A non-proliferation puzzle

Over at the NPT Review Conference, the United States is supporting the idea of a "nuclear weapons free zone" in the Middle East. This position actually goes all the way back to a resolution adopted at the 1995 review, but it’s a goal that the United States has soft-pedaled in the past. Even now, U.S. ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Over at the NPT Review Conference, the United States is supporting the idea of a "nuclear weapons free zone" in the Middle East. This position actually goes all the way back to a resolution adopted at the 1995 review, but it's a goal that the United States has soft-pedaled in the past. Even now, U.S. officials have made it clear this goal depends on first achieving a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors.

Makes sense to me. As a practical matter, Israel isn't going to give up its existing nuclear arsenal until its security concerns are met. That would be my position too if I were an Israeli official, because a nuclear deterrent is the ultimate guarantee against military conquest or a WMD attack.

So here’s the puzzle: If Washington clearly understands that Israel won't give up its nuclear weapons until its broader security concerns are resolved (and maybe not even then), why does it simultaneously think that Iran can be convinced to suspend nuclear enrichment without its own security concerns being addressed? Like their predecessors in the Bush adminstration, the Obama administration is still demanding that Iran first abandon its nuclear program and is back to the familiar game of trying to ramp up sanctions in order to compel compliance. The United States says it is willing to talk about Iran’s own security concerns after Tehran plays ball with us, but with no guarantee that we will actually do anything about the issues that bother them. 

Over at the NPT Review Conference, the United States is supporting the idea of a "nuclear weapons free zone" in the Middle East. This position actually goes all the way back to a resolution adopted at the 1995 review, but it’s a goal that the United States has soft-pedaled in the past. Even now, U.S. officials have made it clear this goal depends on first achieving a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors.

Makes sense to me. As a practical matter, Israel isn’t going to give up its existing nuclear arsenal until its security concerns are met. That would be my position too if I were an Israeli official, because a nuclear deterrent is the ultimate guarantee against military conquest or a WMD attack.

So here’s the puzzle: If Washington clearly understands that Israel won’t give up its nuclear weapons until its broader security concerns are resolved (and maybe not even then), why does it simultaneously think that Iran can be convinced to suspend nuclear enrichment without its own security concerns being addressed? Like their predecessors in the Bush adminstration, the Obama administration is still demanding that Iran first abandon its nuclear program and is back to the familiar game of trying to ramp up sanctions in order to compel compliance. The United States says it is willing to talk about Iran’s own security concerns after Tehran plays ball with us, but with no guarantee that we will actually do anything about the issues that bother them. 

In other words, in one case the United States recognizes that comprehensive peace and reliable security guarantees are a prerequisite for disarmament; in the other case, we think disarmament must come first and that security guarantees are secondary if not irrelevant. I don’t have any trouble understanding why U.S. policy differs in the two cases, but why supposedly serious people think our approach to Tehran will succeed is beyond me.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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