The Middle East Channel

Tackling the Mideast nuclear conundrum

Tackling the Mideast nuclear conundrum


President Barack Obama’s nuclear summit of 47 world leaders last week aimed to address a major flaw in the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT): namely, its neglect of non-state actors. In this regard, the summit was a success, as it laid the foundation for creating safeguards against non-state actors’ acquisition of weapons-grade nuclear material. However, the other major flaw of the NPT–its inability to achieve universal membership–remains unattended to.

The Washington nuclear summit contributes to re-establishing US leadership in the nuclear nonproliferation business, especially after the signing of the ‘New START’ treaty and the release of a more engaging Nuclear Posture Review. President Obama can now capitalize on these successes and take steps to improve the universality of NPT. That would affirm US leadership and at the same time improve global security significantly.

The fact that India, Israel and Pakistan remain outside the scope of the NPT and exempt from any kind of international inspection of their nuclear activities has been a major obstacle in expanding the nonproliferation treaty. India and Pakistan have found a modus operandi, regulated to a large extent by an active US involvement. In a way it is both easier and less urgent to integrate them in the NPT.

In the Middle East, however, the situation is more troubling and continues to generate serious risks for the world as a whole. Iran seems like the most compelling case at hand, but it is important to remember that Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity also stands in the way of establishing a regional security regime in the region. In the multilateral security talks that followed the 1991 Madrid Conference, Israel adamantly refused to discuss its nuclear program unless conventional and unconventional threats of its neighbors were addressed first (including those posed by Iran and Saddam’s Iraq). Conversely, Arab states insisted on including Israel’s nuclear weapons in the discussion before any security arrangement could be agreed. As a result, the talks collapsed and were never revived in the years since. Had the US intervened 15 years ago and led Arab states and Israel towards overcoming their tit-for-tat attitude, a Mideast security regime, with confidence-building measures, safeguards and verification mechanisms, would probably have emerged by now.

Both the US and actors in the region need to start a dialogue on all security concerns in the Middle East that includes the nuclear issues. And they need to start this dialogue now, and urgently.

Such a dialogue would help address a number of challenges at the same time. First, it would lay to rest the complaints about double standards in the nonproliferation community and relieve the US – and Israel – from the untenable claim that Israel’s nuclear arsenal should somehow be treated as exceptional (a claim that nobody outside Washington and Tel Aviv gives serious consideration). The double-standard argument has been the most successful weapon against nonproliferation, especially in mobilizing public support for nuclear projects like those of Saddam’s Iraq, Ghaddafi’s Libya or Iran (and you will hear a lot about it in the coming weeks leading up to the NPT review). Second, such a dialogue would significantly decrease the pressure on Arab governments to start their own nuclear programs and abort what could be the beginning of a nuclear race in the region. Third, this dialogue would pave the way for the establishment of a Middle East security regime, which could be the vehicle for addressing a wide range of security hazards in this troubled and troubling region. Finally, such a dialogue might offer a framework for addressing Iran’s problematic nuclear activities, especially if accompanied by a package of stabilizing confidence-building measures.

What is needed here is a non-ideological, non-divisive, practical approach to the nuclear issues in the Middle East that takes into account legitimate security needs of all players. Rhetoric aside, the security concerns of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Gulf States, Iran, Syria and Turkey are mutually dependent and cannot be addressed separately. A comprehensive regime can offer each party the assurances that are vital to its own security, and require it to provide assurances to others.

By pursuing this goal, the Obama Administration can lead the transformation of the security landscape in the Middle East. No other party has the strategic wherewithal to pursue this goal. And few other interventions could bring the US administration such comparable dividends in the short term.

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is professor of international politics at the American University in Cairo and a former advisor to the Egyptian foreign minister and also to the UN’s Middle East envoy in Jerusalem.