which finds its expression in a reduced sensitivity towards conventional Israeli deterrence.