Center for International Governance Innovation

Obama, Romney and Iran

Editor's Note: During a Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) Signature Lecture, Bruce Riedel answers questions by the audience, via moderator Janet Lang, on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Watch the video at cigionline.org and read an excerpt below.

Janet Lang: Do you think Israel would use nuclear weapons? Part two: you commented that, in your view, Iran is not a suicidal state. What about Israel?

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Bruce Riedel: You seem determined to get me in trouble right from the beginning. No, I don’t think Israel is a suicidal state at all. I think Israel is a very rational acting state. That doesn’t mean that all of its decisions are the right decisions. I put it to you in a slightly different way: Israel is a nuclear weapon state. It doesn’t admit that, the U.S. government doesn’t admit that, the whole world kind of pretends that’s not the case, but we all know it’s true. Israel is the only nuclear weapon state in the greater Middle East. Unless you count Pakistan, but I wouldn’t count Pakistan on this. It therefore has a monopoly on nuclear weapons. And let’s be honest: every country that has enemies, and almost every country that doesn’t have enemies that has nuclear weapons, would like to have a monopoly. The United States would have loved to have kept its monopoly on nuclear weapons. And if we could have figured out a way to keep Stalin from getting them, we would have. Stalin didn’t want communist China to get nuclear weapons, and neither did his successors. And the soviets seriously considered military force against the Chinese. So, wanting to maintain a monopoly on nuclear weapons is not an insane policy; it’s an understandable policy.

And Israel, since 1968, has pursued a policy of maintaining its monopoly. Prime Minister Begin introduced what he called the Begin Doctrine in 1981 when he took out the Iraqi-Assyric reactor. He never said that “I’m taking out the Iraqi nuclear reactor in order to maintain a monopoly on Israel’s nuclear weapons.” Of course not! No one’s going to say that, but that’s what he did. Israel has used military force against Iraq in 1981, against Syria. It has used other mechanisms against other aspiring Arab nuclear weapons programs. Israel in the 1990s, for example, was, along with the United States, the biggest provider of intelligence to the United Nations special commission trying to disarm Iraq and eliminate its weapons of mass destruction program. We all know now that that effort succeeded. There was nothing wrong with Israel doing that in the 1990s—U.N. Security Council resolutions asked it to do so. Israel has, for understandable reasons, wanted to maintain a nuclear weapons monopoly in a region that is dangerous—very, very dangerous.