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Memory Loss

The Hypocrisy of Britain and France

Two weeks ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted to refer the matter of Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. There is plenty to like about the IAEA resolution, starting with the large majority it commanded among the organization's member states--even the usually recalcitrant Russians and Chinese signed on. Moreover, the strong text refers to Iran's "many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply" with Nuclear Proliferation Treaty agreements; asserts an "absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes"; and notes Tehran's "history of concealment" regarding its nuclear activities. In other words, the resolution states publicly and unambiguously what everyone has long known: that Iran has been lying about its nuclear program.

Yet the resolution also contains a key flaw: At the insistence of Egypt, and with the backing of the European Union, the text contains a clause calling for the creation of "a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery"--a pointed jab at the region's only nuclear power, Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the American delegation tried unsuccessfully to block the clause, rightly fearing that it could be used as anti-Israel propaganda and would provide an excuse for Iran to sidestep its obligations in the future. "The Americans are worried that once it is there, it will stay there forever and allow the Iranians to hide behind it," one ambassador told The New York Times. Indeed, in the court of world opinion, easily inflamed by anti-Israel rhetoric and no less easily swayed by fuzzy talk about a nuclear-free Middle East, the clause gives Iran a powerful rhetorical weapon. If it remains committed to proceeding with a nuclear program, Tehran can claim the need to deter Israel's nuclear weapons. It could make a reasonable and "generous" offer to refrain from developing nuclear weapons if only Israel would unilaterally eliminate its weapons. And when Israel refuses, Iran can claim that it is Israel standing in the way of a nuclear-free regional utopia. Moreover, as fear of a nuclear Iran intensifies, this language will open the door for Israel's critics in the BBC and like-minded organs in Europe to blame the Jewish state for any threat that Iran may pose to the continent. It could shift the focus of attention at the United Nations from Iran's weapons to those of the one stable democracy in the Middle East--and thereby fragment the coalition of countries seeking to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear arms.

But the clause is not merely bad geopolitical strategy; it is also the height of hypocrisy. Two of the governments that backed the language were Britain and France; and it was only a quarter of a century ago, during the battle over missile deployments in Europe, that those countries found themselves in a situation almost exactly analogous to Israel's role in the Iran debate. The stance taken by London and Paris then was the correct one--and the exact opposite of the position they have forced on Israel now.

Between 1981 and 1983, the United States and the Soviet Union conducted Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force negotiations in Geneva. Throughout this time, Moscow insisted that the nuclear arsenals of Britain and France be included in the balance of forces to be discussed--a proposal that London and Paris adamantly opposed. Including British and French weapons in their calculus allowed the Soviets to claim that a balance of forces existed in Europe even after they had deployed several hundred SS-20s pointed at the western half of the continent. Had British and French weapons been counted in the intermediate range nuclear balance, the Soviets could have proposed to dismantle their SS-20 arsenal if only Britain and France would eliminate their own nuclear deterrents. Aware that the slogan of a "nuclear-free Europe" might lead to demands for their unilateral nuclear disarmament, the British and French governments persistently rejected this Soviet negotiating ploy.

The Soviet strategy was to turn non-nuclear West Germany against Britain and France. And it almost worked. Massive demonstrations in Western Europe opposed the deployment of American medium-range missiles, as did West Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD). But Britain and France held firm, arguing that their own nuclear arsenals were weapons of last resort intended only to deter attacks on their homelands. Besides, they pointed out, their weapons had been deployed long before the SS-20s appeared. While such arguments surprised no one coming from Margaret Thatcher, the French socialist president François Mitterand was even more emphatic: On January 20, 1983, in the midst of a heated West German election fought in large part over the missile question, he stunned the SPD by making these arguments in a memorable speech to the West German parliament--in effect endorsing the conservatives led by Helmut Kohl. Britain and France understood very well that the Soviets might offer to eliminate their SS-20s if Britain and France would give up their nuclear weapons. But they also understood that a nuclear-free Europe of this sort was simply another name for unilateral disarmament; and Thatcher and Mitterand would have none of it. Six weeks after Mitterand spoke in Bonn, Kohl won the West German elections. He pledged to proceed with the Cruise and Pershing 2 deployments if the Soviet Union maintained its SS-20s or refused to conduct negotiations that did not include British and French weapons in Europe's medium-range balance of forces. The Soviet effort to split the Atlantic alliance had failed.

So NATO installed the missiles in West Germany; and, instead of leading to nuclear confrontation, the deployments led to the fall of the hardliners in Moscow, the rise of reformers, and, in 1987, the acceptance by Mikhail Gorbachev of the "zero-zero" option offered by President Reagan. In 1981, when Reagan had first presented that option--a promise not to deploy any American Cruise and Pershing 2 missiles if the Soviets would dismantle their SS-20s--liberals, with the exception of this magazine, greeted his proposal with scorn. Surely, they argued, Reagan's offer was merely a ploy to place American missiles in Europe, for the Soviets would never agree to dismantle their SS-20s. And yet, in 1987, that is exactly what happened. Meanwhile, because America had refused to bargain away the right to self-defense of its allies in London and Paris, the British and French arsenals remained intact.

Fast forward to the present. A country sworn to Israel's destruction is moving towards acquiring nuclear weapons; the anti-Semitism of radical Islam is ascendant in the Muslim world; and Hamas has just won an election in the Palestinian territories. Now, more than ever, Israel needs a strong deterrent against its enemies. At such a moment, the Jewish state's nuclear weapons should be just as much a non-issue as Britain and France wanted their own nuclear arsenals to be during the early 1980s.

How could the British and French ignore the similarities between Israel's plight today and their plight during the 1980s? The most generous reading is that the countries' diplomats suffer from a lack of institutional memory. But it strains credulity that diplomatic corps as professional and competent as those in Europe simply forgot the arguments they made with such intelligence and passion just 25 years ago. The more plausible explanation is less flattering: Britain and France are willing to do to Israel what they would not accept being done to themselves because they are now so terrified of an Iranian bomb that they are willing to pressure Israel to unilaterally disarm in the hopes that this will convince Tehran's mullahs not to go nuclear. This shortsighted strategy only makes sense if the survival of Israel is a matter of indifference and if one believes that sacrificing Israel's national interest will moderate Iran's policies. The driving force behind such a policy is no longer the now-shattered hopes about the goodwill or peaceful intentions of the Iranian regime. The driving force is fear.

Fear fosters illusions and false hopes; and the more terrified Europe becomes at the prospect that religious fundamentalists in Tehran will possess nuclear weapons, the more the logic of the nuclear-free Middle East clause in the IAEA resolution could lead the EU to pressure Israel to eliminate its nuclear weapons. Iran could, with the world watching at the Security Council, condition an end to its nuclear program on an elimination of Israel's nuclear arsenal. In the Arab and Islamic world and in much of Europe such an offer might appear generous, while the Israeli refusal to even discuss it, as France and Britain refused to discuss an analogous offer in the 1980s, could be made to appear stubborn. Among that large international audience that either despises Israel or is unconcerned for its security, the argument that Israel's weapons are a barrier either to preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb or realizing a "nuclear-free Middle East" would fall on receptive ears.

At a moment when the unity of the civilized world in the face of radical Islam and its variant of totalitarian politics is essential, the British and French governments would do well to recall that the Western Alliance defeated the Soviet strategy in 1983 in part because the United States refused to sacrifice British and French interests for the sake of a bad arms control deal with the USSR. Likewise, the West will not win today's struggle with radical Islam by agreeing to undermine the sovereignty and security of Israel. Indeed, for radical Islamists, the inclusion of demands for a nuclear-free Middle East in the IAEA resolution may suggest that the prospect of Iran going nuclear is already paying political dividends.

If, as the European governments say is the case, Israel's right to exist is not a subject for negotiation, then neither are the means that Israelis decide to use to insure their existence. Israel must not have its sovereignty and right to self-defense negotiated away by other powers in the illusory hope that appeasing a fanatical dictatorship will bring peace or security. In the weeks and months to come, American diplomats should try to get that mischievous clause deleted from the IAEA resolution and to focus the attention of the Security Council where it belongs: solely on Iran. Britain and France should understand the logic of all this. After all, it is the same logic they used themselves, and not so long ago.

Jeffrey Herf is professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park. His book The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust is forthcoming this spring from Harvard University Press.