Controversy has surrounded negotiations aimed at halting Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, especially in Washington. Seemingly every turn in the talks generates a storm of criticism directed at the Obama administration, which is effectively leading an international effort to peacefully head off the advent of another nuclear arsenal. The good intentions and openness of the Obama administration on the issue in fact stand as a refreshing break from past U.S. dealings regarding nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Twice in recent decades American presidents have struck secret deals allowing the spread of nuclear weapons in the region, flouting longstanding U.S. commitments to nonproliferation.
The first deal came 1969, when the Nixon administration learned of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Israel actually already had a nuclear device by 1967, but it was not until 1968-1969 that U.S. officials concluded definitively that an Israeli bomb was about to become a physical and political reality. Declassified documents released by the National Security Archive show that most senior officials in the Nixon administration wanted to pressure Israel into giving up the program for the sake of Middle East stability. There was talk of withholding military aid and other measures. But all that went away after President Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir met in September of 1969 at the White House.
No written record of the meeting between Nixon and Meir is available as yet, but their exchange seems to have cemented the understanding between the United States and Israel that remains in place today regarding Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Documents suggest that Meir pledged to maintain nuclear restraint, meaning no testing or outright public disclosure of the program. In return President Nixon appears to have agreed to refrain from making trouble over the issue. By 1975, in keeping with this understanding, the State Department was refusing to tell Congress about the Israeli nuclear program, even though by then U.S. intelligence had virtually full knowledge of it.
The next shady nuclear deal arose when President Reagan sat in the White House and Zia ul-Haq ruled Pakistan. By the early summer of 1981 U.S. intelligence estimated that the Pakistanis were likely to have a workable nuclear weapon perhaps as soon as 1983. In July of 1982, the Reagan administration sent former CIA Deputy Director General Vernon Walters to meet secretly with Zia and confront him about the program, which threatened to complicate the ongoing CIA campaign to back rebels waging war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
At first Zia acknowledged the program but then backtracked and denied everything, assuring U.S. officials that Pakistan was not pursuing nuclear weapons. Further declassified documents show that in following years time and time again Reagan administration officials concluded that Zia was simply lying. But the Reagan administration found the fiction useful. If the Pakistanis suddenly started telling the truth about their program to the White House, then Congress might have found out and cut funding for the Afghan rebels, who worked closely with the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence. This pattern of deception went on for years until Pakistan and India both revealed nuclear arsenals in 1998 with dueling test blasts.
Past U.S. failure to move forcefully against nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is all the more damning when considering the long list of nations that have been induced to abandon pursuit of such weapons. Countries ranging from Taiwan to South Africa have stepped away from nuclear armament, swayed by the kind of diplomacy the Obama administration is now employing in its dealings with Iran. If past U.S. presidents had acted in a similarly responsible way, then preventing nuclear weapons from spreading further across the world’s most violent region would be much easier today.