|If the US is to enjoy any credibility on non-proliferation in the Middle East, it will either have to change its policy toward Israel, or change its broader non-proliferation policy [AFP]
The year, as I recall, was 1994. The setting: a small, discreet restaurant in Herzliya, a northern suburb of Tel Aviv. During dinner with an Israeli official, I expressed the opinion that all efforts to deny weapons of mass destruction to so-called rogue Middle Eastern regimes, whether through sanctions, embargoes or otherwise, could at best be considered delaying actions.
Given the inexorable spread of technology, those countries wishing to acquire such weapons and their means of delivery eventually would do so. The only purpose of delay, then, was to create time for diplomacy, which alone could provide a long-term solution.
To my surprise, the official agreed. Of course, what I had in mind was the near-term negotiation of a genuinely verifiable Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone. Precisely what he had in mind, he did not elaborate.
As it happens, the following year, 1995, the Review and Extension Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) passed a resolution, co-sponsored by the US, in favour of establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. The US only agreed to this resolution, however, as the necessary price for an extension of the NPT, and rejected in the process any language referring to Israel's nuclear weapons programme.
Promoting a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone
Since that time, the US has strongly resisted any efforts under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to promote extension of safeguards to Israel's undeclared nuclear facilities or, indeed, to promote a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone, despite the fact that both are fully consistent with stated US non-proliferation policy.
Instead, the US and Israel have claimed that Israeli accession to the NPT and establishment of a regional nuclear weapons-free zone must await both a comprehensive Middle East peace and full compliance of all regional states (read: Iran and Syria) with their IAEA obligations.
There are two things one can say regarding US policy toward Israel's nuclear weapons programme: First, it is consistent with the rational, common-sense notion that both accession to the NPT and establishment of regional nuclear weapons-free zones can only be achieved when the concerned states are persuaded that both are in their interest.
Second, it is utterly inconsistent with standing US non-proliferation policy virtually everywhere else. If the US is to enjoy any credibility on non-proliferation in the Middle East, it will either have to change its policy toward Israel, or change its broader non-proliferation policy.
The above comes to mind in light of some interesting statements recently made by Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, an Iranian foreign policy expert and confidant of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, in anticipation of the next round of talks between Iran and the so-called five-plus-one group, due to start on December 5.
Tehran has indicated it intends to broaden the planned discussions beyond its own nuclear programme, and to invite comments by its six interlocutors regarding Israel's nuclear weapons and their own commitment to nuclear disarmament. "Not answering these questions," says Hashemi, "will mean they have decided not to commit to nuclear disarmament and support the Zionist regime being armed with nuclear weapons."
One can easily dismiss this potential Iranian gambit as a cynical ploy, an effort at obfuscation designed to take the focus away from the matter at hand - Iran's dismal record in meeting its obligations under the IAEA as a signatory to the NPT - while playing to a popular audience in the Middle East. And indeed, perhaps that is all it is.
Especially given that regional audience, however, the US and the rest of the five-plus-one, which includes all of the "legitimate" nuclear-weapons states recognised under the NPT, would do well to respond forthrightly to these questions, for they touch upon the essential nuclear bargain which lies at the heart of the NPT, as well as on the essential fairness of Western non-proliferation goals in the region.
The notion that nations will forswear nuclear weapons only when they consider it in their national interest to do so is being consistently and compellingly propounded these days by none other than Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence.
Gates makes this point in support of the current policy of economic sanctions and diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran, and as a caution against resort to military force, which could only slow, and not stop an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, and which would have many negative unintended consequences in the bargain.
Taking the Gates logic to its ultimate conclusion, however, would mean basing our attempts to achieve non-proliferation goals concerning Iran upon an appreciation of Iranian security interests, and not just on the coercive power of sanctions.
Now, there are those who believe that Iran is hell-bent on the development of nuclear weapons, and that, once having obtained them, it would have no hesitation in employing them against Israel, oblivious of the retaliatory consequences to itself. There are many, both in Israel and the US, who propound this view, and who appear genuinely to believe it.
I know of no one, however, with a genuine understanding of Iran who believes the Iranians to be so devoid of calculation. On the contrary, the Iranians are very sophisticated in determining their national interest, and in pursuing it on several levels simultaneously.
It may just be that Iranian leaders have concluded that development of nuclear weapons is the only means of redressing the US ability and apparent willingness to intervene militarily in their region at will, as well as being necessary to counter an Israeli nuclear monopoly in the region, and thus will not be deterred.
Down this path probably lie attempts of other regional powers to develop such weapons, and a potentially unstable regional "balance of terror" which Iran cannot view without approbation, but with which it may feel itself well-equipped to deal. And indeed, current Iranian policy appears - one stresses the word appears - designed to maintain the privileges attached to NPT membership while also attempting to subvert those privileges to at least develop a "break-out" nuclear-weapons capability.
But let us just suppose that either current or future Iranian leaders could be convinced that there were the genuine possibility of a verifiable regional nuclear weapons-free zone which, perhaps along with certain security guarantees from the US and other major powers, might better serve their long-term interests. This may not seem likely, especially given Iran's desire to exploit unpopular Israeli policies to their benefit.
Peace no longer a pre-requisite for nuclear disarmament
However if it were possible, the US and the West would do well to underscore their potential willingness to actively support and contribute to international enforcement and verification of a regional disarmament pact, rather than blindly supporting an open-ended policy of Israeli nuclear exceptionalism.
It is understandable that Israel and its supporters wish to focus not just on the capabilities of Israel's antagonists in the region, but on their motivations as well, which underscores the logic in their desire to await a comprehensive regional peace based primarily on a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
However, entrenched Israeli settlement policy, long aided and abetted by the US, has made a two-state solution in former Mandatory Palestine impossible. An alternative formula may eventually be found, but not without many years of violence and rancour to come.
Waiting for peace and harmony to break out in the Middle East is no longer, if indeed it ever was, a viable prerequisite to a regional non-proliferation pact - not at the pace of current developments.
Negotiation of such an accord is due to begin in 2012, provided the parties can be brought to the table. Under the circumstances, the US and its partners would do well to frankly address Iran's questions on December 5, and to broaden their discussions to encompass not just Iranian policies and actions, but their regional context and motivation.
Such willingness, if nothing else, would go some way toward addressing the clear ambivalence of many in the Arab world who are otherwise distrustful of Persian nuclear designs, but who are nonetheless susceptible to the appeal of an Iran which, unlike their own governments, is willing to stand up to perceived injustice.
Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He conceived and organised the CIA's Counter Proliferation Division, serving as its first chief of operations.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.