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Time To Get Serious About Nuclear Free Middle East

Time To Get Serious About Nuclear Free Middle East

By Jeremy Rose

The United Nation’s General Assembly, The Security Council, the Arab League, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and the Non-Aligned Movement are just some of those who have publicly lent their support to a Middle East nuclear free zone over the past three decades.

It’s no exaggeration to say that representatives of virtually the entire world have expressed support for Middle East nuclear free zone (MENFZ).

Yet in the dozens of articles I’ve read in recent weeks about the Iranian nuclear crisis I’m yet to see a single mention of the proposal.

This, despite the fact, that Greenpeace, no slouch when it comes to drumming up media coverage, has a ship in the region promoting the idea.

I’ve read that Israel’s entry into this year’s Eurovision contest contains the lyrics “push the button,” that Iran has released a bank note featuring an atom, and most worryingly of all that President Bush is refusing to rule out using “tactical” nuclear weapons in an attempt to set back the alleged Iranian programme – but not that there is a longstanding proposal on the table that could see the whole region free of nuclear weapons.

That there is a real danger of nuclear weapon proliferation in the Middle East is clear. Iran’s acquisition of the bomb could trigger an all out arms race in the region. (No less than six Arab states have already announced their intentions to develop nuclear energy programmes.)

What isn’t clear, to me at least, is that there is a serious attempt to prevent that nightmare scenario from taking place. And it is a nightmare. We now know just how mad the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction that reigned during the cold war was. On more than one occasion mistakes brought us terrifyingly close to nuclear obliteration.

God may not play dice but the leaders of nuclear weapons states happily play high stakes poker with the world’s civilians as their chips.

The Soviets and Americans worked on the assumption that the other side was rationale: evil but rationale. Neither side would attack the other because they knew that it would mean certain destruction.

That assumption won’t hold for Israel (widely accepted to have a nuclear arsenal in the hundreds) and Iran. Both sides, not without reason, view the other as a potentially irrational player. And unlike the Americans and Soviets who maintained a dedicated phone line between their respective presidents as a safeguard against accidental nuclear war, the Israelis and Iranians don’t even correspond by post.

If Iran develops a nuclear bomb the risk of an accidental or pre-emptive nuclear war between it and Israel has to be significantly higher than it was between the Soviets and the US at the height of the cold war. And if the proliferation spreads through the region the risks will increase exponentially.

The Oxford Research Group recently released a paper arguing convincingly that air strikes far from destroying Iran’s nuclear capability would almost inevitably lead to an intensification of the country’s nuclear programme and the strengthening of hard-line elements in the regime.

Following a similar logic, Qatar ambassador Nazzir Abdulalaziz Al-Nasser speaking before the recent Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran warned increasing pressure could complicate matters further and have “serious consequences”.

Non-proliferation issues should not be addressed selectively, he said. The council was required to follow the same approach towards countries that did not comply with their obligations according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and towards those that did not pay attention to it in the first place.

Israel was, without doubt, the country Al-Nasser had in mind when he referred to countries that don’t pay attention to the NPT. It is the region’s only nuclear-armed state and the only state not to have signed the treaty (which means it can never be in breach of it.)

Iran is facing sanctions because it is suspected of being in the process of developing nuclear weapons while Israel which, although it officially maintains a policy of ambiguity, is widely believed to have the world’s fifth or sixth biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons remains off the Security Council radar.

In the past Israel has said it will only sign up to a MENFZ after it has signed peace agreements with all of the countries of the region. At which point, it has to be said, the urgent need for a MENFZ will have dramatically decreased.

Israel’s leaders have plainly viewed their nuclear weapon monopoly as both a safeguard and bargaining chip. It’s time they recognised it is a liability and a provocation to proliferation.

If the permanent members of the Security Council are serious about persuading Iran and other Middle Eastern countries to remain nuclear weapon free they should insist on a timetable for Israel to sign up and comply with the NPT.

But Qatar’s failure to convince the council to include its “clear and direct proposal” for a Middle East nuclear free zone suggests that for some of the permanent members of the Security Council at least ridding the entire region of weapons of mass destruction is not high on their priorities.

More than three decades after Iran – with the backing of Egypt, sponsored the first UN Resolution in 1974 calling for a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone – it’s time for pressure to be put on ALL of the region’s countries to commit to achieving it.


Jeremy Rose is a Wellington journalist currently based in Barcelona. He will be back in New Zealand, and looking for work, from early July.

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