x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Middle East free of nuclear weapons can become reality

A nuclear-free Middle East? It's not as unlikely as it sounds, despite the obvious problems, and there is already some momentum behind the idea.

The United States has just stepped up Bahrain's security by agreeing to renew arms sales. Washington has also agreed to a huge hike of $680 million for Israeli security aid.

In a region already bristling with military hardware and the US Fifth Fleet, the escalating arms sales send a strong message to Iran about US military resolve.

But there is another way. Against the background of the negotiations between Iran and the big powers, which are set to resume in Baghdad tomorrow, there is another diplomatic opportunity involving the entire region - including Israel and Iran - which would eventually establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

It addresses the fundamental condition that a long-term, and fair, solution must deal with the security challenges from both Israel's nuclear arsenal and Iran's nuclear programme. The P5 + 1 negotiations with Iran - involving the US, UK, Russia, France China and Germany -  will not be enough.

The proposal for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East has been on the table at the United Nations, and at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), for decades. Successive Israeli governments have actually endorsed the concept, while warning that establishment of such a zone could not happen until a comprehensive Middle East peace had been reached.

But the idea of holding a conference on establishing a WMD-free zone gained new momentum in May 2010, when 190 states at the NPT Review Conference decided to convene one this year. Few expected the Obama administration to swing its weight behind the move, but it did so to send a signal about its commitment to the NPT regime which has underpinned international security for more than a generation.

So far, Israel has not said whether or not it would attend the conference, which may be held in December in Helsinki. Conventional wisdom has it that Israel would never agree to disarm.

But the fact is that because of geography, Israel has got itself the ultimate doomsday weapon that it could never use - to do so would be suicidal. Nuclear weapons did not come into play during the wars with Lebanon and on Gaza, and there is no current or former Israeli intelligence chief who believes that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel.

Security is a word that Israelis understand. If Iran were to build a bomb, it is not hard to imagine a nuclear arms race that would see Saudi Arabia acquiring one, and Egypt making good on its threat to develop one. Turkey could also go nuclear. As Israeli strategist Ze'ev Maoz puts it: "The dilemma Israel faces in the longer run is between a nuclear Middle East and a demilitarised one. Either everyone in the region has nuclear weapons or no state has."

Furthermore, few western military leaders are enthusiastic about nuclear weapons, which are totally inappropriate for dealing with modern threats such as terrorism. They don't want their forces exposed to nuclear fallout, and the funding reserved for the nuclear weapons complex at a time of fiscal austerity could be diverted to conventional weaponry.

Surprisingly, in Israel itself, a country whose nuclear programme is surrounded by official opacity, opinion polls have shown that there is a majority of public opinion in favour of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. In Israel, a timid debate has begun. The Jerusalem Post has opened its pages to advocates of the WMD-free zone.

This is an idea whose time has come. There are already five nuclear free zones which cover the entire southern hemisphere. The Middle East is unique, but there are initial steps that could be explored without Israel joining the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, as Egypt demands.

For example Israel could freeze plutonium production at its Dimona nuclear weapons reactor. In return, Israel's neighbours could reassure Tel Aviv by joining existing conventions banning chemical and biological weapons. Egypt and Israel could simultaneously ratify the global test ban treaty.

Some will wonder exactly how such progress on arms control can be made in a region where peace remains elusive. But consider the example of former US President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who forged a pact to eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons in the middle of the Cold War.

A diplomatic solution must be multilateral and involve all the regional players, including those in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular are active behind the scenes in pushing for a conference on a WMD-free zone. (Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the United States and once the head of his country's intelligence service, is a vocal supporter.)

Any deal would have to address the long-held Arab grievances about the West's "double standards" in dealing with Israel, which is seen as reaping security rewards from outside the NPT, while NPT member Iran complains that it is being punished for pursuing its treaty rights of civilian nuclear power. Of course Iran has questions to answer, but so does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his handling of the Iranian crisis.

A WMD-free zone in the Middle East would take years to negotiate, but the alternatives, including possible military action against Iran, are chilling. This is not about only the security of a region, but of the world.


Anne Penketh is Program Director, Washington, of the British American Security Information Council