By Ramesh Jaura
A veil of silence and secrecy has shrouded the fate of a conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction in 2012, since the UN announced on October 14, 2011 that Finland will host it. The veil slowly lifting now corresponds to the “wall of silence” in Israel, which Israeli anti-nuke activist Sharon Dolev is persistently trying to break – with some success.
Knowledgeable sources in Berlin, London and Helsinki are convinced that the conference will indeed take place – from December 14 to 16 with seasoned Finnish diplomat and politician Jaakko Laajava as facilitator. However, hardly anyone appears to be particularly enthusiastic about it.
In fact, as Kate Hudson, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner says, “many will see this proposal as a pipedream”. She adds: “There are of course significant obstacles to overcome before this conference can succeed, but certainly, the biggest threat to the region would be failure.”
Reporting about obstacles to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) preparatory committee meeting early May 2012 in Vienna, Laajava said that although he had conducted more than 100 meetings – both inside and outside the region – he had yet to secure an agreement from all relevant states on participation.
“News of Laajava’s no-news statement was met with another round of eye-rolling and finger-pointing: The likely holdouts are Israel and Iran, with a major question mark hanging over Syrian participation,” wrote Martin B. Malin in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
But Malin – who is the executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government – is nevertheless optimistic that Israel may come to see as the least unpalatable option negotiations with its neighbours to establish rules for limiting the possession of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) across the region, eventually putting its own capabilities on the negotiating table.
“Discussing a WMD-free zone would allow Israel to prolong its nuclear weapons monopoly with the fewest challenges for an interim period, while negotiating the terms of a transition to a nuclear and WMD free Middle East. It can also use a forum on regional arms control as a venue to raise its concerns about proliferation elsewhere in the region,” avers Malin.
In his view, Iran too has important security interests in pursuing a WMD-free zone. Because Tehran has a long-term strategic interest in denuclearizing Israel, and, “odious as it might seem to Iran’s leaders, direct negotiations with Israel on regional security and a WMD ban are the only way to do that.”
Facilitator Laajava has formally asked Iran to participate in the planned conference, the Fars News Agency reported. He made the request on September 10, 2012 during a meeting in Tehran with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Akhoundzadeh.
With the planned dates fast approaching, the conference facilitator and civil society organisations are faced with a huge task to persuade key participants that, as Hudson says, nuclear weapons-free zones (NWFZs) are highly successful forms of collective security across large parts of the world. Currently, 115 states and 18 other territories belong to five regional treaties, covering a majority of the earth’s surface, including almost the entire southern hemisphere.
The establishment of such a zone in the Middle East was first proposed in 1974 by Iran, now being ostracised for its alleged nuke development programme. Egypt extended the proposal in 1990 to include other WMD (weapons of mass destruction), reflecting the serious concern around chemical and biological warfare in the region. A resolution on achieving a WMD-free zone was adopted at the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.
Fifteen years later, the 2010 NPT Review Conference identified five steps necessary towards the goal of establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, including convening a regional conference in 2012 and appointing a facilitator.
“Failure to move forward in establishing a WMD-free zone will in fact mean that the stakes will remain higher in any potential conflict. And the stakes are always a human cost,” cautions CND’s Hudson.
Hudson rightly points out that NWFZs are fundamental mechanisms for tackling precisely these insecurities and subsequent escalations. The Treaty of Tlatelolco (South America) included two competing treaty members, Argentina and Brazil, both with large nuclear power industries with the capability of developing nuclear weapons. The treaty provided the confidence-building framework and a norm of non-proliferation which defused the potential and perceived need for pursuing nuclear weapons systems.
Voicing general concern, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry says in a document submitted in May 2012 to the planning committee of the NPT Review Conference in 2015 that the Arab League sees the conference in Finland as an important crossroad with regard to its nuclear policies. It believes that if realistic and practical steps towards WMD disarmament cannot be agreed upon, then nuclear proliferation will become a dangerous reality across the region. The international community should therefore do all it can to avert this.
There is a pressing need for open discussions about security concerns and weapons capacity, which will be vital to the success of WMD-free zone in the Middle East: and it begins with opening channels of communication which are the building blocks of peace and genuine security.
This is what Dolev has been doing with a handful of activists under the umbrella of the Greenpeace and in cooperation, among others, with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
In the face of uncertainty about Israeli participation in the conference, the evolution of the Treaty of Tlatelolco may in fact serve as a role model for the Middle East conference in Finland, suggests Dolev during a visit to Berlin.
The possibility is not ruled out that like Argentina, to begin with Israel (and Iran) stay away from signing any agreement. But the conference could trigger landmark co-operation and negotiations which would be essential in establishing a WMD-free zone would be positive for intra-regional relations.
“And while states may be cautious in their approach, if they believe that this can be a serious framework for peaceful co-existence then of course they would be supportive. Such caution can be gradually turned to confidence, through robust and transparent verification measures, as well as binding mechanisms with teeth,” says Hudson.
Call a spade a spade
Xanthe Hall, the nuclear disarmament campaigner at German affiliate of Nobel laureate International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), says Germany as a close partner of Israel should do its best to persuade Tel Aviv to participate in the proposed conference in all seriousness.
This necessitates calling a spade that Israel possesses nuclear weapons and holding on to the Cold War thinking justifies these as deterrence.
“While the entire world is constantly discussing Israel and its nuclear capability, within Israel, ambiguity is alive and well and the ‘issue’ has become taboo,” says Dolev at a ‘meet the press’ organised by IPPNW Germany, adding: “If we as a society give any thought to the nuclear issue, it is to the Iranian nuclear weapons, which has not yet become a reality. If the subject of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is raised among us, we immediately point to Iran (which unlike Israel is an NPT signatory).”
Dolev explains the prevailing situation: “Like the hunchback who does not see his hump, we do not see, hear or think about our own weapons, nor do we question their necessity beyond saying from time to time that we can always strike Iran with nuclear weapons. Even then, we say it without considering the fact that Israel is a nuclear state.
Though Israelis are open to debate, they not only tend to consider the nuclear question taboo but also rather complex for expressing dissenting opinions. Subsequently, most people accept that only top acting political and military leaders assume that right, only in closed forums.
“Any relevant information in Hebrew is rare; information in English is abundant but arduous to analyse,” says journalist Pierre Klochendler. “The absence of discussion stems also from the fact that, since the inception of its own nuclear programme in the late 1950s, Israel has officially stuck to a policy of ‘ambiguity’: it ‘won’t be the first country to introduce nuclear
Ambiguity therefore means that the international community should continue to ignore Dimona, believed to be the centre of the Israeli nuclear programme, and focus solely on Natanz, allegedly the nerve centre of the Iranian nuclear programme.
Israeli government officials praise “ambiguity” as it enhances Israel’s security almost as much as WMD. Assuming such a policy is necessary, anti-nuclear activists propose a debate which would respect the constraints of not exposing Israel’s nuclear capability. Such discussion would strengthen the democratic character of their society.
“It’s still possible, even obligatory, to hold serious discussions about the need for nuclear weapons, the dangers they present regionally and globally, and the various possibilities for disarmament,” says Dolev.
The sense of creativity which permeates the activities of Dolev and her supports is reflected also in the visit of four survivors of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb massacre (the Hibakusha) to Israel and their meetings with broad sections of the society, including survivors of the holocaust. Such meetings drew attention to the catastrophic nature of nuclear arsenal.
Dolev’s actions are guided by the underlying conviction that “Israel’s practice of hiding in the bunker of ambiguity is perceived as a threat and not as a gesture of non-violence or as an absence of an intended threat.”
On the other hand, an anti-nuclear movement in Israel that would bring the question of the country’s nuclear policy to national and global media attention would reveal a more open Israel, an Israel with which one can talk and, moreover, an Israel with a democratic society that is not monolithic, where different opinions exist and can be expressed, maintains Dolev.