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Further Sorting out Which Nuclear States and Terror Groups Pose the Biggest Threats
June 2007

Stanley Foundation director of Policy Analysis and Dialogue Michael Kraig responds to readers’ comments and questions posted in response to his Op-Ed published in The Des Moines Register on May 7, 2007.

It is correct that the presence of Israeli nuclear weapons is not favored by any of Israel’s immediate neighbors. Take for example the stance of Turkey, a state that straddles almost the entire Middle East, from Lebanon and Syria in the West to Iran in the East and Southeast. Turkey attempts to foster “normal” or “correct” relations with all of its neighbors. Indeed, Turkey is the only Mideast state to initiate a formal alliance with Israel that allows Israeli fighter-bomber exercises from its bases.

Yet even Turkey is uneasy with Israel’s nuclear status. During my trip to Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey, in January 2005, I was given the official Turkish diplomatic talking points on the issue of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and although the point was subtle, it was nonetheless clear: Turkey did not favor any country in its vicinity having nuclear weapons—although neither Iran nor Israel were mentioned by name. Later that day, I spoke with a senior former diplomat who had a bit more freedom to speak frankly, and he was unequivocal in his view that as long as Israel had nuclear weapons, then Arab states or Iran would also attempt to acquire this capability. And arguably, tensions between Iran and Israel are exacerbated at the state-to-state, or “strategic” level, by Israel’s latent nuclear threats to Tehran, just as Iran presents a very real sub-strategic threat to Israel via support for anti-Israeli militant groups at the transnational level.

However, there is a dynamic with Iran that does not exist with Israel which makes both Arab leaders and Western powers relatively more frightened and suspicious of a “nuclear Iran”: Iran’s revolutionary history, since 1979, of supporting, aiding, and abetting nonstate actors who are hostile to sovereign governments in the region, alongside a very purposeful attempt to unseat Arab monarchies in the 1980s through an initial attack on Iraq in the eight-year war.

Because of this history, it is still possible for analysts to construct a plausible (if incorrect) narrative that involves Iran giving nuclear materials to nonstate or substate actors who could theoretically threaten sovereign governments throughout the region, including both Arab states and Israel, as well as throughout the world. And this narrative cannot be plausibly constructed in Israel’s case by any serious analyst. Despite its actions in the West Bank and Gaza, which have been critiqued by human rights organizations, Israel has no overarching international revolutionary goals, either in rhetoric or actions. It does not seek to topple any sovereign governments, in any region. It does not adopt the rhetoric of opposition to the global economic order that Iran’s mullahs still use. It has not explicitly said it has nuclear weapons and, therefore, it can hardly use its covert arsenal to baldly threaten the interests or existence of other states in the region. Whatever its military actions against the Palestinian resistance and Palestinian populace, Israel is simply not a revolutionary power in international, state-to-state terms—which is why Arab monarchies in the Gulf point their missile defense systems east toward Iran, not West toward Israel.

Israel has, in short, showed a great deal of strategic constraint in its nuclear posture and actions—despite many of its relatively unrestrained military actions in the Occupied Territories. In terms of interactions with sovereign states, Israel (unlike Iran) does not give covert or overt aid to any dissident, violent groups on the territory of its neighbors. In contrast, Iran uses very inflammatory diplomatic rhetoric still to this day in much of its international communiqués, and it still aids violent dissident groups on the territory of other sovereign states as a primary mode of influence and power in the region.

Despite this historical record, as I explained in my Op-Ed, I believe that Hamas and Hezbollah ultimately constitute “local” actors, not antiglobalization, anti-American, or anti-Western actors at the global level. I also believe that Iran’s main aid to terrorist groups today poses a threat to regional stability and particularly to Israel, but not directly to Americans, American territory, or the globalized order, and that Hezbollah has evolved to be a much more multifaceted political, social, and military group that does not just exist to carry out terror attacks but also serves a real ethnic and religious constituency in Lebanon.

But while I believe the connection between Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s aid to transnational groups is overblown in the West, and that it would ultimately make no sense for Iran to give nuclear materials or weapons to groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas, nonetheless, it is much easier for analysts and citizens alike to believe that Iran would do this, as compared to Israeli actions. Hence the relative lack of mention of Israel’s nuclear status. In purely state-to-state terms, Israel has a recent record of restraint and moderation. Iran does not have as clean a record on this score, and so inevitably will be a greater target of global, regional, and US suspicions.

— Michael Kraig
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