The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made clear on Tuesday that it does not intend to compare Israel's nuclear program with that of Iran, in reaction to a recent report that Israel's nuclear activities may undergo unprecedented scrutiny next month.The report was published after a leaked copy of June’s IAEA board meeting’s agenda was obtained by the Associated Press. It erroneously claimed that, for the first time, the issue was to be discussed by the UN’s nuclear watchdog. The AP, however, released a retraction of its report.
“This is not a new issue. Since the 80s the matter has been coming up time and again. The IAEA has always wanted to create a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East”, said Dr Ephraim Asculai, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “And Israel”, he added, “has never been opposed to it. What Israel has said is that the conditions are not ripe”.
Israel’s nuclear ambiguity
Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons. But the country has maintained, since the program was unveiled in 1986, a “nuclear ambiguity” policy. Israel doesn’t deny nor does it acknowledge having a nuclear arsenal. The country is not a party of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but in the past has acted to make sure that no other countries in the region obtain nuclear arms. In 1981, it bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Baghdad, and in 2007 it struck on a similar facility in Syria.
Now, Israel’s focus is on Iran. The Islamic Republic is a member of the NPT, but remains under heavy pressure from the US, the EU and Israel, who believe their uranium enrichment programme is partly aimed at manufacturing weapon’s grade nuclear material.
For the Israeli government, the fact that Iran is a member of the NPT makes the prospect of them acquiring a nuclear weapon a bigger threat. And Dr Asculai agrees: “If Iran becomes a de facto nuclear state, it will probably mean the collapse of the NPT regime”.
But is it not hypocritical of Israel, a country widely recognized to have nuclear weapons, which is not a party to the only treaty that regulates them, to criticize Iran, which doesn’t have nukes and is, indeed, part of the NPT?
“Israel’s program is not unique. In the Middle East-South Asia region there three countries that possess nuclear weapons and are not parties to the NPT”, explains Dr Asculai, “and if Iran is not taken care of, then why should Israel, Pakistan or India join something [the NPT regime] which is failing totally?”.
A nuke-free Middle East?
The latest calls for a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East have come from the month-long NPT review conference, which is currently underway in New York. Several countries including Iran and Egypt have supported the initiative. And today, Syria’s President Bashar al Assad asked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Damascus to “help rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons”.
While these calls have widely been interpreted as directed to Israel, Dr Asculai thinks that putting pressure on a nuclear-armed state is pointless. “It’s very difficult if the country is not interested. Look at India for example, not only has it not been forced to join the NPT, but it has been given support to continue its programs.” For Dr Asculai, politics is what really calls the shots. “Relations between recognized nuclear powers –the US, Britain, France, China and Russia—and nuclear-armed states like India, Pakistan and Israel are more important than talks of disarmament or a nuclear-free Middle East. I think these countries should reach an agreement. Not everybody would like it, but it would be better.”