Article originally published in Haaretz on 11/5/2007
How can a country, which according to endless foreign reports has kept secret for years several atomic weapons, manage to rally the international community in a struggle against a neighboring country that insists on acquiring nuclear energy? What do Israeli politicians answer to those asking why Iran should not be allowed to acquire the same armaments that are already in the arsenals of neighboring countries, like Pakistan and India? The common response is that “Iran is the sole country whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declares openly that he intends to destroy the state of Israel.” This argument is a double-edged sword, par excellence, used by a country that sports a radiant nuclear glow (according to foreign press reports, of course), and who has a senior minister, one assigned to dealing with strategic threats, who has threatened to bomb the Aswan Dam.
What will Israel’s policy – or for that matter, America’s – be, if in Iran’s upcoming elections, Ahmadinejad were to give way to a more moderate leader, who were to announce that Iran recognizes Israel’s right to exist within the 1967, borders? Will Iran become one of the “moderate” Muslim states, like, say, Pakistan, which is allowed to develop nuclear weapons? There was a day when our friend the Shah ruled Iran, and then came the Ayatollahs, with whom we were happy to trade arms, until the whole affair became muddled. Regimes come and go, but nuclear weapons are forever.
According to foreign reports, Israel recently bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor that was under construction. It was reported that the United States approved the attack on the Syrian installation and went so far as to encourage Israel’s violation of Syrian sovereignty. Syria is part of the axis of evil, mostly because of its ties with Iran, its involvement in Lebanon and its intentional failure to prevent the entry of anti-American extremists into Iraq. But it is a well-known phenomenon, in the world in general and in the Middle East in particular, that an evil leader can become a popular friend overnight. What will the Israeli and American policies be toward the Syrian nuclear program if Assad were to announce his intentions to step away from Iran, not interfere in Lebanon and seal the border with Iraq?
A visit to Jerusalem 30 years ago transformed Anwar Sadat from enemy No. 1 into a hero for peace. President Hosni Mubarak is considered an astute, peace-loving leader, and a friend of the west. He was even democratically elected. Sort of. But what would happen if one day, when the nuclear reactor is operational in the middle of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood does to Mubarak’s heir what their Hamas brethren did to Mahmoud Abbas? Will we fly over to bomb the Egyptian nuclear reactor? And how does the free world need to deal with Pakistan, if its nuclear weapons fall under the control of Islamists? Is anyone proposing to preempt and invade Islamabad?
Jordan’s King Abdullah said several months ago that most of the countries in the region, including his own, would begin developing nuclear energy. He was quick to stress that the Hashemite Kingdom would obviously place its nuclear installations under international supervision. He did not need to point out that this was “contrary to Israel.”
The question is not therefore whether the Middle East is going nuclear, but when it will happen. The demand for a sanity certificate as a precondition for joining this club ensures that even the opponents of the Iranian regime will back Ahmadinejad against the entire world. Visitors who recently were in Tehran say that intellectuals, who did not hide their displeasure with their president, have expressed full support for his position on the nuclear question. They said that relinquishing the nuclear program would be interpreted as an admission that Iran belongs to the club of pariah nations and persisted in asking, “Why should it be forbidden to Iran when it is permitted to Pakistan and Israel?”
The struggle against the Iranian and Syrian nuclear programs, and in the future perhaps the Egyptian and Jordanian programs, is meant to divert attention from the real problem in the Middle East – the war for hegemony over the region between the religious-extremist camp and the moderate-pragmatic one. The Annapolis summit is an excellent opportunity to update the formula for peace posed by the Arab League and conclude that when the conflict is resolved, the Middle East will be free of nuclear weapons. No exceptions!
Akiva Eldar is the diplomatic affairs analyst for the Haaretz newspaper.