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 (GA/63/38) 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-weapon-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, petered out without any obviously positive outcome. Clearly, a pre-requisite to establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East would be peaceful relations between all the countries of the region. How else could its implementation be discussed and carried forward?
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 US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, spoke at the UN earlier this month (3 May) about creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, there seemed nothing new in her reiteration of a long-held aspiration. However, all may not be as it seems. For something of a reinvigoration of the long-term objective appears to be gathering momentum, though with a recognisable spin – pressure on Israel to declare itself a nuclear state, to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to reveal its total nuclear capacity and to start the process of dismantling its nuclear warheads.
Last month US and Egyptian officials discussed an Egyptian working paper, "Middle East free of nuclear weapons". The paper asks all 189 states that are party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) to reveal what they know of Israel's nuclear arsenal, deny it nuclear materials and insist on it dismantling nuclear warheads. By coincidence or design, the 22 nations that are party to the Arab League and also to the NPT wrote to the IAEA at the same time with similar suggestions.
Whether in response to these moves or not, the IAEA has placed "Israeli nuclear capabilities" on its provisional agenda for its June board meeting in Vienna. In addition the IAEA's new director general, Yukiya Amano, is reported to have asked the foreign ministers of the agency's 151 member states to propose ways of persuading Israel to sign the NPT. No mention was made of India or Pakistan, both with nuclear weapon capabilities and neither of which are signatories.
Earlier this month Russia, along with the other permanent members of the Security Council, expressed support for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Without mentioning Israel by name, the countries voiced support in a unanimous statement for the “full implementation” of a 1995 resolution intended to free the Middle East from nuclear arms.
Egypt, which has long taken a lead on this issue, has now effectively manipulated the Iranian issue to create a new linkage between Iran and Israel. They are pushing the argument that Iran can only be effectively pressured into abandoning its nuclear ambitions if Israel can be forced to sign the NPT and declare its nuclear capacity.
But this proposed "linkage" has little validity. Iran's push to develop nuclear weapons arises from its ambition to dominate the Middle East – to "devour the Arab world", as Egypt's President Mubarak has put it. Iran claims Bahrain, and sends weapons to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. In truth Israel is irrelevant to these plans, except to serve as a convenient whipping boy. President 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 threatens Israel, while Israel has never threatened any state, either with conventional or with nuclear weapons. However it is recognised that Israel's nuclear capability, whatever it consists of, provides the country with a degree of deterrence against the sort of threatening 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 USA disclosing last month that it possesses 5,113 nuclear warheads, and completing negotiations with the Russian Federation on new cuts in its 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 programmes, thus contravening their obligations. Another signatory to the NPT, North Korea, even expelled IAEA inspectors and completed its secret nuclear weapons programme, without any effective Western response.
Israel has long been aware of the limits of the NPT, realising 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.
Where the current moves fall down is 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 to cover this: putting the cart before the horse.