But Israel is no longer so vulnerable. True, much of the region is still hostile (despite peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan). Yet Israel holds a profound conventional superiority over any potential rivals – a superiority that makes a nuclear-free Middle East a strong and effective second-best option after a nuclear monopoly.
Moreover, it’s unclear that Israel would sacrifice much in a nuclear-free Middle East. Its nuclear arsenal has not deterred Arab countries from launching conventional attacks against it (as in 1973) and it has not deterred asymmetric campaigns by nonstate actors.
The only role Israel’s nuclear arsenal may have played so far has been to deter attack from unconventional weapons, as in Iraq’s nonuse of chemical weapons against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. But Israel’s air superiority and precision weapons could do that just as well.
A regional denuclearization agreement is in Iran’s interest, as well. Even if it succeeds in building a nuclear bomb, Iran is unlikely to develop a nuclear arsenal even remotely on par with Israel’s. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear developments are exacerbating its political and economic isolation.
But Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have staked their reputation on defiance in the face of American and Israeli pressure. They are too invested in the nuclear project to turn back without a significant achievement. A regional denuclearization agreement would relieve sanctions pressure and allow them to save face. They could argue to their constituencies (with a degree of truth) that they alone were able to force Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.
The practical obstacles to a deal are formidable, but not impossible. The level of distrust is such that both sides will be extremely reluctant to give up anything before being assured of the other side’s compliance.