'A question of justice'
Will the recent US nuclear showdown with Iran bring greater justice to the conflict-ridden Middle East? Gihan Shahine explores prospects for a world free of nuclear weapons
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'As long as nations are not treated equally, there will never be lasting peace, and the world will be caught up in a nuclear arms race that may end up devastating humanity'
It seems that US President Barack Obama's recent tough stance on the issue of nuclear weapons in general -- and Iran's civil nuclear programme, which others suspect of having military goals, in particular -- has inspired debate around the world among experts and policy-makers alike over the unfortunately still far-off possibility of a world free of nuclear weapons.
Certainly, Obama's first address to the UN General Assembly was inspiring on this theme, at least on the rhetorical level, and it was cited by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in its decision to award this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Obama in the announcement made in Oslo last Friday. The international community, Obama said, "must stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and seek the goal of a world without them."
"Today, the threat of proliferation is growing in scope and complexity," Obama told the General Assembly. "If we fail to act, we will invite nuclear arms races in every region, and the prospect of wars and acts of terror on a scale that we can hardly imagine." Obama was described in the media as the first US president to outline a resolution urging an end to the production of weapons- grade uranium and plutonium, a strengthening of the international inspections regime, and an agreement to make deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals of the US, Russia, China, France and Britain.
However, it remains questionable how far such rhetoric will make headway in achieving the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and whether the United States will act fairly towards the two prominent nuclear issues of Iran and Israel in the Middle East.
There are an estimated 3,300 nuclear warheads in the world today, which nuclear experts and pressure groups fear could still be used either deliberately or accidentally, wreaking immense damage to humanity as a whole.
Many experts also believe that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), designed in 1968 to curb the spread of nuclear weapons with the ultimate goal of eliminating them altogether, has largely failed even in the former, more modest goal. There are currently 189 countries that are party to the treaty, five of which have nuclear weapons, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China and France, and these are also permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Only four states, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea, are not parties to the treaty. Of these, India, Pakistan and North Korea have tested and publicly declared that they possess nuclear weapons. Israel has never released information on its nuclear weapons programme or capabilities. North Korea acceded to the treaty, violated it, and then withdrew from it in 2003.
The situation in the Middle East is complicated in that not only is the region ridden with conflicts that may one day produce a nuclear arms race in the region, but it is also widely believed that Israel is the only state to possess nuclear weapons, to the tune of a reported 400 warheads. The international community has neither pressured Israel to join the NPT nor to eliminate its nuclear arsenal. This is widely perceived as a major obstacle to achieving a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
For its part, Israel has always claimed that so- called "existential threats" justify its having nuclear weapons, arguing that a comprehensive peace is a prerequisite to its eliminating or reducing its nuclear capabilities. Neighbouring states, meanwhile, argue that peace cannot be attained as long as Israel continues to be the sole nuclear power in the region, and a vicious circle thus ensues.
Moreover, while the international community seems to have shown some sort of understanding of Israeli claims of existential threats against it, neither pressuring it to sign the NPT nor to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, it tends to take a far tougher stance towards Iran's civil nuclear programme.
The United States and Israel suspect Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Iran has always vehemently denied, saying that its nuclear programme is intended for peaceful civil purposes. Iran has defied the UN Security Council by continuing to enrich uranium, a process used to make the fuel for nuclear power plants, but which some in the international community suspect could also be used to make an atomic bomb.
The issue came back to the fore recently when it was reported that Iran had been covertly constructing a nuclear facility in the city of Qom, causing observers widespread anxiety.
As a result, Obama asserted that Iran was "breaking rules that all nations must follow", and French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to suggest imposing sanctions against Iran unless it complied with international non-proliferation rules over the next two months. Obama used tough rhetoric, telling Iran that the country was "on notice", and that it faced international condemnation -- and perhaps even confrontation -- if it continued work on the previously secret facility.
Although Obama said he preferred a diplomatic solution to Iran's apparent violation of international non-proliferation rules, he did not rule out military action.
In reply, Iran again asserted that its nuclear programme is solely aimed for peaceful purposes and that its facilities were open to inspection. Iran had reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it was engaged in a "pilot project" to enrich fuel at the Qom plant, but that no nuclear material was present at the facility. "We have no secrecy," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Time magazine in an interview. "We work within the framework of the IAEA."
Iran also appealed to public opinion in the region when its prime minister called upon the United States to "concentrate on getting Israel to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, rather than criticising Tehran's nuclear programme." That would be the way, many agree, to bring security to the region.
"If the international community decides to take a stance against Israel, even one that is far less harsh than the one taken against Iran, then things will improve. But it insists on turning a blind eye to Israel's nuclear arsenal at the same time that Iran is opening its facilities to inspection," said Mahmoud Barakat, a consultant at Egypt's Atomic Energy Authority.
Thus, it has been what many Arab analysts regard as double standards in the policies of the international community towards nuclear issues in the Middle East that has dominated press conferences held on the sidelines of a closed three-day regional meeting of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) held in Cairo, which is a global initiative sponsored by the governments of Australia and Japan.
The commission, launched in September 2008, was designed to re-energise the debate about the need for a nuclear weapons free world and related issues of nuclear disarmament, non- proliferation and the future of civil nuclear energy in the run up to the May 2010 NPT Review Conference and beyond.
One of the main concerns of the commission's three-day meeting, which was organised in consultation with the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, was to listen to the views of experts and media representatives from the Middle East. To do so, the commission invited pundits and media representatives to two press conferences, as well as representatives from Iran and Israel to its three-day closed meeting.
In response, there was almost a consensus among experts and media representatives that double standards in the policies of the international community in the region have created a major obstacle towards achieving a nuclear-free zone. Those present seemed to join forces with ambassador Nabil Fahmy, who flatly stated that the "implicit exceptions" granted to Israel to excuse it from signing up to the NPT had further weakened the already dwindling credibility of the treaty, because they pushed neighbouring countries to try to achieve security for themselves in any ways they considered possible.
The result, Fahmy said, could be a nuclear arms race in the region, and this would render the dream of making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone impossible.
Commission co-chair Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister and until June 2009 president of the International Crisis Group, said that despite Israel's opacity over its nuclear programme, the commission had dealt with it on the assumption that it was a country that possessed nuclear weapons.
Evans added that there had been a general agreement at the meeting of the commission that Israel, as well as North Korea, India and Pakistan, should be parties to the NPT and should take part in the disarmament process. The catch, however, was that Israel considered a comprehensive peace in the region to be a prerequisite before it considered dismantling or reducing its nuclear arsenal, a way of ensuring that nothing will happen any time soon.
For Evans, the Iranian issue was less complicated. "There is no evidence that Iran has actually developed nuclear weapons, and thus the issue can be solved through diplomatic means," Evans told the Cairo press conference. He added that the Iranian representative had stated his country's position clearly, making it clear that Iran had no aggressive intentions. "Iran will have to be transparent about its nuclear programme and follow the requirements and resolutions of the Security Council," Evans said.
Whether the commission would take a different stance from that of the international community and deal with the Israeli and Iranian issues on equal grounds was an issue of concern for the Arab media and nuclear pundits attending the event.
For his part, Evans said that the commission had dealt with the two issues separately, considering the Israeli case to be one of disarmament, with the Iranian case still falling into the category of non-proliferation. Though he could hardly be expected to speak for the Israeli representative at the meeting, Evans said that it was made clear during the meeting of the commission that the Israeli nuclear issue was linked to achieving progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, something which further complicates the issue.
Evans remained optimistic, however, insisting that freeing the world of the nuclear threat would be "tough, and may take a long time, but was not impossible." For him, "mindsets do change," and today the world was "slightly better" than it was before on the nuclear issue. In particular, Evans seemed to pin his hopes on the apparent determination of the new US administration to help with the non-proliferation, and ultimately elimination, of nuclear weapons.
"This has definitely created a momentum, and we should try to capture the moment and move things forward," Evans insisted.
Shortly after taking his oath of office, Obama pledged to "stop the development of new nuclear weapons" on the White House website, and his recently outlined Security Council resolution apparently said that the big five nuclear powers and the 10 temporary members had all agreed to "seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons."
As part of the deal, Britain's Trident fleet would be cut from four submarines capable of firing nuclear weapons to three. The White House also hopes to win a further commitment from Russia to reduce its nuclear stockpile further than the 1,500 warheads agreed in a joint statement made in London in April. And the administration is hoping to reap benefits from its recent decision to drop the Bush-era plans for a missile defence system located in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Moscow had treated as a threat to its security.
Although many commentators would agree with Evans that Obama's determination to rid the world of nuclear weapons is bound to yield progress at least on the non-proliferation front, critics are nevertheless sceptical that a nuclear zero-point can ever be reached.
For Barakat, the fact that nuclear weapons remain the exclusive possession of the world's major powers makes it almost impossible to reach a nuclear zero-point, since those countries will never accept eliminating their nuclear arsenals.
Barakat believes that Obama's statement to the Security Council was no more than an attempt to put pressure on Iran and to appease non-nuclear signatories to the NPT, who feel deceived by a treaty that has failed to achieve its target of a nuclear-free world over the 50 years of its existence and has achieved little even by way of reductions.
"The treaty lost its credibility a year after it was launched, when its architects indirectly retracted a promise to protect non-nuclear NPT signatories from the threat posed by nuclear member states," Barakat told the Weekly. Critics have always argued that the failure of the treaty to pressure nuclear-weapons states into disarming has not only angered non-nuclear-weapons NPT signatories, but has also given them cause to quit the treaty and develop their own nuclear arsenals in a search for national security.
Commentators thus speculate that Obama's speech to the Security Council was aimed at dissuading non-nuclear NPT signatories from seeking to possess nuclear weapons.
Many critics who agree with Barakat further argue that no matter how sincere Obama may be in his determination to eliminate nuclear weapons, this does not mean zero-point can ever be reached, since the president of the US does not single-handedly control US policy. Neither do Obama's attempts at reducing the nuclear arsenals of the five major powers that possess them convince critics like Barakat, since "what is left of the world's nuclear arsenal already represents two or three times the quantity needed to devastate it."
The absence of any mention of Israel in US rhetoric has also called its credibility into question.
Experts argue that no nuclear-weapons state would seriously consider eliminating its weapons if it were not 100 per cent sure that other countries would do the same. Some experts even speculate that progress in disarmament by the major powers possessing nuclear weapons could make the possession of nuclear weapons more attractive by increasing the perceived strategic value of having a small arsenal. Formulating a strategy that could break this seemingly-endless vicious circle has stumped experts worldwide.
For Barakat, history has shown that creating a balance of nuclear power has provided a "safety valve" against the use of nuclear weapons in conflicts over the past 50 years, something that has pushed some nuclear experts to suggest that a nuclear balance is a more plausible solution to international security than any far-off zero-point solution.
"The last 50 years have seen many wars, but no country has dared to use nuclear weapons for fear of being attacked in the same way," Barakat told the Weekly. As a strong proponent of nuclear disarmament, Barakat would still suggest drafting treaties on the regional level to help prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
"It's all a question of justice," Barakat said, adding that "any solution should be based on fairness if progress is to be achieved." Like many others, Barakat argues that as long as nations are not treated equally, there will never be lasting peace, and the world will be caught up in a nuclear arms race that may end up devastating humanity.
Yet, Evans remains undaunted, and the commission has identified a three-phase action plan, the first stage of which will spell out the steps that should be taken in the short term, to around 2012, in order to build momentum. Such steps include the success of next year's NPT Review Conference, negotiating a convention to ban the further production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons purposes, achieving significant reductions in actual weapons numbers, and achieving a broad consensus on the future course of disarmament negotiations.
The second part of Evans's action plan will involve identifying steps, through to around 2025, by which nuclear weapons would be reduced to minimal numbers, the dangers of their accidental use eliminated, and a nuclear doctrine agreed and applied that would dramatically limit occasions for their deliberate use.
The third phase would then identify how the final step could be taken of moving from such a "minimalist vantage point" to a world genuinely free of nuclear weapons.