For nearly 50 years, worries about a nuclear Middle East centered on Israel. Arab leaders resented the fact that Israel was the only atomic power in the region, a resentment heightened by America’s tacit approval of the situation. But they were also pretty certain that Israel (which has never explicitly acknowledged having nuclear weapons) would not drop the bomb except as a very last resort. That is why Egypt and Syria were unafraid to attack Israel during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. “Israel will not be the first country in the region to use nuclear weapons,” went the Israelis’ coy formula. “Nor will it be the second.”
Today the nuclear game in the region has changed. When the Arab League’s secretary general, Amr Moussa, called for “a Middle Eastfree of nuclear weapons” this past May, it wasn’t Israel that prompted his remarks. He was worried about Iran, whose self-declared ambition to become a nuclear power has been steadily approaching realization.