A Radical Plan for Keeping Iran Nukeless Without War

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A small number of nonproliferation experts have long harbored a secret plan for keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons--a plan whose virtues include not getting anybody killed.

The plan is secret not because they want it to be secret, but because whenever they try to share it with someone they're greeted with either indifference or rebuff. The reaction they get, if any, is that their plan is too visionary, too impractical. That may be changing, thanks to some surprising data in an important op-ed piece in today's New York Times.

The plan is for a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. The idea is that Israel and Iran would open themselves up to highly intrusive inspections--of their declared nuclear facilities and of any suspicious undeclared sites--and other nations in the region would agree to monitoring as well. As Israel became assured that there were no nuclear weapons programs afoot in the region, it would gradually reduce its nuclear stockpile until, years or even decades from now, it had no nuclear weapons--but could live secure in the knowledge that none of its adversaries had them either. (Israel might preserve "breakout capacity"--the ability to produce a nuke in a matter of months.)

One of the main objections to this plan has been that Israel would never go for it. But the co-authors of the Times piece--Steven Kull and Shibley Telhami--report these findings from polls they conducted two months ago in Israel: "When asked whether it would be better for both Israel and Iran to have the bomb, or for neither to have it, 65 percent of Israeli Jews said neither. And a remarkable 64 percent favored the idea of a nuclear-free zone, even when it was explained that this would mean Israel giving up its nuclear weapons." A clear majority also bought into the idea of opening Israel's and Iran's nuclear facilities to "a system of full international inspections."

So one major objection to a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East has now eroded significantly. Meanwhile, the flirtation with actual military conflict that we've seen in recent weeks has presumably sharpened the appetite for alternatives to war. (Telhami and Kull report that "only 43 percent of Israeli Jews support a military strike on Iran--even though 90 percent of them think that Iran will eventually acquire nuclear weapons.") So maybe a proposal this creative can finally get some traction. At any rate, it has made the transition from secret plan to plan. And that's a start.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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