In the movie The Sum of All Fears, based on the book by Tom Clancy, a nuclear-armed Israeli aircraft is shot down over the Syrian desert at the height of the 1973 October war. The rest of the plot - a terrorist conspiracy that causes a nuclear stand-off in the present day between the US and a weak Russia - is probably the US president Barack Obama's worst nightmare. Avoiding such an extreme scenario was the impetus for the recent arms reduction treaty with Russia and the Washington nuclear summit.
Arab and Israeli viewers probably reacted differently to the movie. For Arabs, Israel's presumed willingness to use its nuclear weapons is exactly why they want the country disarmed. For Israelis, using nuclear weapons as a last resort is a legitimate, if officially unconfirmed, response to any threat to its existence. Israel is purposefully ambiguous on whether it has or is willing to use nuclear weapons. This is partly to avoid international opprobrium, partly to avoid forcing Arab states into a nuclear arms race, and partly to preserve doctrinal flexibility.
How to deal with this ambiguity has long puzzled Middle Eastern governments and analysts. This conundrum is now compounded by the prospect of Iran following in Israel's footsteps: obtaining a nuclear weapons capability but never being clear on whether it possesses actual weapons. A Middle East containing two, potentially nuclear-armed enemies could lead to a stalemate. The tension between them may never lead to nuclear war, but it could indefinitely prolong current conflicts, hold Arab states hostage to the whims and ambitions of either camp, and lead to a regional arms race.
The Arab's response to Israel's nuclear ambiguity and Iran's ambitions is the effort led by Egypt to make the Middle East a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ). Egypt has been the most consistent and determined advocate of the NWFZ. At the 1995 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, Egypt obtained a resolution in favour of practical steps to establish a WMD-free zone. Unfortunately, the international community and the region were unwilling to take those practical steps.
Egypt's strident criticism of Israel finally has a friendly ear in Barack Obama. With the latest NPT review conference under way in New York, the US has signalled to Egypt its interest in starting a discussion on nuclear weapons. US officials however have cautioned that the establishment of a free zone would have to follow peace and normalisation with Israel. Despite these reservations, Washington is paying more than lip service to Egypt's pet project. Regional dialogue on nuclear weapons can muster Arab support for efforts to halt Iran's nuclear efforts and perhaps fend off a nuclear arms race should those efforts fail.
Beyond these practical matters, it is in America's interest to play nice with Egypt. As the chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, Egypt carries considerable weight. It can disrupt progress on other matters if it feels slighted (as it did in 2005). Thus, the Obama administration is particularly sensitive to Cairo's mood. Egypt's advocacy is commendable on moral grounds, but it also makes sense: a country that has renounced its own nuclear ambitions will want to curtail those of its neighbours.
For a country that considers itself the leader of the Arab world, attempts by Iraq, Libya and Syria to go nuclear were embarrassing as much as they were concerning. In Egypt's eyes, its leadership is being contested by Iran's nuclear programme. Combine that with Egypt's geographic proximity to Israel, the belief that Israel slights Egypt despite their peace agreement, and the lingering Arab perception of an Israeli nuclear threat and the tremendous pressure on Egypt is apparent.
The unpleasant truth, however, is that neither Israel nor Iran will disarm outside of a broader agreement. Iran will not abandon its nuclear ambitions without a political agreement with the US and a new security architecture. Israel will not disarm without a comprehensive peace and regional framework that limits Iran. Israeli officials scoff at the very idea of joining the NPT or trusting its guardian, the International Atomic Energy Agency. From their perspective, there is no point in joining a failing nuclear order that has allowed its members to conduct covert nuclear activities. Undoubtedly, Israel is a free-rider that expects other countries to abide by norms and rules and not itself, but that does not seem to affect its calculations.
The Arab states alone cannot convince or coerce either Israel or Iran into taking verifiable steps towards their nuclear weapons-free vision. Only the US can facilitate this by brokering peace agreements and offering security guarantees to both. As with the Israeli-Arab peace process, American will and muscle remain the key ingredients. What the Arab world can do, however, is outline not just the goal, but the process as well. Short of joining the NPT, Israel can still adopt measures to build confidence, such as ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, joining the Fissile Material Cut Treaty and halting research and development of nuclear weapons.
To achieve this, Arab states must dispense with the double standard argument. The accusation that Israel gets a free pass on its nuclear arsenal makes for good political theatre, but it has little legal standing. Israel came into possession of a nuclear weapon before the NPT was drafted. Meanwhile Pakistan remains outside the NPT without much Arab protestation, and Iran is perhaps a worse violator. The strategic and political case for disarmament is vastly more compelling, but it requires more sophisticated discourse that links it to normalisation.