The Nuclear Double Standard

Earlier this week, Israel announced its intention to pursue nuclear power to generate electricity. According to Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, Israel wants to achieve energy independence from coal, which it has to import in significant quantities:

  • "Israel is interested in being part of the circle of countries producing electricity from nuclear energy."
  • "In a region like the Middle East, we can only depend on ourselves. Building a nuclear reactor to produce electricity will allow Israel to develop energy independence."

Landau proposed that such a venture might be a joint project with one of Israel’s Arab neighbors (possibly Jordan, but Jordan says any such cooperation is premature and dependent on settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and under the supervision of a Western power (perhaps France).  Currently, Israel has a research reactor open to international inspections and another reactor believed to have produced nuclear weapons.

It’s almost hard to know where to begin in terms of irony and hypocrisy.

First, the Bush administration demonized North Korea for developing a nuclear weapons program (the DPRK conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006 and a subsequent test in May 2009) and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) – which, by the way, every country that is a signatory to the NPT has every right to do as the Bush administration chose to withdraw from the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty because it thought it was in the U.S. national security interest to do so.  Yet there is no such hullaballoo over Israel having become a nuclear power (Israel, however, practices a policy of nuclear ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying whether it has nuclear weapons – yet it is generally accepted that Israel has such weapons) outside of the NPT (the same is true for India and Pakistan).  But if a premise of the NPT is that the world would be a better place with fewer, not more, nuclear weapon states, why is it OK for a country like Israel to essentially flaunt the NPT and become a nuclear weapon state?

More to the point, why does the United States not hold Israel to the same nuclear standard as it holds, for example, Iran?  Iran claims to be pursuing a nuclear energy program – much the same as Israel says it is doing.  Yet the Obama administration is considering even more sanctions against Iran because of concerns that Iran’s nuclear program might be for more than just energy (and in all likelihood is).  This is not to say that the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear weapon state is a good thing.  But it’s hard to hold the high moral ground and claim Iran can’t develop a nuclear energy program (which it has every right to do, including uranium enrichment, as a signatory to the NPT) because we’re worried they might also be trying to build a nuclear weapon (a good bet), while at the same time allowing a country like Israel to develop nuclear weapons and engage in a nuclear power program.

Israel and Iran simply highlight the hypocrisy of a larger nuclear policy that endorses a double standard.  The United States, along with the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom) are all nuclear powers.  Yet they want what amounts to the rest of the world, i.e., the other 184 signatories to the NPT, to not become nuclear powers – ostensibly because doing so would be dangerous and unsafe.  But why is it not dangerous and unsafe for the five permanent members to remain nuclear powers?  And as long as they are nuclear powers, doesn’t that create some incentives for other countries to become nuclear powers (if for nothing else, prestige and perhaps a desire to hold a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council)?  Moreover, how can we realistically expect the rest of the world to believe what amounts to the false promise of the NPT – that the existing nuclear powers will give up their weapons (so far, beyond rhetoric there is no real evidence that this is the case) in exchange for non-nuclear powers never developing nuclear weapons?

We assume that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is for defensive purposes (a reasonable enough assumption), which is at least one reason why we don’t threaten sanctions against Israel.  Put another way, Israel’s nukes (like the nukes of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council) are "good" nukes.  On the other hand, we assume that the only purpose for Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would be aggression – especially after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement that Israel should be wiped off the map (although a literal translation of his statement is that the "regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.")  So Iranian nukes (much like North Korean nukes) are "bad" nukes.

Yet the North Koreans haven’t attacked anyone since becoming a nuclear weapon state, so why do we automatically assume Iran would?  Rhetoric aside, wouldn’t Israel’s nuclear weapons be a deterrent against Iran’s (ditto for the U.S. arsenal even though Iran does not have the capability to target the United States)?  Indeed, the regime in Tehran would have to be suicidal (for which there is no evidence) if it thought it could launch a nuclear strike and avoid retaliation.  And is also not unreasonable that Tehran might want to deter Israel’s nuclear capability?  Moreover, given U.S. proclivity for regime change (Q: What so Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein have in common?  A: No nukes.), it’s also not out of the question that Iran wants nukes to stave off U.S. military intervention.

Again, this is not an argument that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a good thing and that we should not worry about it.  Rather, it is simply to highlight the real difficulties of a nuclear policy that has a double-standard (that we conveniently ignore).  Despite President Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons, the reality is that the United States will probably never divest itself of its nuclear arsenal.  Indeed, that arsenal acts as a powerful deterrent against other nation-states (not non-state actors) taking direct military action against America.  So there is good reason to keep it – although U.S. security can probably still be well served with fewer warheads.

But rather than continuing with a nuclear double-standard which only forces the United States to be hypocritical, we should adopt a more realistic policy based on U.S. security not some utopian vision of a world without nukes.  Of course, that may mean having to eventually accept and learning to live in a world with more countries that have nuclear weapons – even countries, like Iran, that we don’t like.  Yet we somehow managed to do that vis-à-vis the Soviet Union for more than 50 years.  And that didn’t turn out to be the end of the world as we know it.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.