Interview with the founders of the Middle East Treaty Organization

01.11.2020 - London, United Kingdom - Tony Robinson

This post is also available in: German

Interview with the founders of the Middle East Treaty Organization

The Middle East Treaty Organization (METO), according to its shiny new website, has a vision of a peaceful, integrated and thriving Middle East built on human and environmental security and a mission to eradicate WMDs, broker peace and build security in the Middle East. After years of participating in conferences as a campaign under the wing of different partner organisations, METO, under the direction of the Israeli, Sharon Dolev, the Iranian, Emad Kiyaei and the Brit, Paul Ingram took advantage of the Covid lockdown in order to turn itself into a registered organisation. Pressenza, which has been following METO’s development since 2018, took the opportunity to interview METO’s original founders Sharon, Paul and Emad about the past, present and future. For the purposes of full disclosure, the interviewer Tony Robinson, is also a director of METO having been brought in to help out with back office functions and communications.

See the complete transcript below.

Pressenza:

This is an interview that we are doing for Pressenza, and we’re interviewing today the three founders of METO, the Middle East Treaty Organization, which is a campaign which was launched a few years ago but has started to take shape and form in recent months and is now making itself known to the rest of the world. So, we thought it’d be very interesting to bring Sharon, Emad and Paul for an interview with Pressenza to find out a little bit more about this project.

Thanks guys for being with me today. First of all I just want to get an introduction from you. If you could introduce yourself, talk about your activism and background prior to METO and your connection to the Middle East.

Sharon, would you like to start?

Sharon Dolev:

I started in human rights various campaigns when I was 20, and my life was focused around that. In 2007 I started working for Greenpeace in Israel as a nuclear disarmament campaigner. Sadly at the same year, Greenpeace international decided to close their disarmament campaign, but I decided that I wanted to continue.

It became more and more clear that we’re campaigning on something that everybody believes has no solution. And as I established the Israeli Disarmament Movement in Israel, I started to look for also solutions; meeting people like Paul, and like Emad, and thinking with them about what kind of a solution can be achieved in this zone? And that was basically the birth of METO.

Paul Ingram

So, I’m Paul. I was, for 12 odd years, executive director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and it was when I was in that position that I met Sharon at an NPT meeting, Non-Proliferation Treaty. I was on the Stop the War Coalition steering group with Jeremy Corbyn and others, and organized the large marches against war. I was also later on invited onto Iranian television to speak as a defence analyst on a regular basis and then became a talk show host on Iranian state television for seven years. It was whilst serving as a TV chat show host that I really got to grips with what the situation was, not only within Iran, but across the region, and the role of countries, like my own, in perpetuating the conflicts there. So the issue of weapons of mass destruction sits within a much bigger context of imperialism, post-imperialism of states trying to throw their weight around with each other, and the existence of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of states inside the Middle East and states outside the Middle East complicates the situation dramatically.

Emad Kiyaei

I’m Emad. I’m the Iranian in the group and I have been involved in peace movements, in conflict resolution issues across the Middle East for many years. I started off actually with the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as an associate at the Columbia University Center for International Conflict and Resolution, and that took me to the Gaza Strip and to other capitals in the region to work on what is known as a Track 1.5, or Track 2 diplomacy.

I became the executive director of the think tank in Princeton called the American-Iranian Council, which is the oldest, that dealt with reviving dialogue between Iran and the US, and through my work there I got to learn a lot about US foreign policy in terms of its approach to the Middle East, specifically to Iran

Pressenza

METO is a campaign that started to take shape, I think, over five years ago. And this all comes back to you, Sharon. Where did the idea come from? What was your inspiration?

Sharon Dolev:

So I wanted to show in Israel that nuclear weapons are dangerous and, at the NPT preparatory committee, there was a lecture from Steven Starr, and he gave a lecture about 100 Hiroshimas. What happens if there is a small, tiny nuclear war just between India and Pakistan with 100 tiny bombs, the size of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima? And he then talked about two billion people dying out of starvation and the pandemics in the two years after the war. This lecture hit me really strong. I came back to Israel and decided to try this message as the main campaign in Israel, and it worked really well. So, it was very easy with this research—that then became the centre of ICAN’s work—it was very easy to persuade Israelis that nuclear weapons are bad and are a threat to mankind and therefore to them as well.

And starting to look at solutions and to look at what the states are saying and the language, it became very clear that most people believe that it’s impossible, and to hear the same language of “it’s impossible” from those who supposedly want it; the Arab states, the European states, those who keep pushing, those who keep talking about Israel at international gatherings, but they’re calling for Israel to do something that they know that Israel won’t do. And it seems like everybody is asking for something impossible to happen while they believe that it’s impossible. How can you campaign on something that everybody believes that it’s impossible? And I didn’t know Emad then, but I met Paul at the NPT, and he talked about the zone, I think, and we started to, we sat on a bench outside, I think it was in Geneva, when we met first, we sat on a bench outside and started to talk about the impossibility and the obstacles, and how the discourse is in Israel, but then Paul came to Israel and together we held a few roundtables, or a series of questions with some of Israel’s decision makers, and we just mapped everything that they said that is impossible.

Paul Ingram

What I would say is that this demonstrates to everybody just how powerful it is when you have an initiative that is truly international and truly diverse, because I could bring a certain credibility to Sharon in the eyes of certain people such as the Israeli mainstream, just simply by virtue of me being different, me being a British person that was a think tank head. And Sharon brings a legitimacy to much of my work on the Middle East which I don’t have, because I’m not from the Middle East. People often talk about fairness and diversity but actually diversity’s real power comes to change if people pay attention to bringing different perspectives and bringing them together for a common purpose, and that’s what we’re doing with METO.

Sharon Dolev

And after two years of kind of researching the obstacles, Paul and I spent two days in London imagining the Zone, not even the Draft Treaty, just imagining how it works. We thought that if we can imagine it, then we can find the path. We keep trying to look for a path forward when actually, what we need to do is to be at the end and then go backwards. And we sat in Paul’s garden and we imagined the building. What will the building look like? Where will people be able to sit and think together and talk? And only then, what is it that they are going to think and talk about? In what floor will be which departments in this Middle East Treaty Organization. And we call it now METO; METO was an acronym of something we didn’t know how to name and then it became METO.

The fact that we are an Iranian, British and Israeli sitting together, and in some forums sitting with representatives of the Arab League, and other players, that was a very strong message and I think that talking about inspiration, that was one of the things that inspired others to support this, to support this treaty.

Pressenza

Thank you. Emad, tell us what is METO, what does it do?

Emad Kiyaei

Well, METO, is a network of civil society activists experts and some of them are known, some of them are more anonymous simply because, dealing with a WMD free zone in the Middle East requires some sensitivity in terms of how we do our work, because some countries in the region do not recognize others, some countries in the region are at war with others, but suffice to say that the Middle East Treaty Organization aim has one goal: to establish or to commit to or support the establishment of a WMD free zone in the Middle East.

We want all the chemical weapons, biological weapons and nuclear weapons to be gone from the region: not to possess them, not to use them, not to produce them, not to stockpile them, and not to have other world powers who have these weapons bring them to the region.

Now, when it comes to the Middle East what we want is 24 countries. Let’s bring it down. 24 countries: 22 Arab countries, Israel, Iran. Geographically, it’s from Iran in the East and North, all the way to Mauritania in the West, South to the Comoros Islands. It’s a huge geography. it’s one and a half times the size of the EU and it will have at the collective body, the fifth largest economy in the world. So we’re talking about a massive land mass that we want to eradicate these weapons from. And we want these governments to sign on a dotted line a treaty that gets rid of these weapons. One avenue that we have discussed thus far is this Draft Treaty. This Draft Treaty is evolving, it’s changing, it’s not set in stone. We’re civil society, we’re not governments. We don’t sign treaties. We’re just providing an avenue forward, and we’re saying, “Listen, I know you guys think it’s impossible, but it’s not, and we’re going to show you that it’s not, and we’re going to give you some form of a blueprint.” METO is providing one specific avenue as a solution to creating a WMD free zone, and that’s through a treaty. That treaty text is what the Draft Treaty that we have established and created and continuously evolve on and improve upon through roundtables, experts that come into it, is a series of discussions that we continuously have with amazing people with a network across the world, who are experts on specific issues that are discussed within the treaty, but also are experts of the region and its politics.

We have publications that provide knowledge about additional issues. We have campaigns that also go out there. And we have amazing organizations that we partner with.

So, breaking it down: Draft Treaty approach, that’s policy, governments, we promote it, we push for it, we have roundtables, everybody discusses it, and we are continuously working on that. A second track: the second track is campaigns. We want to make sure we put education out there. We go to the public, we get them to know about our campaign, about our work, about the future, about the vision that we’ve got. And number three, we make sure that we expand our network of partnerships with other civil society organizations, with governments, or otherwise those who are our allies, to make sure that their vision of the future for the zone and what we have align.

But that’s not actually where we’re going to stop, but we have big plans beyond the WMD-free-zone, because our vision is not just that. We want a better, thriving, prosperous, secure Middle East where Sharon and I can meet for lunch in Damascus and have dinner in Tehran and have breakfast in Tel Aviv. That’s what we want.

Pressenza

I’d like to know from your side, what have been some of the milestones, some of the highlights in the process until now?

Sharon Dolev

I think one of the milestones was Emad coming into the room to ask the Israeli some nasty questions! It was obvious that he’s going to give me some hard questions. And I knew he’s going to be a bit surprised. This was a very important milestone.

Another important milestone was the two days with Paul when we were just sitting there imagining, and I think that this is something that nobody did before. Nobody imagined it, imagined what happened if the states actually want it and it might work. And one of the reasons Paul gave it the beautiful name “Achieving the Possible” was because we realized why were we able to find a solution when all the experts said that it’s impossible? And suddenly some activists are writing a document and they find it good. It was for them very hard to understand how we got it, and for us it was almost like being hit in the head with a brick, because it made us realize that the one reason, the one reason that they don’t find the solution is because they don’t believe that it’s possible. And they don’t want to find a solution because it’s impossible to think that we were able to find a solution that they haven’t.

And then one of the biggest milestones was in Vienna, in 2017 preparatory committee of the NPT, we presented the Draft Treaty for the first time in front of quite a rough crowd, and what we said there at this side event was that you all received a copy of this Draft Treaty when you didn’t know who wrote it, and you liked it, and what we’re telling you now is that this is not a perfect draft and we’re not asking you to accept this draft. This is just one way out of many better ways that you can find, but now you can’t say again that this is impossible.

But another milestone that for me was very, very important was the first round table, the first round table took place in Edinburgh. And basically at the first roundtable when the draft treaty was re-written like taken apart and built again, was all by volunteers from Scotland who decided to adopt us, and that was one of the most beautiful solidarity activism that we got to experience. And I have to say that it gave us a lot of power to move forward, to be able to do something that we couldn’t do just because we didn’t have the funds, like hold a round table. We couldn’t do it, we didn’t have the money, and suddenly people are helping us, lots of people coming together to make room for discussions. And for me that was a milestone that was very, very important.

Pressenza

As someone from outside the region with years of experience lobbying diplomats, what contribution is METO making and what can it make when it comes to moving forward the Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction?

Paul Ingram

I think METO is going a step beyond the simple demand, “We must have a WMD free-zone”. This is very challenging for traditional campaign groups to have complex messages, because campaign groups are looking for mass mobilization. Mass mobilization happens with simple messages and simple outcomes, but the trouble with the Middle East is that it is complex. And so what we have done is we have tried to engage with the complexity with an attitude of positivity and that’s been picked up by diplomats. We’re not trying to replace diplomats and do their job for them. The message of METO, and I think any other similar group trying to use the methods, is not that “here we’ve done what you can’t,” and “here’s the treaty”, and “this is what it’s going to look like”. We’ve made that mistake in the past with initiatives like the Nuclear Weapons Convention where civil society came up with a very detailed treaty and said, “Hey guys, why aren’t you getting your finger out? This is what it’s going to look like.” Because it’s very easy for diplomats to point to particular items and go, “Well, this doesn’t resolve the problem,” and “You’re not being serious, in fact, you’re naïve.”

What we’re doing is we’re creating a process that draws diplomats into a can-do attitude. So it’s a realistic attitude. It’s an attitude that acknowledges that this is really, really challenging and difficult, but we’re taking steps in the constructive, positive way and we treat diplomats seriously. We don’t treat them as targets to be shouted at or bashed over the head. We treat their concerns and their challenges seriously, and we listen and we draw them into a process where they are heard. And when somebody is heard, and their concerns are treated seriously, then they start to soften and they start to open up, because they’re treated as human beings. And that’s what we’re trying to do. And by, on the one hand, being inspirational by our identities and by the message that we have, but also treating seriously those concerns, we experience some level of engagement and the promise of future movement.

And we’ve gone in to the most difficult, most complex, most knotty challenge in people’s minds—because challenges are almost always illusionary and based in the minds—and we have brought optimism and positivity. Such that almost-miracles have happened where our events at the NPT Prep Comms have been the most attended, where diplomats have left those meetings feeling more positive than they have attending other side events, on more “easy issues” and people’s minds have been shifted. Actually people’s hearts have been shifted and that’s been the most powerful.

Pressenza

If we talk about the history of the zone itself, I mean it first appears as an idea I think in the 70s, in 1995 the creation of the zone becomes inextricably linked to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, for two decades there is very little movement on actually convening a conference until the 2010 NPT where suddenly, I think it was, Finland is called upon to organize a conference which then doesn’t happen. The 2015 NPT comes along and states fail to agree on an outcome and basically put the blame at the feet of the Middle East and the Zone. And then in the UN in 2018 appears a resolution to call for a conference to appear outside of the NPT cycle.  What difference did that make to METO’s work?

Emad Kiyaei

The history that you mentioned from the 1970s till today fits within the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So when we’re talking about a WMD free-zone in the Middle East, it is somehow coupled with the indefinite extension of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995. That attaches it to the NPT. There’s a problem here. There’s many problems, but let’s just focus on the key problems, on why we don’t have a zone. There’s one nuclear weapon state in the region and that’s Israel and for a zone to be established Israel has to disarm. Now the Israelis say, “listen we don’t want to discuss disarmament until we have a regional peace deal and recognition of us, before we can even talk about these things.” And the Egyptians, leading the Arab League, the 22 Arab countries plus Iran say, “No, let’s discuss these nuclear weapons and other WMDs and let’s get rid of them, and then through that process we will then discuss recognition,” and it will be a tacit recognition anyway because Israel has to sign onto it. So this sort of back and forth between the how and when and what has been dragging on for years

Now the 2018 decision to have a conference, and the mandate of the conference, when you look at the resolution that was passed in the General Assembly, which is separated from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is different, there’s a different track, calls for a freely arrived at treaty text for the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Now that means that it has to be based on consensus and everybody’s included.

Now, people will say Israel wasn’t there, the United States wasn’t there, this is all not worth it, but the bottom line is this: the mandate of this resolution calls for this treaty text to be finalized and negotiated based on consensus and freely arrived at. If it takes one year or ten years it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it continues, that it is supported, and every time these nations send their ambassadors or high level delegates to participate in the negotiations is yet one rare occurrence of having these countries sit and discuss a major issue of national security, regional security amongst each other. And that in itself is valuable because what we are hoping for, as we have discussed earlier, is that the zone in itself is important, but the process is paramount, because that builds trust, that builds bridges. The Emiratis speak to the Saudis, the Saudis speak to the Qataris, the Qataris speak to the Iranians, and ultimately in one room they realize that what binds them together, what is actually common ground between each other, is far more than what divides them. And in a region that is synonymous with divisions, with anarchy, with quagmires, these episodes, such as the one that happened in November, gives us a major boost in terms of finding ways to bring these countries together.

Sharon Dolev

People thought that just because Israel and the United States are not there, it means that no problem, everybody agreed. We were sitting there praying, praying, and we’re not very religious, but we were praying that they will come into a final document. Nobody thought, also at the beginning of this meeting, the participants didn’t believe themselves that it’s possible to get a final document for them. These 22 states do not agree with each other on almost anything and we have to remember that there’s 22 states from a volatile region that managed to come into a final agreement or final document that they all have to agree on. If Israel was in the room then some of this wouldn’t have been shown. Israel will block everything and there would be no discussion. This allowed the states there to make progress and whether Israel will join or not join, at this point of the discussion… You have something to gain and something to lose. To say that Israel is there, it’s a great headline, but once Israel is there it doesn’t convert to any decision. There will be no final document. It will be very hard to achieve the final document. But if the states in the room are using this time in order to find everything that they do agree on, they might come into a document that they can’t achieve with Israel in the room, but a document. And if they’ll do it with the right agenda in their hearts, they’ll come to a document that Israel can sign at the end and join at the end. And this is something that for us in METO is very important. Just because Israel is not in the room doesn’t mean that this conference is not important. It gives a huge chance for the states to find a treaty that Israel can join once it’s written. They can even declare the zone if they like without Israel but they can declare the zone. They can make it into a reality without Israel, if that’s what they want to achieve.

Emad Kiyaei

In the November conference, remember the METO Draft Treaty that we’ve been talking about, the one that is evolving and changing, it’s already on the third draft? That Draft Treaty text of METO is to help provide, as we said, a blueprint for a final treaty text that governments will sign to establish the zone. So METO’s draft treaty text that’s been circulated to all of these capitals. At this November Conference last year many diplomats came to us privately and said, “You know what, guys? Your draft treaty has shaved off years from the discussions, because we have now something to work off.” And that’s what this does, it provides an accelerated platform towards establishing the zone.

Pressenza

METO has taken the opportunity of the Covid lockdown to kind of do a lot of internal housekeeping, become registered, update its website, to prepare lots of documents and to start the process of organizing partnerships with other organizations, but what are the milestones? What do you hope to achieve over the next year?

Emad Kiyaei

We decided as we mentioned earlier that METO doesn’t just do government advocacy. Yes, the treaty text is important for that political process, but we also have other things that are important: our campaign, our education, our getting outreach to make sure that we are crystal clear to the outside world what METO is trying to do, how it’s trying to do it, where is it trying to do it, and who is involved in this whole shebang. And here we decided to take the opportunity to make a beautiful website, www.wmd-free.me, and you can learn all about our work. And so here we’re going to focus on publications, we’re going to focus on getting the Draft Treaty to a better level, because we can focus on it and have these roundtables with experts, and so forth, to really get the technical side sound and prepare the ground for when the stars align for a political process. Because what happens in the Middle East ripples all the way throughout the world. So if that ripple is through peace then we bring stability, if that’s through carnage we will ripple carnage all around the world. And the decision now is, what are the ways forward to do that? So METO is going to polish up, look good and be ready for when this covid business is hopefully over and allows us to re-engage on that more one-to-one diplomatic, citizen diplomacy that we do in these capitals.

Sharon Dolev

So, I think that in the upcoming year or two, where we would like to see ourselves is with a huge list of partners working with us to achieve this, and the reason we want to outreach is because most activists, most groups do discuss the Middle East and they’re talking about the Middle East, and the Middle East is something that is almost sexy to discuss and sexy to talk about. However, I think it’s not sexy anymore when a group of Europeans are talking about the Middle East or at the Middle East. I saw so many panels at international conferences where you see all Europeans talking at the Middle East about the Middle East, analysing the Middle East, saying what needs to happen with the Middle East, and so on, with not even one Middle Easterner on the panel. And maybe it’s rude, but I think it’s as legitimate as a panel of men discussing breastfeeding!

Paul Ingram

I would say that METO is multi-dimensional in the sense that we operate at the diplomatic level and we operate at civil society level. We operate in a very ‘head’ way and we operate with the heart too, and I think it’s really important, when we think about where we go from here, that METO isn’t just pigeonholed and boxed in one particular arena. So I think we’ll be adaptive, flexible, covid appeared to come out from nowhere—it didn’t actually, there were plenty of people warning about this—but it appeared to come from nowhere. There will be more shocks to the system within the region itself. We have diplomacy on the march in very unpredictable ways and it’s in that unpredictability that METO needs to be flexible and adaptive in how it operates. And I think that’s a lesson for us all wherever we live in the world. We have to have our visions, we have to be positive in the way we look at them, as has been said already, but we need to be adaptive and flexible. So I think moving forward that’s what I would say.

Final thoughts

Paul Ingram

When people from my region look at the Middle East, we often see a Middle East, a region full of threat and concern and anger and frustration and people who are willing to do us harm. And whenever one group looks at another group in that way there are negative tendencies that come out, like patronizing, security, weapon systems, military intervention, all of that, and actually if we only look at ourselves a little bit more, if we look at that region and see the way in which we in Europe have been a cause of so many of the problems, we have a responsibility to engage constructively and humbly in relation to the Middle East. And the WMD free zone is an ideal opportunity for people outside the region to recognize their role in building a better, safer world, and that requires humility, it requires listening, it requires being silent a lot of the time and recognizing the roles we all play, all of us, wherever we are, and however we are operating, in creating and exacerbating the problems that we’re trying to resolve.

Sharon Dolev

Sadly, weapons of mass destruction is one of the things that the states in the region are willing to sit and discuss, and weapons of mass destruction is the one thing that Europeans and Americans and others are willing to talk to us about, but we imagine that once we start talking to each other about WMDs, if we expand it a bit to human security, then we have the same group of people in this building that we imagine; the METO building. We see these people starting to solve other problems, because if they’re starting to solve these problems, and we keep feeding them with questions, then they’re thinking about other things, for example how to how to talk about immigrants in the Middle East, how to talk about non-state actors in the Middle East, how to talk about climate change in the Middle East, how to solve the water problem. And we have regional problems and they’re stressing, and we have solutions and one of the things that I would like to see, when you enter the building of METO, is a map of the Middle East and a new train system that takes us around, even if the train system is not there yet. Just to imagine the fact that we can travel around the Middle East like people can do in Europe will give people such a realization of what peace in the Middle East looks like. So, just to help people imagine normalization in the Middle East, and I’m not talking about normalization between the states, I’m talking about normalizing our lives here, will be a dream come true.

Emad Kiyaei

A WMD free zone in the Middle East may seem for a long time impossible but what we have shown through our work is that there is a pathway for its realization. A WMD free zone in the Middle East is only the start. What we imagine a future Middle East to look like is where there are no borders among countries. It’s like a Middle East union on a par with the European Union. Imagine that, where people can move freely, where commerce can move, where people can move, where ideas can flourish and again inspire. Do not forget that the Middle East is the cradle of civilization, you know billions of people believe in brown people that came from this region, maybe in Islam, Judaism or Christianity. It is the cradle of what we believe to be inspirational throughout; from sciences, mathematics to astrology to the stars to the ground. It sits at a crossroads of continents. It is vital for us to re-imagine what the Middle East could look like and then go for it, because it’s not impossible. The ruins after the Second World War left Europe destroyed, and look at the EU today. It has problems, but it never allowed for another European Union country to butcher each other through war. So what we are saying here is this, you may look at the Middle East as this messed up place, but I assure you, if we go deeper into this region, there are 99% of things that unite us and the one percent that is not, in many cases, is thanks to the British and our history.

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