Of the principal foreign-policy challenges facing the Bush administration, namely terrorism, promoting democracy, expanding free markets and controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), only in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) do all mix dangerously together. Policy professionals, whether in government, the academy or the private sector, have a responsibility to delve into these issues with renewed vigor and develop insights and policy relevant proposals – for the simple reason that policy makers are listening. Washington needs advice as never before. In this light, The Dynamics of Middle East Nuclear Proliferation is indeed timely.
The 1990s was a decade of great promise for MENA, largely because progress toward resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict held out the prospect of far-reaching political, security and economic dividends, one of which was renewed hope for stemming the proliferation of WMD, particularly of nuclear weapons. By mid-decade, there was reason for optimism. The Madrid and Oslo processes had led to a series of landmark regional arms-control meetings. In 1995, Egypt supported (however begrudgingly) the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). At the time, Cairo’s decision was very much a product of the larger regional and international politics surrounding the peace process. Sadly, this momentum quickly slowed to a standstill as the collapse of Oslo sent shockwaves across political, security and economic spheres.
In recent years, efforts to limit WMD proliferation have suffered setbacks. Russia continues to aid Iran with nuclear technology. There are indications Iraq has resumed work on its nuclear program. Even more alarming, reports have surfaced that non-state actors have sought to obtain fissile material for a “dirty” bomb. All of this is taking place while Arab-Israeli relations are suffering their worst meltdown in a generation. The challenge policy makers now face is to find ways to advance the non-proliferation agenda during a period when meaningful political discussions (whether in the Arab-Israeli sphere or in the Gulf) remain at a standstill, and the prospect for greater violence remains high.
Although the political prospects for stemming WMD proliferation may have diminished in recent years, the need to examine the region’s experience in arms control (or lack thereof) and assess policy options has only become more critical. The region presenting the greatest proliferation threat remains MENA.
The Dynamics of Middle East Nuclear Proliferation is a collection of essays that shed light on how the genie got out of the bottle and offer ideas for putting it back in. Edited by Steven Spiegel, Jennifer Kibbe and Elizabeth Mathews, in cooperation with UCLA’s Center for International Relations, the volume grew out of Track-Two discussions among Americans, Europeans, Israelis, Arabs and Iranians beginning in 1995.
Nuclear proliferation is “inevitable,” writes Spiegel in the book’s introductory essay. He argues that “overlapping power balances,” rather than neat and tidy dyads, will continue to fuel proliferation. Furthermore, he predicts it will accelerate in the next decade and warns not to expect a Cold War-style structure of increased stability through assured second-strike capabilities. As Spiegel argues, it is more than just the security dilemma that drives proliferation. Adventurist regimes (like Iraq’s) are part of the problem. In the book, Spiegel and others explain how proliferation is as much a product of external factors as internal dynamics.
Janice Stein does a thorough job of de-bunking claims that nuclear weapons could bring greater stability. Gary Sick explains how internal Iranian politics has affected the country’s episodic drive to obtain nuclear weapons. Sick argues against the notion that Iran will inevitably acquire nuclear weapons and proposes the United States and Europe rely more on inducements to keep Iran out of the nuclear club. In an engaging historical essay, Avner Cohen meticulously documents how Israel’s policy of ambiguity, or “opacity,” was not the result of methodical planning, but rather developed from an ad hoc approach.
Many of the authors, including Emily Landau of Israel’s Jaffee Center, agree that without forward-moving, productive peace negotiations, there are few prospects for stemming WMD proliferation. Only in a regional framework can these issues be resolved. MENA remains burdened with a host of factors driving proliferation, including an ever-lowering technological threshold, increasing regional rivalries, unresolved Iran-Iraq tension, and Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, there are frighteningly few forces applying the brakes. Still, as Spiegel and others point out, American security guarantees around the region hold some potential for addressing proliferation concerns.
But even when the Madrid and Oslo processes were moving forward, neither was a magic pill for taming the nuclear genie. Ze’ev Schiff, the well-known Israeli commentator who reflects the views of the country’s security establishment, argues that in the 1990s, even as the security environment was easing on Israeli borders, not enough had changed to call into doubt Israel’s (nuclear) security posture. “Israel sees no satisfactory justification to review its basic security policy regarding these threats, even if they seem less menacing,” writes Schiff. “So long as Israel is threatened it would not be realistic to expect it to give up its estimated [sic] nuclear weapons” (p. 263-64). He defends Israel’s policy of official ambiguity, arguing that acknowledging nuclear capability would “plunge Israel into a serious and superfluous confrontation with the American Congress, which is committed to take action against countries in possession of nuclear weapons” (p. 265). This would place American aid to Israel in serious jeopardy. Considering the current upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence and the cooling of relations with Jordan, Egypt and other Arab countries, it is certain Israel’s long-held strategic doctrines are only being reinforced and strengthened.
The Dynamics of Middle East Nuclear Proliferation could have benefited from greater attention to non-state actors. In addition, scant attention is paid to the role of inducements and incentives in controlling WMD proliferation. For example, could lessons be drawn from the cases of Ukraine or North Korea, where positive economic inducements were employed to roll-back nuclear proliferation (with mixed results)? In addition, at certain points the volume strays from the declared focus on nuclear weapons and examines the full gamut of WMD concerns, from missile proliferation to chemical and biological weapons. Still, such topical roaming isn’t totally unwelcome, since the varied dimensions of WMD proliferation are intimately interrelated.
In addition, as with many edited volumes, the methodological and conceptual coherence could have been stronger. The chapters might be described as uneven, partly because each author sets out to perform a different task, some historical, some analytical, some policy prescriptive. Furthermore, since the book has no conclusion or summary of findings, it is hard to draw out a “bottom line.”
When American policymakers focus on the Middle East these days, their attention tends to be centered on the fight against al-Qaeda, attempts to stop Israeli-Palestinian violence and a deep yearning to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Concerns about WMD proliferation (especially the spread of nuclear weapons), however important, often seem secondary. The Dynamics of Middle East Nuclear Proliferation will help draw much-needed attention to this critical concern. Moreover, with Mideast turmoil increasing and U.S. policy under siege, there is no denying the importance of Track-Two efforts like the one from which this book emerged. With the political track frozen, such efforts are fast becoming one of the last arenas in which the parties sit face to face.