A Middle East nuclear weapon free zone—the background

27.05.2010 - Tel Aviv - Pressenza IPA

*This article first appeared in the daily “News in Review” produced by Reaching Critical Will every day during the NPT conference. It is reproduced here by kind consent of the author and the Jerusalem-based Palestine-Israel Journal www.pij.org.*

Does anyone know the answer to the brainteaser—“What happened on 9 December 1974 that connects the Middle East with Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” The answer is that on that day, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3236 calling for “the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region of the Middle East.”

That resolution has been reaffirmed many times over the years. This year, the Egyptian delegation to the NPT Review Conference has once again raised the issue in New York.

Dr. Sameh Aboul-Enein, a noted Egyptian scholar and expert on disarmament issues, wrote the following in the recent issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal (www.pij.org) devoted to “A Nuclear Free Zone in the Middle East: Realistic or Idealistic?”:

“The 1995 Resolution on the Middle East adopted by the NPT Review and Extension Conference recognized the region’s special status, as did the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Insofar as it pertains to the NPT, particularly its review, implementation and universality, the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East focused on achieving the following clear objectives:

• The establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East;

• The accession to the NPT by states in the region that have not yet done so; and

• The placement of all nuclear facilities in the Middle East under full-scope IAEA safeguards.”

Dr Aboul-Enein noted that as the 2010 NPT Review Conference drew near, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once again issued a call for *“the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East (as) a first step toward creating an effectively verifiable zone in the Middle East that would be free of all weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their delivery systems.”*

Easier said than done, though we can all agree that this is clearly a worthy goal, in the interests of all the peoples and states in the Middle East.

The most serious attempt to confront the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East took place within the framework of the “Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS)” working group talks between 1992-1995. With the participation of 14 regional actors, ACRS was one of the five multilateral working groups established after the post-Gulf War 1991 Madrid Conference hosted by the Spanish government and co-sponsored by the USA and the USSR.

The primary reason the talks collapsed was a fundamental disagreement between the Egyptian and Israeli delegations about priorities. The Egyptians said that the creation of Middle East nuclear-free zone was the first priority, while the Israeli delegation said that comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace was the precondition for creating a ME NWFZ.

This leads us back to the need to understand the motivation behind the Israeli nuclear program.

According to Dr. Avner Cohen, the leading historian of Israeli nuclear policy, the origins of the program began with the perception of the country’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion—soon after the State of Israel was established in 1948, just three year’s after the end of the Nazi Holocaust, which had killed one third of the Jewish people—that a nuclear insurance policy was necessary to ensure that “never again” would such a catastrophe occur. Israel reached a nuclear weapons capacity around 1967–68, and according to foreign sources, it is assumed to have between 80–200 nuclear warheads. However, Israel has never officially declared that it has nuclear weapons, and according to a formula first enunciated by Shimon Peres, considered one of the fathers of the nuclear program, in a meeting with American President Jack Kennedy in 1963: “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.” In recent years Peres, now the Israeli president has periodically reaffirmed the official Israeli position in support of an eventual nuclear and weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. However this is always accompanied by the condition that this would only be an “end of days” scenario, i.e. as a final component of comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace.

The other primary factor that has to be taken into account when trying to promote a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone is the Iranian nuclear program. This program did not begin with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The original Iranian nuclear program began in the 50s with the aid of American President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, and it is well documented that the Shah of Iran was a strong proponent of the program.

Today, the Iranian leadership officially declares that its program is only dedicated to peaceful purposes, and it too officially expresses support for a Middle East nuclear-free zone, but Western and regional governments, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have expressed various degrees of skepticism and concern about the actual goals of the program. Another concern is that if the Iranians do gain nuclear weapons potential, it may set off a regional nuclear arms race which will include many of the Arab Sunni regimes in the region, which may feel threatened by Shiite non-Arab Iran.

So the first thing to ask when promoting a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone is, what are the borders of the Middle East? Are we just talking about Israel and its Arab neighbors? What about Iran? And what about Pakistan, and India, which are acknowledged to have nuclear weapons?

One thing is clear—asking Israel to sign the NPT is a futile exercise, because it will not unilaterally disarm, a condition for joining the Treaty, before comprehensive peace is achieved.
That doesn’t mean that nothing can be done. We now have a tool which didn’t exist in 1974 when the first UNGA resolution on a Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone was passed, which didn’t even exist when the ACRS talks collapsed in 1995. I’m referring to the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which was passed at the Arab League summit conference in Beirut in 2002, and reaffirmed at successive summit conferences. The API, signed by 22 Arab states, and supported by 57 Moslem countries, including Iran, offers Israel comprehensive peace and normalized relations, in exchange for a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, and an agreed upon solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

What we need today is two parallel tracks, with the participation of all the relevant players. One should move towards the achievement of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab comprehensive peace. And the other should move, simultaneously, towards the achievement of a nuclear-weapons-free and weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East.

Categories: International, International issues, Middle East, Opinions

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