| Between opportunism and duplicity
Gratifying though it is to be in “strategic partnership” with the United States of America, one cannot but wonder how George W. Bush reconciles acceptance of India’s nuclear status — illicit in American eyes since it violates the nuclear non-proliferation treaty’s caste system — with his conquest of Iraq on the mere suspicion, since proved false, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. If democracies alone can be so armed, what about the military dictatorship of Pakistan, whose nuclear power the US also condones'
Of course, this cynical selectivity suits both the Indian and US governments in the run-up to elections. But national, indeed international, interest is more than propping up parties and politicians. Nor is global leadership just overwhelming military might. If Bush wants us to believe that his is “a nation called to great responsibility” (as he proclaimed in his state-of-the-union message), he must try to temper expediency with a measure of morality.
He must sound convincing to North Korea, too, and not just to his neo-conservative cronies. A “forward strategy of freedom” cannot zigzag between opportunism and duplicity. It is in west Asia that American lack of nuclear credibility is most glaringly exposed. The US has brought Libya to heel with a mixture of the stick and carrot. It is cannily gauging the minimum price that can buy off Syria and Iran. But there is nary a word about the formidable nuclear arsenal that Israel once justified with the impassioned plea that Jews “shall never again be led as lambs to the slaughter”.
Israel is the only west Asian country with not only the bomb but also an array of medium-range missiles (the Jericho series) to deliver it. The Arabs are being punished only for seeking to equalize this threat, while Colin Powell mouths pieties about creating conditions “where no nation would have a need for any weapon of mass destruction”. This is American peace-keeping. We have it from the mouth of a US treasury horse that Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction had no bearing on the invasion because Bush was determined to destroy him from the very beginning.
Iran offers another instance of duplicity. The US sold the nuclear reactor to the Shah and objected to its use only after the Shah was toppled. The Iranians say they are using the reactor to convert atomic energy to electricity. They have recently signed an agreement with the United Nations that allows the world body to carry out snap inspections. Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has commended Iran for its efforts to dispel international concerns. Nevertheless, Bush is pressuring the International Atomic Energy Agency to declare Iran in “material breach” of the NPT. Iran is the second biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Libya, the world’s eighth largest oil exporting country, is still treated as a pariah state, although Muammar Gaddafi has agreed to abandon trying to obtain nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, and to sign a protocol to the NPT permitting more intrusive snap inspections.
“Libya has shown a good deal of cooperation, a good deal of openness,” says Mohammed El Baradei, the IAEA chief. “America speaks about Tarhunah, but not about Dimona,” Gaddafi complains. Tarhunah is Libya’s chemical plant near Tripoli, Dimona the reactor France built in the Negev desert to reward Israel for invading Egypt in 1956 and to which the US supplied enriched uranium. “It speaks about Libya making chemical weapons while it knows that the Israelis have chemical and biological weapons and nuclear bombs and it doesn’t speak about them at all.”
Israel’s programme is an open secret. The IAEA, American Central Intelligence Agency and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute were not taken in by false control room panels and bricked over lifts and hallways at Dimona, which the Israelis called a textile plant, agricultural facility and meteorological station. But details burst into print only in 1986 when Mordechai Vanunu, a worker at Dimona, told a British newspaper that the reactor produced 40 kg of weapons grade plutonium annually and that Israel had an arsenal of between 100 and 200 nuclear devices. The Mossad trapped Vanunu into going to Rome where he was kidnapped, bundled back to Israel, tried in camera for treason and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. He should be released this year.
Other reports claim that Israel went on nuclear alert during the Six-Day War in 1967. More alarmingly, fearing defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, it produced 13 20-kiloton atomic bombs. Readers of that chilling novel, The Fifth Horseman, know how quickly the Israelis can fit plutonium cores into high-explosive cladding. “Their separation was a stratagem,” say the authors, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, “Since an atomic bomb only existed when these two halves were assembled, Israel had always been able to maintain publicly that she had not introduced nuclear weapons into the Middle East.”
The US swallowed that indigestible fiction. Wallworth Barbour, US ambassador to Israel from 1961 to 1973, reportedly suppressed all news of the bomb with the plea that “the president did not send me here to give him problems. He does not want to be told any bad news.” The studies that the US congress commissions on “the acquisition by foreign countries during the preceding six months of dual-use technology useful for the development or production of weapons of mass destruction” never mention Israel. Israel does not figure in the US National Air and Space Intelligence Centre’s list of 18 countries capable of using ballistic and cruise missiles. Stephen Ledogar, the US delegate at the Geneva talks on the comprehensive test ban treaty, angrily shot down a Pakistani suggestion that Israel also be brought within its purview.
So, Israel is excluded when Bush announces that “leaders who abandon the pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them, will find an open path to better relations with the US and other free nations”. Of course, the question of “better” relations does not arise when relations are the closest in the world. It is not quite the same with India, which must constantly trim its economic and political agendas to continue to merit American favours. Israel has shown repeatedly that even its conventional forces can defeat any conceivable combination of Arab armies. In any case, it has nothing to fear with Iraq destroyed, Lebanon squashed, Egypt and Jordan in America’s pocket, Libya neutralized and Syria and Iran wriggling at the end of the line. But if Israel’s nuclear arsenal is not needed militarily against dispossessed Palestinians with only crude homemade bombs and expendable lives, it still serves a formidable diplomatic purpose. Some fear that Saudi Arabia’s strategic review might mean a return to Arab attempts to correct the imbalance. There were anxious moments, too, when Oman warned the IAEA that the time had come to get tough with Israel.
Acknowledging the danger of nuclear competitiveness, El Baradei has called for peace talks, not just to restore their land to the Palestinians but to defuse west Asia’s volatile politics. “My fear is that, without such a dialogue, there will be continued incentives for the region’s countries to develop weapons of mass destruction to match the Israeli arsenal.”
The ball is in Bush’s camp. If he wants the US to be taken seriously as international peacekeeper and not just as the global bully, he will recall that all NPT signatories are bound by Article VI which demands “general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”, and calls on the five nuclear brahmins “to make progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally with the ultimate aim of eliminating those weapons”. He will also be less partisan in west Asia. It would spare the region another conflagration. It might also help to improve his administration’s credibility.