By Julio Godoy
If you ask the French ministry for foreign affairs about the country’s position on a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, the spokesperson will surely refer you to the statements by the French ambassadors before the UN both in New York and Geneva, and will repeat that France supports the global application of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Indeed, France has since the mid 1990s officially supported the objectives of the resolutions adopted by the Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT, in particular those referring to the creation of a nuclear-weapons free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, and openly calls for the implementation of the conference’s specific resolution of 1995.
But when it comes down to the facts, this apparently solid French position turns out to be a mere lip service to the cause of a NWFZ in the Middle East, in particular if the project questions Israel’s nuclear weapons policy, and asks the Jewish state to subscribe to the mentioned resolution.
The French fuzzy face on freeing the Middle East of nuclear weapons became evident as late as May 2010, when the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu called the bid for a NWFZ in the region “hypocritical” and “deeply flawed”. At the time, the Israeli government was reacting to endorsement by the 189 country members of the NPT of an agreement to free the Middle East of all nuclear weapons.
Israel, which has not signed the NPT, dismissed the document as “ignore(ing) the realities of the Middle East and the real threats facing the region and the entire world. Given the distorted nature of this resolution, Israel will not be able to take part in its implementation.”
France, a member of the UN Security Council and itself a nuclear power, did not react to the blunt Israeli rejection.
The double-faced French strategy had been already clear since at least 2005, when Francois Rivasseau, then French permanent representative to the UN conference on disarmament in Geneva, accused Iran of triggering “the proliferation crisis” with “its clandestine programme” during that year’s review conference. On the same occasion, however, Rivasseau had simply called “desirable” that the conference “through dialogue, bring(s) India, Israel and Pakistan to come as close as possible to international standards for non-proliferation and export controls.”
All these three countries possess a large nuclear weapons arsenal. That such dialogue never prevented Israel to pile at least 210 nuclear warheads – more than India and Pakistan together – seems to have gone unnoticed in the French government’s bureaus.
It is then no surprise to find no French contribution worth a mention to the present debate on the Middle East, other than repeating the condemnations of the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme. On November 9, 2011 foreign minister Alain Juppé said that the allegations formulated then by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “increases France’s deep concern with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme.”
Juppé added: “We must move to the next level with regard to increasing diplomatic pressure on Iran. If Iran refuses to meet the requests of the international community, and refuses all serious cooperation, we are ready to adopt, with the support of the international community, sanctions of an unprecedented scale.”
Juppé never criticised the Israeli nuclear weapons policy or the Israeli rejection of a global summit on the NWFZ in the Middle East.
This double standard, which is typical for most of the European Union, has led foreign relations experts to question the wisdom and the honesty of the French policy on the matter.
As Jean-Marie Collin, director of the French bureau of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND) says, “contrary to what (the government in) France would like us to believe, the agenda and debates on nuclear disarmament did not stop on May 2010, with the last reunion of the (review conference of the) NPT.”
Collin recalled that both the UN and the civil society organisations “continue to carry forward their duties to reach a world free of nuclear weapons.” Among other developments, Collin underlined the campaign for the Middle East, and in particular “the nomination of the Finnish mediator Jaako Laajava, deputy minister of foreign affairs.”
However, Collin pointed out that, for all its government’s words, “France remains an outsider in the politics of nuclear disarmament.”
While the government in Paris does not stand up to its words, French civil society groups show real concern of the likely proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in particular of nuclear warheads, in the Middle East. The National Federation of former Deported, Prisoners of war, Members of the Resistance, and Patriots (FNDIRP, for its French name), a pacifist group, released this January a communiqué denouncing the Israeli preparations of war against Iran.
On the one hand, the FNDIRP recalled that Iran is signatory member of the NPT, and that it has repeatedly vowed to use nuclear technology for civil purposes alone. On the other hand, the group argued that an Israeli military intervention against Iran would trigger a war of “unforeseeable consequences” in the whole region. Additionally, the group also called attention upon “the uncertain efficacy of such an attack” to stop the Iranian nuclear research programmes.
The FNDIRP also insisted on the need to fully implement the NPT in the Middle East and called the debates within the framework of the United Nations “a most useful enterprise.” It urged Israel, Iran, and all other countries of the region “to implement, within the UN framework, the measures necessary . . . contributing to(ward) create(ing) a denuclearised zone in the Middle East, which would bring about peace and security for all the countries of the region.”
Such appeals are likely to remain wishful thinking, prognosticate French and Swiss foreign affairs experts.
Analysts at the Centre for Security Studies (CSS) of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich are of the view that “structural factors render any prospect for (Middle East nuclear) disarmament premature.”
In a paper programmatically titled “Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East: Here to stay”, CSS expert Liviu Horovitz pointed out that “for Israel, the abolition of nuclear weapons appears neither necessary nor desirable.” On the other hand, Horovitz said, “resolving Iran’s nuclear file remains paramount, but a solution is not in sight.” For these two reasons, and considering other existing dynamics in the Middle East, Horovitz foresees that “the most plausible future regional developments are unlikely to encourage disarmament steps.”
“More probable,” Horovitz added, “holding the existing state of affairs will prove challenging enough.”
In the paper, Horovitz recalls that the concept of NWFZs goes back to a Polish plan in the 1950s focused on Central Europe. “While this initiative was never finalised, five other zones have by now been negotiated,” Horovitz said. “Within the Middle East, after Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons during the 1960s, regional actors led by Egypt and Iran endeavoured to increase their diplomatic leverage by calling for a NWFZ.”
The present momentum for the creation of the NWFZ in the Middle East was given by the so called Action Plan adopted in 2010 by the review conference of the NPT. In this plan, the member states agreed to mandate the United Nations, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States to consult with countries in the region and convene a meeting in 2012 “on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.”
Horovitz added that the present political schedule is bound to undermine the meeting, to take place in Finland. “Washington, concerned with this year’s domestic presidential election, wants a short meeting involving the participation of all countries of the Middle East, comprising a broad exchange of views, and requiring consensus decisions, especially in regard to any follow-up actions,” Horovitz cautioned.
Furthermore, Horovitz recalled that the next NPT review conference, due to take place in 2015 is not far away: it can give “spoilers, like Iran or Syria, a strong incentive and a unique opportunity to divert attention from their own NPT compliance issues. Thus, the best possible outcome appears to be a well-managed but inconsequential diplomatic event that successfully avoids additional hardening of positions and thus long-term harm to the broader regime.”
Thus, Horovitz concluded, “it is safe to say that the expectations (for a NWFZ) are very low.”