Hoping for a zone of goodwill in the MideastPosted: 05/07/2012
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
BEIRUT, Lebanon, 4 July – An IISS workshop in this sun-kissed capital showed that the decades-long cold war between Iran and Saudi-led Gulf Arabs has again heated up, this time over Syria. But one issue on which those nations see common cause is the goal of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons (hereafter, simply the ‘Zone’). If it ever came to pass, the Zone would resolve Riyadh’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and Tehran’s grievances about being held to a standard that is not applied to Israel. And since the Zone is such a far-off goal, nobody need be too bothered today about the intrusive inspections and other sensitive compromises that would need to be made for it to be implemented.
Finland plans to host a conference this year to advance the Zone, in accordance with a decision of a 2010 conference of the 189 states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The trouble is, Israel, which isn’t party to the NPT and thus wasn’t at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, sees little value in the Zone. It believes it has nothing to gain from attending a confab in which its nuclear programme will be the only item on the menu.
However, it seems obvious to me that the Zone is in Israel’s long-term interest. Surely it would be better for there to be no nuclear-armed states in the region, rather than two or more? Israel would like there to remain only one, of course, but that’s not possible forever. Public opinion and therefore political decision-making does not consider the long-term, however, so Israel’s default position is to cling to the monopoly.
As I argued in a paper launched at a meeting in Parliament last month, the 2012 Helsinki conference needs to be structured in such a way as to give Israel a reason to attend. That is, in addition to the Zone goal, the conference needs to address Israel’s immediate security concerns, which have heightened because of the lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
When I said as much at the IISS workshop here, I got pushback, particularly from the Iranians and those who took the Iranian side. Several participants said Israel should simply give up its nukes and open its facilities to inspection, full stop.
During the break, however, a thoughtful Lebanese participant asked probing questions about Israel’s bottom line. The ambiguity and workarounds that prevail in Lebanon give one reason for hope that a way can be found to hold a successful conference in Helsinki this December.
Over dinner, a European workshop participant regaled us with a personal tale about the Lebanese way. Arriving in Beirut the day before, he ran into trouble because he had forgotten to bring his alternative passport – the one without an Israeli visa. As every visitor should know, Lebanese law forbids entry to anyone who has been a guest of the enemy. He was taken out of the visa line and ushered into a separate room, where both he and the immigration officer pretended that nothing was wrong. When the official began to fill out an exit form, our European friend thought he would be sent home on the next flight. But the official instead gave him a free entry, without the need to put a Lebanese stamp in a passport that had the verboten insignia of Israel.
If only there were more such goodwill across the Middle East.