Contain Iran: Admit Israel to NATO

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By Ronald D. Asmus
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The choice of how to respond to Iran's growing threat to the West in general and Israel in particular is not an easy one. One option is to try to stop Iran's nuclear program via an air and missile strike -- but such a step is unlikely to work militarily and could have disastrous consequences. The other is to shift to a longer-term strategy of containment while working for peaceful regime change. While that might work over time, it is unlikely to stop Iran from going nuclear in the short term if it is determined to do so. While working to prevent Iran from going nuclear, the West must think now about what to do if we fail.

One important element has been missing from the debate: NATO. What can the alliance do to help address the growing likelihood that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons? Let us not forget that it is European capitals that would be within striking distance of Iranian nuclear arms. NATO would have to return to its classic mission of defending Europe by deterring a nuclear threat. This development would also accelerate the debate in NATO over a regional missile defense system. The alliance would have to reorient its defense shield to confront the greatest threats to its members, emanating from the wider Middle East, in particular from a nuclear-armed Iran.

But the country most threatened by a future Iranian nuclear capability is, of course, Israel. It would be a mistake to dismiss Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rantings about Israel as mere posturing or a bluff. One lesson from Sept. 11 is that we should not limit our strategic imagination or underestimate our enemies in the Middle East. When someone says he wants to wipe you off the map, he might just might mean it. If, then, the West decides that a military strike to deny Iran the nuclear option is too risky and instead opts for a policy of deterrence and long-term peaceful regime change, it must also take steps to ensure Israel's protection for that interim period.

The United States already has a de facto security commitment to Israel. Any future U.S. president would go to the defense of that country if its existence were threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran. And in spite of the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic voices that one can hear in Europe, there is little doubt that European leaders such as Tony Blair, Angela Merkel and even Jacques Chirac would also stand tall and defend Israel against an Iranian threat. Given this situation, basic deterrence theory tells us that it is more credible and effective if those commitments are clear and unambiguous.

The best way to provide Israel with that additional security is to upgrade its relationship with the collective defense arm of the West: NATO. Whether that upgraded relationship culminates in membership for Israel or simply a much closer strategic and operational defense relationship can be debated. After all, a classic security guarantee requires clear and recognized borders to be defended, something Israel does not have today. Configuring an upgraded Israel-NATO relationship will require careful diplomacy and planning. But what must be clear is that the West is prepared to match the growing bellicosity against Israel by stepping up its commitment to the existence of the Jewish state.

There are growing signs that Israel is interested in such a relationship with NATO. About two years ago I was approached by a group of Israelis and asked to help facilitate a closer Israeli-NATO dialogue. At the time, the idea seemed a bit far-fetched to many. Since then, however, a real debate has emerged in Israel over building closer ties to both NATO and the European Union. Israel has also presented the alliance with a plan for a step-by-step upgrade in bilateral cooperation. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has paid his first visit there, and talks on closer cooperation are underway.

Talking with my Israeli interlocutors two years ago, I asked them how they envisioned the circumstances under which Israel might one day seek NATO membership. They laid out two scenarios. The first was one in which Israel was moving toward a final peace settlement with Palestinians and an upgraded relationship with NATO became a key element in a package to persuade the Israeli public to opt for peace. The second was a scenario in which Iran acquired nuclear weapons and posed a real and growing threat to Israel. Having lost its own extended deterrence, Israel would turn to the West and NATO to help guarantee its very real security needs.

I would much prefer that we were faced with the first scenario, and one day we may reach that point, although the recent victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections suggests we shouldn't hold our breath. But the second scenario may become reality for Israel and the West. And that is the one that must determine the future pace of Israeli-NATO cooperation.

NATO has been reluctant to move too far too fast with Israel, preferring to wait for more progress in the peace process and wanting to move forward in cooperation with other Arab Mediterranean countries in parallel. But this is no longer the time for political correctness. It is time to break that link and not hold future Israeli-NATO ties hostage to Hamas or the broader vagaries of NATO's overall Mediterranean dialogue. While continuing to expand ties with these other Arab countries, we must recognize that the threat Israel faces is qualitatively different, as is our security commitment to that country.

Several leading Europeans have called for NATO to embrace Israel, but this debate will not get serious until the United States, Israel's main ally, puts its weight behind the idea. The time has come to do so.

The writer, executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Center in Brussels, served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs from 1997 to 2000. The views here are his own.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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