Arms Race in the Middle East? 'There Is No Reason to Discuss Israel's Nuclear Weapons'

The administration of President Barack Obama has begun pressuring Israel. US history professor Jeffrey Herf told SPIEGEL ONLINE that any efforts to get Israel to abandon its nuclear arsenal amounts to appeasement.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: American politicians don't normally talk about Israeli nuclear weapons. Should the continue to be taboo?

Jeffrey Herf: Of course. There is no reason to discuss Israel's nuclear weapons any more than there is reason to discuss the nuclear weapons of other American allies, such as Britain and France.

Israel last year put it's modern air force on display in a message to Iran not to continue with its controversial nuclear program.

Israel last year put it's modern air force on display in a message to Iran not to continue with its controversial nuclear program.

Foto: Getty Images

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The head US negotiator for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), Rose Gottemoeller, has called upon Israel to become an NNPT member-state. Was this a smart move?

Herf: I don't know what the purpose of such a proposal is. Is it to enhance the legitimacy of Israel's nuclear weapons? Or is it to place them on the negotiating table so that pressure can be brought to bear to bring about Israel's unilateral nuclear disarmament? If that is the purpose, it amounts to appeasement of Iran and reminds me of the Soviet Union's diplomatic efforts to disarm France and Great Britain in the course of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) negotiations in Geneva in the early 1980s. The British and French refused all such efforts and the Israelis will do so as well for exactly the same reason: such weapons are a deterrent of last resort. Moreover, it is Iran, not Israel, that is violating numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions. It is Iran whose nuclear ambitions threaten to make the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty a dead letter.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What would happen if Iran gets the bomb?

Herf: If Iran gets the bomb, a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the globe would be the likely consequence and that could be the effective end of the NNPT.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would you describe the direction of the Obama administration's policy approach toward Israel?

Herf: It is too early to make a definitive judgment. If the Obama administration is engaged in a diplomatic effort of very short duration to give Iran a chance to turn away from its nuclear ambitions, then perhaps there is some merit in doing so. But I find it hard to imagine that there is anything of significance that the United States has to offer Iran now that has not been offered in various ways by the Quartet of the Middle East (eds. note: the negotiating entity made up of the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) in the past five years. If however, the Obama administration thinks that smiles and a new tone will change Iranian behavior, it is pursuing a policy that is both naive and potentially dangerous.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you count yourself as a supporter of this new approach?

Herf: If the Obama administration's new approach amounts to accepting an Iran with nuclear weapons, then I most definitely do not support it. If the new approach is one that strings out negotiations until Iran has the bomb, I don't support it. If the new approach is negotiations with clear time limits, greater economic sanctions on all states and businesses that are helping Iran build the bomb combined with the possibility of the use of military means to eliminate Iran's nuclear program if, and only if, all of these measures fail to do so, then I would support such a policy. In order to avoid such a grim prospect, it is vital that all the major powers, not only the United States, do everything they can do in the form of diplomatic pressure and severe economic sanctions to bring the Iranian nuclear program to an end now.

Interview conducted by Gabor Steingart
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