It is quite amazing how casually some Americans can talk about using nuclear weapons against Iran, given what we know about the long-term, drastic, and indiscriminate effects of such weapons. Usually they shy away from saying so directly and couch it in terms of saying that “all options are on the table” or “no options are off the table”.
But not everyone is so circumspect about language. The latest is Congressman Duncan Hunter of California who is openly calling for using such weapons. But he was preceded by Sheldon Adelson, a big donor to the Republican party and a huge supporter of Israel. Adelson strongly opposes practically everything on president Obama’s agenda but he was willing to support him on one thing, and that was to attack Syria. No doubt he was disappointed that diplomacy won out there.
But rather than being treated as pariahs, with listeners recoiling with outright horror and revulsion, these people are given a respectful hearing. This is, of course, the result of the usual double standard that the US applies to nuclear weapons in that region. But that double standard is being increasingly questioned publicly even in mainstream forums. As Max Fisher writes in the Washington Post:
Iranian officials sometimes respond to accusations that Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability by replying that, not only do they not want a bomb, they’d actually like to see a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. Yes, this is surely in part a deflection, meant to shift attention away from concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities by not-so-subtly nodding to the one country in the region that does have nuclear weapons: Israel.
But could Iran have a point? Is there something hypocritical about the world tolerating Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which the country does not officially acknowledge but has been publicly known for decades, and yet punishing Iran with severe economic sanctions just for its suspected steps toward a weapons program? Even Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as its implacable enemy and made its accommodations with Israel long ago, often joins Tehran’s calls for a “nuclear-free region.” And anyone not closely versed in Middle East issues might naturally wonder why the United States would accept Israeli warheads but not an Iranian program.
“This issue comes up in every lecture I give,” Joe Cirincione, president of the nuclear nonproliferation-focused Ploughshares Fund, told me. The suspicions that Israel gets special treatment because it’s Israel, and that Western countries are unfairly hard on Israel’s neighbors, tend to inform how many in the Middle East see the ongoing nuclear disputes. “It is impossible to give a nuclear policy talk in the Middle East without having the questions focus almost entirely on Israel,” Cirincione said.
The dilemma for Israel is that, should Iran ever develop a nuclear warhead, Israel will surely feel less unsafe if it has its own nuclear deterrent. But, ironically, Israel’s nuclear arsenal may itself be one of the factors driving Iran’s program in the first place.
“History tells us that Israel’s position as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region is an anomaly — regions either have several nuclear states or none,” said Cirincione, of the nonproliferation Ploughshares Fund. “At some point, for its own security, Israel will have to take the bombs out of the basement and put them on the negotiating table.”
The US should take the lead in pushing for such talks.