Thursday, May 06, 2010

Israel's Weapons of Mass Disruption


...and 2001: A Disarmament Odyssey

I have an article up at Asia Times entitled China in the catbird seat on Iran.

It looks at the state of play at the NPT Review Conference and opines that Beijing has done a pretty good job at positioning itself as the intermediary between the West and Iran.

I was lucky enough to interview a U.S. arms control expert and gain a valuable perspective on an important angle: Russia's expectations for the NPT process--getting on the right side (with the United States and India) of the isolate-China equation--and Beijing's steps to frustrate them.

In Moscow's mind, I think the recipe for success looked like this:

  • Partner with the United States on the new START treaty and give President Obama's policy that successful multi-lateral sheen;
  • Work with the U.S. to solve the Iran problem within the framework of the NPT, either through a definitive sanctions regime or rapprochement;
  • Make common cause with the United States and India to gang up on China as the modernizing, weaponizing, destabilizing wild card on the Eurasian continent.

To date, the Iran problem hasn't been solved and the Obama administration, instead of fussing over China's new generation of nuclear attack submarines, has to get China's help with the non-aligned movement to make sure the NPT conference doesn't collapse into a Copenhagen-scale clusterfugue.

And the reason the Iran problem hasn't been solved is Israel, and resentment in the Muslim and developing world over the U.S. grotesque double standard of bullyragging NPT member Iran while non-NPT-member Israel with its nuclear arsenal gets a free pass.

For the time being, at least, the efforts of the U.S. and Russia are concentrated on armtwisting, cajoling, and public relations handjobberai to gut the Egypt-led initiative to demand negotiations for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, and force the focus back to creating the appearance of a united front on Iran.

The cornerstone of President Obama's non-proliferation-based consensual, multi-lateral global security regime is universal adherence to the NPT. For this system to work, Israel, India, and Pakistan have to participate.

Since May of last year, President Obama has issued several calls for Israel to join the NPT, thereby stripping Iran of the diplomatic defense of harping on its NPT membership and, perhaps, making it possible for moderate elements inside Iran to advocate a more conciliatory nuclear policy.

Joining the NPT shouldn't be too hard for Israel. The Bush deal with India--endorsed by the IAEA under ElBaradei and welcomed by the West--demonstrated that American allies with rogue nuclear programs are eligible for special consideration.

It doesn't look like Israel has too much downside in admitting it has a nuclear arsenal and joining the NPT subject to the same sweet setup that the U.S. and other declared nuclear weapons powers enjoy: a national security exclusion that keeps the IAEA out of all of their nuclear weapons facilities.

This is an accommodation that Israel has been, to date, unwilling to provide. In fact, Israel has told the United States to get stuffed on multiple occasions.

It's possible that Israel is only waiting for the strategically and psychologically opportune moment to announce its willingness to join the NPT and give President Obama a much-needed political gift.

However, I wonder if Israel has a lot of interest in giving President Obama this gift, whose primary utility would be to boost U.S. cred with the Muslim world--and provide Iran with some political cover internally to justify concessions on its program.

Israel has a vested interest in the current cats-and-dogs dynamic of U.S.+ Israel vs. everybody else in the Middle East. It is viscerally opposed to U.S. rapprochement with Iran and gains little from a ratcheting down of nuclear tensions that would allow Tehran to assume the role of a rational, independent, and useful interlocutor with Washington.

From this perspective, Israel's nuclear arsenal is useful primarily as an irritant hindering the resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis, serving--as I put it in the title--as weapons of mass disruption.

China Hand has a weakness for conspiracy theories, especially when regarding the dismal history of the Tehran Research Reactor fuel plate project, which started out as a confidence-building initiative and somehow morphed into an exercise in confidence-destruction and geopolitical paranoia.

I would not be surprised if France--which has pretensions to clout in the Levant and has hopes to replace America as Israel's strategic and utterly uncritical BFF--had a tete a tete with Israel and exploited its role as the fabricator of the fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor to insist on getting all the LEU first to incapacitate Iran's nuclear program, stretch out the delivery schedule to improbable lengths, and encourage suspicions of its sincerity to ultimately deliver the fuel plates, thereby helping pooch the deal.

If Israel ostentatiously declines to participate in the NPT regime and the current situation holds, the big loser would be Russia, which made a reckless jump to the U.S. side of the fence on the Iran issue, not only futzing on completion of the Bushehr nuclear power station and joining the sanctions chorus, but also holding up delivery of a anti-aircraft defense system that Iran, apparently, is rather keen to install.

The big winners are Israel, which retains its position as America's indispensable and embattled ally in the Middle East--and China, which gets to occupy the Iran's superpower patron slot previously occupied by Moscow.

Now, moving on to bones, bombs, and monkeys:

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is, to my mind, the apogee of his creative achievement.

It is also a movie about disarmament.

President Obama will perhaps be depressed or inspired to learn that, in the opinion of Kubrick and screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke, true disarmament will be a process of finite but not brief duration--maybe 200,000 years.

In 2001's prologue, a pack of put-upon vegetarian apes learns, with the help of an alien monolith, to slaughter competitors and four-legged food opportunities with hand-held weapons.

The prologue ends with the savviest and most bloodthirsty ape, Moonwatcher, flinging his bone club triumphantly into the sky.

As it soars upward, the sky grows dark and--in what has been described as the "longest jumpcut in the history of cinema"--the bone morphs into a spacecraft orbiting Earth many millenia later (the picture at the top of the post).

As one should expect, given Kubrick's obsessive attention to artistic and narrative coherence, the cut is not just a cute, clever transition.

The elongated satellite recapitulates both the shape and function of the bone club: it's an orbiting nuclear weapon.

As Kubrick and Clarke envisaged the narrative (preserved in Clarke's novelization), Bowman--after his accelerated evolution into the godlike Starchild--would return to Earth and, as his first order of business, telekinetically detonate all the space weapons and usher the planet into a post-nuclear nirvana.

However, Kubrick--despite the exemplary forebearance of MGM, which gave him complete artistic control and was permanently barred from the set for its pains--ran out of time and money after three years.

So there is no spectacular explosion, perhaps with those Saturn rings that are so popular these days and, for that matter, no aliens--whose credible depiction was much desired by Kubrick and Clarke but abandoned as unattainable.

Instead, the film stands as a classic of hypnotic, seductive, open-ended ambiguity--much like the disarmament process itself.

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