Can the Mideast be nuke-free?

Obama thinks so, but he's got to start by working on Israel

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Two important, concurrent policy lines of President Barack Obama are at risk of being snagged.

The first is the need, which Mr. Obama feels acutely, to get a viable Middle East peace process under way. Only now, 16 months into his administration, in spite of valiant efforts on the part of his special envoy, former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, are indirect "proximity" talks starting between the Israelis and some of the Palestinians.

The second is the global policy of Mr. Obama to seek arms reductions, particularly limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Specifically, he is in quest of an agreement to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. That is an old idea, but it is taking on new life with Mr. Obama's active involvement.

His administration would like to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear weapons club that now includes China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and, to a very limited degree, probably North Korea. China is laboring to get North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il to bring his nation back to the six-power talks -- China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States -- in pursuit of eliminating his nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Obama recently signed with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev an arms reduction agreement and seems dead set to earn his already-awarded Nobel Peace Prize by capping, getting rid of and preventing the development of various weapons of mass destruction.

But the Middle East nuclear-free zone idea hit a roadblock at a conference in New York last week when it ran headlong into an old pretension: Israeli ambiguity as to whether it possesses nuclear weapons, despite clear evidence that it does. Israel, along with nuclear powers India and Pakistan, has not signed the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; 189 countries have. These three do not wish to submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Israel does not acknowledge that it possesses nuclear weapons even though one of its prime ministers, Ehud Olmert, said it does in 2006, a prominent Israeli nuclear scientist also said so, and former President Jimmy Carter has stated categorically that it does, based on what he learned while in the White House.

Until now, American governments have protected Israel from the blowback of having, but professing not to have, nuclear weapons by casting vetoes in the United Nations Security Council and taking comparable actions in other forums. At last week's gathering, though, Egypt called Israel's hand, stating that a nuclear-free Middle East accord could not be reached -- in spite of U.S. desires to pin Iran to the mat through such an agreement -- until Israel's nuclear weapons were addressed.

Egypt's position is especially interesting given that it is generally believed that other countries of the Middle East, including Egypt itself, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf states, almost certainly possess or could easily purchase the technology necessary to add nuclear weapons to their arsenals if they decided to do so. This makes a mockery of Israel's idea that it can somehow maintain a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East, or that Iran's acquiring them would cross a new threshhold.

Nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, in the Middle East or anywhere else, makes all kinds of sense, period.

None of this takes away from the fact that any additional country acquiring nuclear weapons would be directly counter to Mr. Obama's major goal, not to mention one more unfortunate threat to world peace.

There is nothing per se wrong with any of these countries having or acquiring nuclear weapons if nuclear weapons are around and about in the region. The governments of none of the Middle Eastern countries named above appears at this point to be manifestly crazy, extreme in its policies or unstable. Still, from the day that one or more of them acquires nuclear weapons, whether they might be unleashed on the world would be subject to the possibility that their governments might become unstable or fall into the hands of dodgy forces, including Islamic extremists.

So what is needed at this point?

Israel needs to declare its nuclear weapons, then sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and accept IAEA inspections of its facilities. It is going to say it would not trust IAEA inspectors to keep its secrets, but the IAEA employs many U.S. inspectors whom Israel surely could trust to be conscientious.

With that barrier cleared away, a Middle East nuclear-free-zone treaty should be negotiated. Israel's weapons could be accepted in a grandfather clause, just as the nuclear weapons of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States are now. Then, with Israel having joined the vast majority of nations that have signed the NPT, the international community could turn up the heat substantially on India and Pakistan, the other two recalcitrants, to also sign the treaty and accept IAEA inspections.

Mr. Obama and the United States at that point could start to feel good about having effectively reduced the continuing danger to the world from these awful threats to life. If anyone has any doubts about the importance of limiting nuclear weapons, they might look at footage of the 1945 U.S. attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is customary to say that those attacks shortened World War II, reducing casualties overall -- which is almost certainly true -- but one should have no illusions about the horrendous means used to achieve that goal. This characteristic of nuclear weapons is the root of the effort to limit or eliminate them.


Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( dsimpson@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1976).


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