Sunday, 20 October 2013

What follows a deal with Iran?

On October 15 and 16 the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany sat round a table in Geneva with the Iranian president and foreign minister, and discussed whether, how and to what extent Iran’s nuclear program could be brought under the control of the International Atomic Energy Authority (the IAEA) and shorn of its capacity to produce nuclear weaponry. As the conference adjourned until November 7, both sides stressed: “many details remained to be discussed.”
  
But the devil, as the old saying goes, is in the details.

It is clear that Iran’s aim is to strike a deal that would convince the UN and the West to lift, or at least ameliorate, the sanctions that have been crippling the r├ęgime’s economy, while at the same time retaining as much of its nuclear capacity as possible – and certainly to maintain its access to uranium enrichment, since that would leave the potential for a relatively short dash to build a nuclear weapon. And, after all, it is always possible to expel IAEA inspectors, as North Korea did when it suited their book.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chaired the talks, said that Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Zarif had “presented an outline of a plan as a proposed basis for negotiation” and that talks had been “substantive and forward looking.”

Few details were revealed of these Iranian proposals already agreed, according to some reports, by Washington and Moscow but they are believed to consist of an initial six months of confidence-building measures, including curbs on Iran’s uranium enrichment, in exchange for some sanctions relief. This would be followed by a further six months implementing an “end state” of affairs. Several media reports speculate that this final deal would include, on the one hand Iran’s agreement to spot checks of its nuclear facilities by international inspectors, in exchange for which the international community would permit some continued uranium enrichment by Iran.

What has so far attracted little speculation is the likely political fallout for the parties concerned, including Israel, from a deal of this sort.  For example, if Iran should submit itself to unfettered inspection by the IAEA – a large, but not impossible, supposition the hoary issue of establishing the Middle East as a nuclear-weapons-free zone may be back in play.

     It was as far back as 1980 that Israel and Egypt 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.

Ten years later, in 1990, UN General Assembly Resolution 45/52 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 many IAEA conferences that followed − the last in September 2013 − petered out without any obviously positive outcome. Why?  Because there is a patently obvious prerequisite to establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East namely, peaceful relations between the countries of the region. How else could its implementation be discussed, carried forward and monitored?

           Peaceful relations, though, have never seemed remotely within reach. One essential element would be a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, endorsed by the Arab League and followed, as they promise, by the “normalization of relations” with the Muslim world.  We are a long way from that.  But take the Israeli-Palestinian dispute out of the picture, and consider the intra-regional rivalries and conflicts in the Middle East over the past 40 years – culminating in the civil war in Syria, where major Arab nations are engaged in a struggle for power while Sunni and Shia jihadists battle out their rivalries to the death.  How, amidst this turmoil, is the infrastructure necessary to establish the region as a nuclear-weapons-free zone to be constructed?

Hours before the Geneva meeting, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani swept logic to one side.  As if presaging Iran’s final compliance with the UN’s demands, he said with an eye obviously cast in Israel’s direction that all nations should be subject to unfettered inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that no country had the right to a nuclear arsenal and that Israel should join the 1979 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

However, it was only a few weeks back – on September 20 – that a resolution calling on Israel to join the NPT and put all its nuclear sites under comprehensive IAEA safeguards, failed to pass the General Conference of the IAEA.  Sponsored by a group of 18 Arab states, the measure failed by a vote of 43-51. The majority agreed with Shaul Chorev, head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, who said that a nuclear-weapons-free zone was a goal attainable at the end of a process that brings about a change in attitudes towards Israel, not at the beginning.

          “Lasting peaceful relations,” he said, “reconciliation, good neighborliness, open borders and trust among the regional parties” would be “key milestones on the route to a joint regional endeavor to create a mutually verifiable zone, free of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.” Progress toward that goal “cannot be made without a fundamental change in regional conditions not least, a significant transformation in the attitude of states in the region towards Israel.”

            Although Israel has not joined the NPT, it has been a member of the IAEA since 1957, and its nuclear research activities are subject to IAEA monitoring and verification. This has not prevented Israel from maintaining a policy of opacity regarding its nuclear weapons capability, neither confirming nor denying the universally held belief that it is, indeed, a nuclear power.

        Any sudden revelation about an Israeli nuclear weapons capability would seriously destabilise the whole region. So a question for Israel is whether, or possibly when, opacity is to be replaced by transparency.  An agreed deal between Iran and the UN, especially one in which Iran willingly subjects itself to unfettered spot checks by IAEA inspectors, may well put Israel on the back foot and hasten that day of decision.   

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 20 October 2013:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/What-follows-a-deal-with-Iran-329223?prmusr=IYNEe3orx9mUZESgZvDyvplM8Ee4HIs7zYc%2biYtdbYB5B4Yr8HA%2fcUFQx1pDT9j%2f

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