Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is livid over President Barack Obama’s telephone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and over the prospect that the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program may be resolved by diplomacy.
Netanyahu wants a military strike against Iran. He says that is the only way to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
But the jury is still out on Iran’s intentions. Iran does, to be sure, have a nuclear program, but it is not clear whether Iran plans to take that program past civilian uses of nuclear power. The Obama administration is estimating, to Netanyahu’s chagrin, that even if Iran were to move full speed toward nuclear weaponry, it would take a year or more to get there.
Netanyahu claims that the development of nuclear weapons by Iran would pose an “existential threat” to Israel. At the U.N. General Assembly session just days ago, Netanyahu said that Iran is not a country with which one can negotiate.
But that is what the Obama administration anticipates, while continuing the already crippling economic sanctions against Iran. That approach has boxed Israel in. Israel can hardly attack Iran’s nuclear facilities while the major powers are talking to Iran about them. Netanyahu is losing support even within his own inner circle for a military strike. He seems to be convincing only himself.
Netanyahu is on shaky ground to be arguing that the possession of nuclear weapons by Iran would be the catastrophe he claims. Since the 1960s, Israel has had a monopoly in the Middle East on nuclear weapons. Israel is reliably thought to have warheads ready to deploy a sizable arsenal of nuclear weapons on a moment’s notice. Yet, alone among nuclear powers, Israel refuses to acknowledge even that it has nuclear weapons. When Israel has been called on its nuclear program, the United States has stepped in to protect it. The United States will not state publicly that Israel has nuclear weapons.
While Iran is a party to the 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty, Israel is not. So while Israel chides Iran for concealing what it is developing, Israel has never opened itself to any outside monitoring.
Then there are chemical weapons. A recently surfaced CIA report shows Israel with a substantial arsenal. If the recent U.S.-Russia brokered deal on Syria is implemented, Syria’s arsenals of chemical weapons will be eliminated, leaving Israel with a monopoly in the region on those weapons as well.
As with nuclear weapons, a treaty in place calls for the elimination of chemical weapons, and under international supervision to boot. This is the 1992 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and Their Destruction. Syria as of a few days ago is a party. Israel is not.
So if Netanyahu prevails, Israel will be outside any international inspection of weapons of mass destruction and will be the only country in the Middle East to possess them. The two treaties provide no exemption for countries that claim moral superiority.
Netanyahu argues, of course, that Iran is a threat that Israel is not. He cites assassinations by Iran and its support to Syria as evidence of Iran’s aggressive nature. But if Netanyahu wants to be believable, he must at least come clean about Israel’s own possession of nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu accuses Iran of duplicity for claiming that its nuclear program is for peaceful nuclear power only. His own lack of candor about Israel’s nuclear weaponry undermines his credibility.
The sanctions in place on Iran in the nuclear standoff are doing tremendous damage to the people of Iran. One cannot punish a nation with economic sanctions without harming the population. A solution to the nuclear confrontation needs to be found — diplomacy is the right approach.
John Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University. Write to him at Moritz College Law, 55 W. 12th St., Columbus, OH 43210.