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Elliot Leven

Elliot Leven: A nuclear-free Middle East: a lovely dream

By Elliot Leven, October 2, 2012

In a September 12, 2012 commentary in the Winnipeg Free Press, American academic Yehuda Lukacs tackled the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. He suggested two possible long-term solutions: Israel could become a member of NATO, or the Middle East could become a nuclear-free zone.
To be fair, Lukacs commented on the obstacles that both options would face. To be fair, he concluded that there “are no quick-fix, short-term solutions”. However, even as long-term solutions, both options are so improbable as to be almost science fiction.
The idea of Israel’s joining NATO faces many obstacles. Lukacs correctly noted that Turkey would object. He also pointed out that Israel, which has always treasured its independence, might actually prefer to remain outside of NATO. Both points are valid.
More importantly, the reason that Israel is so afraid of Iranian nukes is that Iran’s current leadership is highly irrational. For example, Iran’s president recently made the insane claim that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Rational leaders do not say things like this.
Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, and has the missiles, planes and submarines to deliver them. If Iran ever began a nuclear war with Israel, there is no doubt that Iran would be obliterated. It would be a classic case of “mutual assured destruction”. 
The prospect of mutual assured destruction kept the peace between America and the Soviet Union because, brutal and ruthless as it was, the Soviet leadership was more or less rational. 
Iran’s current leadership knows that Israel has the capability of killing most Iranian citizens in a nuclear exchange. Israel is afraid precisely because it is not sure that this prospect frightens Iran’s current leaders. 
A nation led by rational leaders would hesitate to attack a NATO member. Iran today would not.
Which brings us to Lukacs’ second scenario: a nuclear-free Middle East. In principle, a nuclear-free Middle East (indeed, a nuclear-free world) would be a lovely thing. Perhaps, in the distant future, all nations (including those in the Middle East) will be peaceful and democratic, and there will be no need for either nuclear or conventional weapons. In such a world, of course Iran would no longer frighten Israel.
However, until that day of peace arrives, Israel requires the ability to defend itself. That includes the ability to defend itself from regimes like the current Iranian government.
Now the people of Iran won’t remain unfree forever. Some day they will get the democracy that they deserve. Most Iranians are not religious fanatics, so a democratic Iranian government would look a lot different from the current one. 
It is conceivable that Israel and the Palestinians will make peace during the next half century. It is conceivable that, in the aftermath of that peace, Israel and a democratic Iran might actually become friends. After a few decades of friendship, they might trust each other to same extent that, say, Britain and France now trust each other. (Recall that Britain and France were bitter enemies on and off for several centuries).
Perhaps, some day, the nations of a peaceful democratic Middle East might trust each other sufficiently that they would all forego nuclear weapons. That would be lovely. Until then, discussion of a non-nuclear Middle East is simply not realistic.
Realistically, Iran has decentralized and hidden its nuclear facilities to the point that, even with military action, Israel can’t prevent Iran from creating at least a few nuclear weapons. Israel can delay it, but cannot prevent it.
Frankly, I am pessimistic about Iran. The only plausible optimistic scenario is that the Iranian people will rise up and overthrow their tyrants, and establish a democracy. If that democracy is willing to maintain even a cold peace with Israel, that would be an enormous step forward. It may not happen, but it is at least somewhat plausible. Unfortunately, other scenarios are simply depressing and frightening.
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