A major theme of this year’s US presidential election campaign was the threat to world peace allegedly posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Democrat President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney competed to take the hardest line.
Obama boasted of organising the “strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history” and promised to “take all options necessary” to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
This narrative relies on the false assertion that Iran is developing nuclear weapons with which to attack Israel and the US. It casts the US and Israel as defenders of international peace and security, when a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would constitute an illegal act of aggression.
While the hype about Iran continues, negotiations on a proposal that could actually reduce the threat of nuclear conflict in the region ― the establishment of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone ― have been sidelined.
A conference on the proposal set to take place in Finland in December this year, to which Iran agreed, has reportedly been cancelled by the US and Israel.
Potential for nuclear weapons-free Middle East
The proposal to establish a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone has garnered international support since the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution, sponsored by Iran and Egypt, endorsing the idea in 1974. However, no substantive progress has been made towards establishment of the zone.
After years of pressure from Arab states, modest practical step were agreed upon at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) Review Conference to take the proposal forward.
The Middle East resolution outlined a plan “to convene a conference in 2012, to be attended by all States of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction”. The resolution also called upon Israel to join the NPT, and was hailed as a breakthrough.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the resolution saying “Israel is not obligated by the decisions of this Conference, which has no authority over Israel”.
The head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission said in September this year that Israel will not take part in the conference, rejecting it as an attempt to impose a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone “from outside”.
This position reflects a double-standard on the part of Israel, which chooses to remain outside the NPT so it can maintain its “position of nuclear ambiguity” — allowing it to keep its nuclear weapons without being subject to the same scrutiny as NPT nuclear weapons states. Israel is also free from the Treaty's Article VI obligation to disarm.
It cannot take part directly in NPT negotiations, but Israel exerts considerable influence in negotiations on nuclear matters through its membership of the IAEA, and through the diplomatic weight carried by its ally, the US.
No ‘concrete deliverables’
In 2004, the IAEA planned to hold a forum to discuss the establishment of a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. A cable from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv published by WikiLeaks revealed Israel was keen to ensure that the forum would not produce any “concrete deliverables” towards achieving a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.
The cable reports that “Israel has urged the IAEA to view the forum as ‘a one-time educational event’” with a purely “intellectual” outcome. The Israelis objected to the inclusion of representatives of the Arab League as observers, as "not consistent with the learning process".
When agreement could not be reached on the form the forum would take, it was postponed. The idea was revived by the US in 2007 in an attempt to “head off” the inclusion of an “Israeli Nuclear Threat” (INT) item on the agenda for that year's IAEA General Conference. The US consistently opposes language in IAEA, NPT and UN resolutions on nuclear issues in the Middle East that refers specifically to Israel, even though Israel is the only nuclear weapons power in the region.
The INT item was proposed by the Arab group of IAEA member states, partly due to their frustration with the lack of progress on establishing a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, and called upon Israel to accede to the NPT and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.
According to a July 2007 cable from the US Ambassador to the IAEA, Israeli Ambassador Israel Michaeli agreed that “US pressure to agree to a Forum” could be a “joint of leverage” to persuade Egypt to use its influence within the Arab group to drop the proposed INT agenda item.
The cable reports that Michaeli said that the Israeli “government would not be ‘very happy’ about a Forum” but if it was “based on known elements meaning the agreed 2004 agenda, Israel could countenance it”.
In the end, a forum on "Experience of Possible Relevance to the Creation of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East" took place last year. The forum produced a document that concluded with four general proposals for taking the process forward, but no specific or binding measures.
Since the establishment of a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone would require Israel to declare and ultimately give up its nuclear arsenal, Israel and the US have preferred to focus on the threat allegedly posed by Iran’s nuclear program.
While Israel’s official “red line” is Iran having the ability to make what Israel deems to be enough weapons grade uranium to make a bomb, it appears that Iran crossed a red line when it chose to move ahead with its nuclear program after the revolution of 1979.
As a signatory to the NPT, Iran has a legal right to produce nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Its announcement in 1974 of a plan to build 23 large nuclear reactors was supported by the West. Construction of Iran’s first nuclear power plant at Bushehr was originally contracted to a German firm in 1975.
However, after the Iranian revolution ousted the Western-backed shah, Germany refused to continue the work, the US cut off Iran’s supply of research reactor fuel and France refused to provide any enriched uranium. In 1995, Russia signed a contract with Iran to finish building the reactor, and was subsequently subjected to intense US diplomatic pressure.
A 2006 cable from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv reveals a secret Israeli plan to bribe Russia into delaying construction of the Bushehr plant. The cable reports that Israel told Russia it was “extremely important” to Israel for the work to be delayed.
Russia is reported as agreeing to “blame the delay on ‘technical problems’ … so that the Iranians will not be in a position to complain”. The cable says that the Director General of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission told the US Ambassador that “consideration must be given to economic incentives for Russia that will keep it ‘on board’ with respect to Iran”.
This was not the first time Israel has taken international law into its own hands in relation to the alleged nuclear ambitions of its neighbours. In 1981 Israel attracted international condemnation for the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak research reactor and in 1991 it bombed Dair Alzour in Syria. Israel claimed the latter was a nuclear facility, but this was never proven to be true.
The same cable reports Israel’s disappointment that “despite the USG’s[United States Government’s] best efforts, Egypt has advanced its position on a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the IAEA Board's latest resolution on Iran”.
This focus on Iran at the expense of substantive progress towards the establishment of a MENWFZ has antagonised states which support the proposal. A 2007 cable from the US Embassy in Cairo reports that the Director of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s Disarmament Office objected to “the U.S.'s unwillingness to discuss even technical aspects of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. He complained that whenever Egypt asks to discuss Israel, the U.S. shifts the focus to Iran”.
A US intelligence agencies have repeatedly concluded that Iran is not acquiring nuclear weapons. The US does not want “strict parallels” to be drawn between Iran and Israel because this would bring unwelcome attention onto the threat posed by Israel’s own nuclear weapons.
Taking allies’ interests into account
The establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East would ban the US and its allies from keeping nuclear weapons on bases in the Middle East. Port visits by nuclear warships could be banned, along with the transit and launch of nuclear weapons by submarines in the region. The agreement to create the zone could also prohibit attacks against nuclear installations in the region, as provided for by the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty.
A cable from 2007 reports that France objected to text in Egypt’s IAEA resolution on the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the region, which called on states in the region to not "permit the stationing on their territories or on territories under their control, of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices".
France is officially the world’s third largest nuclear weapons power maintaining a fleet of aircraft designed for nuclear strikes, and four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. It is the only Western power other than the US to have a military base in the Middle East, established in the United Arab Emirates in 2009.
In 2010, while Obama was promising a “world without nuclear weapons”, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher was reassuring France that the US “will move precipitously and will take allies' interests into account”.
Tauscher stressed that “the U.S. position on disarmament is not far from that of France”, in that it “remains committed to an effective deterrent, and the President's recent budget proposal includes a significant increase for the maintaining of U.S. nuclear forces”.
Tauscher and her French counterparts discussed strategies to counteract Egypt’s “aggressive posture on the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone … resolution”, including “phone calls from Presidents Obama and Sarkozy directly to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak” and “finding other Non-Aligned Movement states that could be separated from Egypt with promises of assistance that Egypt would no longer receive”.
The US plans to spend approximately $640 billion$640 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next 10 years. The continued reliance by the US and its allies on nuclear weapons, along with their willingness to subvert progress towards the establishment a MENWFZ for their own strategic interests, belies their claim to be a force for peace and stability in the region.
Disarmament chicken and egg
While purporting to support the idea of a MENWZ, Israeli and the USUS insist that such an agreement cannot be negotiated until peace has been realised in the Middle East. Arab states argue that negotiations towards achieving a MENWFZ could play an important role in the peace process, and point to the fact that 21 Arab states signed the NPT during height of the Arab-Israeli conflict as evidence of Israeli hypocrisy.
As well as rejecting calls to accede to the NPT, Israel refuses to abide by international law and take the steps necessary towards achieving a just peace with Palestine. In violation of UN resolutions for over 40 years, Israel has refused to end its military occupation of Palestinian land and withdraw to the internationally recognised 1967 border.
It refuses to recognise the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the land they were forced from in the 1948 and 1967 wars. It sanctions the building of illegal settlements in Palestinian territory and continues construction of the Israeli West bank barrier, otherwise known as the apartheid wall, which further annexes Palestinian land.
Essentially, Israel’s position is that it will not negotiate a MENWFZ until a peace agreement has been concluded with its neighbours, which it is not willing to negotiate either.
After the 2009 IAEA conference where the INT resolution was passed, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote to each of the member states who voted in favour if it, condemning the resolution’s Arab sponsors.
Extracts from the letter, published in a January 2010 cable, state that as well as a “fundamental change in regional circumstances”, progress towards achieving a MENWZ cannot be made without “a significant transformation in the attitude of states in the region towards Israel”.
This would appear to mean that Israel is not willing to negotiate a MENWFZ until other states in the region accept the state of Israel as it exists, despite the violations of international law and continuing acts of aggression upon which it is founded.
The Finnish convenors of this year’s MENWFZ conference sent diplomats to Israel to try to persuade them persuade them to take part. At a recent IAEA meeting, Arab states agreed not to put forward a resolution which referred to Israel’s nuclear weapons, in the hope that this would encourage Israeli participation.
However, the US reportedly says the time is “not opportune”. Within days, Israel reaffirmed its commitment to force over negotiations when it began bombing Gaza. The US has explicitly defended Israel’s latest attack, as it implicitly defends Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.
Iranian people increasingly suffer over their government’s alleged nuclear ambitions, it is the actions of Israel and its allies which continue block progress towards a peaceful, nuclear weapons free Middle East.