Responding to an article by Miklos published in our print journal, this piece argues that Israel's nuclear weapons are not a destabilizing force in the Middle East.
This article is in response to T. Miklos' article, ‘Unraveling the Myth of Opacity: How Israel's Undeclared Nuclear Arsenal Destabilizes the Middle East’, which appeared in our Fall 2012 print edition.
In his 2012 article, Timothy Miklos contends that Israel’s nuclear capability has been a source of instability in the Middle East. In particular, Miklos asserts that Israel’s nuclear arsenal has failed to prevent conflict and encouraged other states to seek chemical and/or nuclear capabilities. However, the arguments set forth by Miklos can be construed as a misreading of the historical record and, consequently, do not stand up to close scrutiny. As a result, the argument that Israel’s nuclear capability is a source of regional instability remains unconvincing.
Miklos first cites the 1973 Yom Kippur War as evidence that Israel’s nuclear capability has been a source of regional instability. Miklos contends that even though Egypt and Syria were aware of Israel’s nuclear capability, they still decided to launch a military attack against the Jewish state. However, while the Yom Kippur War may provide evidence of the ineffectiveness of Israel’s nuclear deterrent, it does not provide evidence of Israel’s nuclear weapons causing regional instability. Egypt and Syria did not attack Israel because of the Jewish state’s nuclear capability; rather they attacked in spite of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. This is a critical difference, and demonstrates that the Yom Kippur War is not an example of Israel’s nuclear weapons driving regional instability. In fact, Israel’s nuclear weapons were irrelevant to the conflict except for limiting Egypt and Syria’s initial war aims.
The second argument presented by Miklos is that the pursuit of nuclear weapons by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1980s and early 1990s was a response to Israel’s nuclear weapons capability. In particular, Miklos contends that Iraq pursued the nuclear option in order to be able to participate in a large-scale war with Israel. This is, however, a weak assertion for a number of reasons.
First, during the 1980s, Iraq was preoccupied with fighting a large-scale war of attrition with Iran. Iraq was in no position to contemplate fighting Israel as well. Second, while viewing Iran as its principal rival and threat, Iraq has historically never been particularly threatened by Israel. Israel has never occupied Iraqi territory and only intervened against Iraq in 1981 in response to Iraq’s nuclear program. Similarly, in all of the Arab wars against Israel, Iraq played only a minor role. Instead the Persian Gulf remained Iraq’s principal area of strategic interest. This was most clearly demonstrated in 1980, when Iraq was at the height of its power and Saddam Hussein decided to invade Iran and not attack Israel.
The third argument posited by Miklos is that the existence of Israel’s nuclear capability drove Egypt, Syria and Iraq to possess chemical weapons, causing further regional instability. This argument is undermined in two ways. First, each of these states also faced many other significant regional threats at the time they pursued chemical weapons programs. In particular, Syria and Iraq were locked in an intense and long-standing rivalry with each other; Iraq was also threatened by neighbouring Iran, and Syria had fraught relations with Turkey.
Furthermore, both Egypt and Iraq subsequently used their chemical weapons capability against other actors but never against Israel. This would suggest that these threats were the most important factors driving these states to obtain chemical weapons, as opposed to Israel’s nuclear capability. To argue that Israel’s nuclear capability alone led Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad to acquire chemicals weapons is too simplistic.
Second, while Israel was undoubtedly a factor in the pursuit of chemical weapons by Egypt and Syria, this can be more readily understood as a reaction to Israel’s conventional military power and not its nuclear capability. At the time they achieved a chemical weapons capability, Egypt and Syria were deeply threatened by Israel’s conventional superiority which had consistently allowed the Jewish state to intervene against them and occupy their territory. In contrast, Israel’s nuclear weapons were not particularly threatening to Egypt and Syria, as the 1973 Yom Kippur War demonstrates. This is because Cairo and Damascus were fully aware that Israel’s nuclear arsenal was unusable, so long as they did not seek Israel’s destruction. It is far more credible to consider that the Egyptian and Syrian pursuit of chemical arsenals was partially motivated by their desire to deter Israel’s conventional military power, rather than in response to Israel’s nuclear monopoly.
The final argument advanced by Miklos is that Israel’s failure to sign the NPT provides Iran with a further rationale to pursue its nuclear program and possible weaponization. However, Miklos also concedes that other threats are also likely to be more important in driving Tehran to pursue a nuclear capability; for instance, US and Arab hostility and Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Given the existence of these threats, it is questionable how effective Israel signing the NPT will be in making Iran abandon its nuclear program. After all, whether Israel signs the NPT or not, these threats to Iran will still remain in existence.
As these arguments demonstrate, the claim that Israel’s nuclear arsenal has been a source of regional instability is a difficult one to maintain. In fact, whilst there are many factors behind the Middle East’s seemingly chronic instability, Israel’s nuclear deterrent cannot be counted among them.
Stephen Ellis a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester.
Photo courtesy of Helga Tawil Souri via Flickr.