Diplomacy aimed at curbing Iran's march toward a nuclear-weapons capability is again in one of its periodic lulls. The IAEA Board of Governors' decision to refer the issue to the Security Council, in effect, puts the issue on the back burner until March. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, urged Iran to suspend its nuclear activities and pursue a deal offered by Russia (Canada Press) that would mollify many of the world's concerns but still allow Iran to develop a civilian nuclear program. Still, as nonproliferation expert David Albright tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman, no one appears optimistic right now that Tehran is ready to yield.
Yet as the world's diplomats fret over Iran's nuclear ambitions, Egypt has sought to expand the focus of discussions to an issue that has long preoccupied Arab states: Israel's own potent nuclear arsenal, explored in this CFR Background Q&A by Lionel Beehner. Cairo demanded at the IAEA board meeting that the resolution referring Iran's nuclear issue to the Security Council include the following statement: "a solution to the Iranian issue would contribute to global nonproliferation efforts and to realising the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery."
The idea of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East has been around for many years, pushed primarily by Arab states eager to highlight what they see as the double standard the West applies with regard to the Israeli arsenal. Israel, in fact, never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and so its unacknowledged arsenal does not technically violate it. But many nations would like to see Israel subject to pressure to open up its facilities to the kinds of inspections being demanded of Iran.
Israel and Iran regularly trade barbs about this issue. As Newsweek reports, some in Israel feel it will be necessary to act militarily against Iran if international diplomacy fails to convince Tehran to desist. Israel famously did just that to the nascent Iraqi nuclear weapons program in 1981, destroying its Osirak facility in a surprise air attack. Several official warnings, the most recent last month, have hinted at such an action (BBC).
Experts also see a shift in Israel's strategy, pointing to a recent interview in which U.S. President George W. Bush he vowed to "rise to Israel's defense" in reaction to threatening talk from Iran's president. Bush's language was seen as a move toward providing a U.S. security "umbrella" for Israel. Since the Bush interview, Israeli rhetoric on Iran has been muted. But experts also agree Iran's nuclear network (MSNBC.com) is too dispersed to be easily destroyed.