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Israel, Iran, and Nuclear Proliferation

Eli Lake observes that, in principle at least, the Obama administration’s non-proliferation efforts could wind up implicating Israel:

President Obama’s efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons threaten to expose and derail a 40-year-old secret U.S. agreement to shield Israel’s nuclear weapons from international scrutiny, former and current U.S. and Israeli officials and nuclear specialists say.

The issue will likely come to a head when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mr. Obama on May 18 in Washington. Mr. Netanyahu is expected to seek assurances from Mr. Obama that he will uphold the U.S. commitment and will not trade Israeli nuclear concessions for Iranian ones.

Let me make a few points about this. One is that obviously Israel’s nuclear program is not a direct security concern for the United States in the way Iran’s is. At the same time, insofar as nuclear proliferation in general is a direct security concern then we need to be working, over time, to build a stable rule-based order. That means working to get the United States and Russia into compliance with our NPT obligations by implementing sharp bilateral cuts. It means trying to inspire confidence in China that it shouldn’t expand its nuclear arsenal and should, instead, rely on US-Russian cuts to bring about parity. And, yes, it means trying to bring India, Pakistan, and Israel over time into the NPT framework. If you’re not trying to do that, then you’re reconciling yourself to an endless series of Bush-style ad hoc efforts that are likely to work about as well as Bush’s dual non-proliferation fiascos in Iraq and North Korea.

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Specifically on the Israeli front, I think the idea that there should be no swapping of concessions whatsoever with the Iranians highlights a certain schizophrenia in the Israel view of these matters. The Iranian nuclear program, we’re supposed to believe, is an overwhelming existential threat to Israel’s existence and yet it’s not worth considering any form of Israeli concessions whatsoever in order to achieve any goals whatsoever on the Iranian front? Really? And at the same time, Israel’s nuclear deterrent is so overwhelmingly important that it can’t be bargained about for any purpose, and yet its existence gives the Israelis no confidence whatsoever that a nuclear Iran could be deterred. Again, really? If I were Israel, I wouldn’t want to swap my nukes for empty promises from Iran. But if I were Israel I also wouldn’t be ruling any sort of deal whatsoever off the table in advance.