In the last two weeks, two non-senior US officials indirectly called on Israel to start planning on cancelling its nuclear weapons programs. Even though they said this is not intended for 'the foreseeable future', their publicly terming Israel a nuclear power on a par with India and Pakistan might be a sign that the US perceives of nuclear issues as too serious to condone the double standards it employs freely on other issues.
US-Israeli relations at high level are however unlikely to be subject to much change over the issue. Much to the chagrin of the rest of the international world, which wants the US to apply pressure on Israel to actually make good on its signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention by ratifying it. Israel might also be called up to sign the Biological Weapons Convention, which it would do if it were serious about its endorsement of the objective to creating a nuclear free zone in the Middle East.
At the highest level, the US tends to avoid the Israeli nuclear issue as an element of its foreign policy toward the rest of the Arab world, but perhaps the Iranian developments no longer render this position indefinitely tennable.
Israelis, always on their guard for potential threats of size, appear a little bit nonplussed at the US' officials remarks. An article in the daily Haaretz newspaper, where diligent reporters make note of two instances ?as if they are in need of counting- of official comments by US policymakers that might indicate the end of bilateral hush hush on this core issue.
Referring to a the five yearly NPT review conference next month, Jackie Wolcott Sanders, who is the ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament and the special representative of the president for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, wrote in the State Department's electronic journal that the goal of universal NPT adherence ought to be highlighted. She said that it should be 'reaffirmed that India, Israel and Pakistan may join the NPT only as non-nuclear-weapon states.' Thereby implicating that Israel is a nuclear power, something the US officially doesn't do very often.
This instance might have be brushed aside as clumsily worded, but the rest of Sanders' words leave nothing to the imagination; 'Just as South Africa and Ukraine did in the early 1990s, these states should foreswear nuclear weapons and accept IAEA safeguards on all nuclear activities to join the treaty. At the same time, we recognize that progress toward universal adherence is not likely in the foreseeable future. The United States continues to support the goals of the Middle East resolution adopted at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, including the achievement of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction."
Almost concurrently, another State Department official, Mark Fitzpatrick made similar comments Fitzpatrick speaking at a security conference of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Both spokespeople made it look as if the US is starting a harsher line on Israel. US official recognition of its nuclear arsenal is certainly a fact now. At least, that's how the message is taken in Israel, where the Al Haaretz newspaper reports a '[contradiction] in the custom of senior administration officials to avoid any possible confirming reference to Israeli nuclear weapons. Instead of referring to Israel's 'nuclear option', officials placed the country on par with the similar nuclear powers of India and Pakistan, thereby bluntly referring to Israel's estimated arsenal of an estimated over 20 nuclear bombs as its 'nuclear capability'.
The officials though low and mid level ranking, could very well be indicating a change in stance by Washington. The call on Israel to 'accept international Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on all nuclear activities' lacks any urgency, but then it would. If the US foreign policy were to clearly steer in this direction, possibly to reduce Iranian risks, its early start would only be very subtle like this.
Applying pressure on Israel now does make sense because it would capitalize on the momentum achieved in Iraq and Libya, which has direct bearings on the credibility of telling Iran to stop what it is doing. Both Libya and Iraq have recently disarmed, Libya voluntarily in what's cited as a major coup d'etat for the International Atomic Energy Agency and UK and US diplomats. Israel's nuclear weapons also are the pretext for Arab nations to continue their efforts to create a nuclear device and their disposal would create trust.
The US, keen to see Iran get rid of its entire arsenal, is under criticism all round because of its perceived double standards on this issue. The US has long been seen to be taking clauses of the NPT only seriously as and when they suit its international program and so shortly after the Iraq debacle could't for shame be seen to be careless in Iran. An Iran as a nuclear power doesn't fit in the US picture of the wider world one single bit however. The dilemma now is how to contain Iran ?which is not cooperating adequately with international weapons inspectors and therefore not fulfilling its obligation as an NPT signatory- and not to create a situation of urgency.
Next Monday, EU negotiators and Iranian officials are meeting up to continue negotiations they started late last year. The US is not taking part in them, but is carefully watching over the backs of the three European countries conducting the talks, France, Britain and Germany. Iran has indicated it has warm feelings for the French. Discussions will center on a proposal that the Iranians have drawn up.
Meanwhile, the US' Israel policy will have to be seen to be somewhat in tune with its wider efforts in the region during the key five year NPT conference in May. US comments that it is working on making the Middle East nuke free are conditioned by the statement that this is not going to be happening in the foreseeable future. This makes sense; the biggest threat to destabilising the Middle East region is Iran's acquiring of nuclear weapons (which it might well be in the process of or have completed) and Israel's non compliance to treaties it has signed. Both issues require patience and tact.
Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, Iranian born, recently said that the Jewish state would follow Europe in adopting diplomatic measures to ensure that Iran does not obtain nuclear capabilities, opening the way for diplomacy rather than going along US lines that might be tougher.
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer who has lived for over three years in the Middle East. She runs http://www.contentClix.com and also contributes to http://www.clixyPlays.blogspot.com. You can email her on [email protected].