Thursday, 9 August 2012

A nuclear-weapons-free Middle East

Imagine representatives of Iran and Israel sitting at the same table discussing how to reach the goal of a Middle East free from nuclear weapons.

It happened.

Back in May 1993 the International Atomic Energy Authority (the IAEA) convened the first of a series of conferences in Vienna on just this subject, and both Iran and Israel attended. Over the four years to 1997 other such conferences and workshops took place.

Nor was this very surprising. As far back as 1980, Israel and Egypt had jointly proposed a resolution in the United Nations on the desirability of establishing the Middle East as a nuclear-weapons-free zone – and the General Assembly decided that henceforth this resolution would be adopted annually without a vote. Moreover, in 1990, UN General Assembly resolution 45/52 had invited all countries of the region, "pending the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region of the Middle East, to declare their support for establishing such a zone."

This UN resolution, like the IAEA conferences that followed − the last in November 2011 − petered out without any obviously positive outcome. There is a clear and patent prerequisite to establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East − peaceful relations between all the countries of the region. How else could its implementation be discussed, carried forward and monitored?

But that desirable goal has never seemed remotely within reach. Take Israel out of the picture, and consider the intra-regional rivalries and conflicts in the Middle East over the past 40 years – the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan, the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the civil war in South Lebanon, the seizure of Gaza by Hamas, the growth of extreme Islamism exemplified by Al-Qaeda and the subsequent undermining of "moderate" Muslim states. To extend the scope of the argument somewhat in order to make the point, it has been calculated that of the 11 million Muslims killed in conflicts since 1948, some 90 per cent were killed by fellow Muslims.

So when in May 2010, following a conference taking stock of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the five permanent UN Security Council members issued a unanimous statement: "we are committed to a full implementation of the 1995 NPT resolution on the Middle East and we support all ongoing efforts to this end," there seemed nothing new in the reiteration of a long-held aspiration. And indeed the US, Russia, and the United Kingdom, the treaty depository powers and sponsors of the 1995 NPT Resolution, committed themselves to work together with the UN Secretary General to convene a regional conference to discuss the issue in 2012.

This new NPT conference is indeed scheduled to be held in Helsinki later this year, or possibly early in 2013. In preparation for it, Finland's undersecretary of state for foreign affairs is reported to have visited Jerusalem secretly in April for talks about Israel's involvement.

Israel will clearly wish to coordinate its position with the US. The Obama administration is known to support such a conference, since it is in line with their continued efforts to promote the NPT. However, the conference will take place after the forthcoming US presidential election, and it may be that Israel will postpone committing itself one way or the other until the outcome.

The purpose of the conference is ostensibly to discuss how to proceed with banning nuclear arms from the Middle East, but the main item on the agenda is likely to be an attempt by Arab states and Iran to curb Israel's nuclear capability. The first step in this long-running enterprise is always an attempt to create a linkage between Iran and Israel − only if Israel is forced to sign the NPT and declare its nuclear capacity, the argument runs, can Iran be effectively pressured into abandoning its nuclear ambitions.

This proposed "linkage" has, of course, little validity. It is now clear to world opinion that Iran's push to develop nuclear weapons arises from its ambition to dominate the Middle East – to "devour the Arab world,", as Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak once put it. Iran lays claim to Bahrain, and sends weapons to Assad’s regime in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. In truth Israel is irrelevant to these plans, except to serve as a convenient whipping boy from time to time. Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would certainly like Israel out of the way, but Iran will continue with its policies regardless of whether Israel signs the NPT or not.

The "equality norm" is also considered invalid by many observers, who point out that Iran continually threatens to destroy Israel, while Israel has never threatened any state, either with conventional or with nuclear weapons. It is, though, generally recognized that Israel's nuclear capability, whatever it consists of, provides the country with a degree of deterrence against the sort of hazardous situations it faced in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973.

One major question for Israel is whether it can retain its policy of nuclear "opacity" in an increasingly transparent world. With even the US disclosing the number of its nuclear warheads, and completing negotiations with the Russian Federation on new cuts in nuclear stockpiles, how long can Israel refrain from declaring its own nuclear capacity?

One Israeli expert on the subject – Avner Cohen, author of "Israel and the Bomb" – argues that it is time for Israel to consider adopting greater transparency in these matters. But he is cautious in his advice, for he perceives that a sudden announcement by Israel of its nuclear capability would inevitably rack up tensions in the Middle East and be perceived by the rest of the region as an aggressive show of force.

Signing the NPT is probably a non-starter for Israel. The actions of other signed-up members reveal the treaty to be a thing of straw. In the last ten years, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have repeatedly deceived the inspectors of the IAEA and developed nuclear-based weapons programs, thus contravening their obligations. Another signatory to the NPT, North Korea, even expelled IAEA inspectors and completed its secret nuclear weapons program, without any effective Western response.

Israel has long been aware of the limits of the NPT, realizing that to sign it would weaken its position in the region and actually leave it more vulnerable to attack. However, there is no such danger in subscribing to the ideal of a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East – a concept that would require peaceful dialogue between the nations of the region to achieve, and therefore very much an outcome that Israel would desire. Indeed, a poll of Israeli Jews conducted last November by the University of Maryland found that 64 percent of those questioned favored establishing a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, even when it was spelled out that this would mean that Israel as well as Iran would give up the option of having nuclear weapons.

Where current moves fall down is in trying to push Israel into nuclear transparency and signing the NTP − claiming this to be a vital step towards establishing a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East − before there is anything approaching the peaceful relations between the nations of the region that would be essential to achieving it.

There's a phrase that admirably covers this approach to the issue: putting the cart before the horse.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post today, 9 August 2012:

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