Who’s Really to Blame for Nuclear Tensions in the Middle East?

In the cancellation of the 2012 conference on the establishment of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, Israel may be at fault.

The decision to call-off the December conference on establishing a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) represents a major disappointment for the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Negotiated at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, the agreement to hold a meeting in 2012 among Middle East states on the regional abolition of nuclear weapons was viewed as a significant step toward the NPT’s ultimate goal of global disarmament. Many claim, however, that the postponement, and even potential cancellation of the meeting “[casts] doubt on the significance of the NPT conference and its attempts every five years to advance nonproliferation.”[1]

Image courtesy of Emily Louise, ©2007, some rights reserved.

Deliberations on the establishment of a Middle East NWFZ date back to the 1995 NPT Review Conference, during which the Middle East Resolution was adopted. A product of Arab frustration over Israel’s long-standing refusal to join the NPT, the Resolution not only calls on Middle Eastern states “who have not yet done so . . . to accede to the Treaty,” but also to “take practical steps . . . at making progress towards, inter alia, the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of Weapons of mass destruction.”[2] The proposed December conference was seen as a critical step in facilitating this progress.

In explaining the decision for the conference’s postponement, Western diplomats have cited the current Syrian crisis as well as global tensions surrounding Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, arguing, “the time was not opportune” for such a meeting.[3] However, there is some speculation that the real cause behind the conference’s suspension rests in Israel’s refusal to attend. Just days before the informal announcement on the conference’s postponement, Israeli and Iranian representatives met in Brussels for a private seminar on the prospects for a Middle East NWFZ. During the meeting, Iran finally promised to “participate actively” in the NWFZ conference. Israel, however, has yet to make any pledge. As the only two regional powers housing alleged nuclear weapons programs, the attendance of both Iran and Israel is seen as crucial to the success of the Middle East conference.

While Iran’s nuclear program has received a high degree of attention (and condemnation) in the last decade, especially following the revelation of its clandestine enrichment activities in 2002, Israel’s nuclear status often goes unnoticed. Dating back to the late 1950s, Israel’s nuclear program has long taken the form of “ambiguity.” That is, although there is widespread knowledge of its existing nuclear arsenal, in over half a century, Israel has refused to confirm or deny its nuclear status or become party to the NPT.

Israel’s ambiguous nuclear posture has shared U.S. support since the Nixon administration. Under a private U.S.-Israeli agreement known as the Nixon-Meir Accord, the U.S. promised not to question Israel’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for an Israeli guarantee not to be the first to (explicitly) introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Since this agreement in 1969, Israel’s nuclear facilities have remained unquestioned by the U.S.

While Israel has kept its promise, never revealing or threatening to use nuclear weapons, its ambiguous status presents a major inhibitor in the progress toward establishing a Middle East NWFZ. If such a zone were to be instituted, Israel would be forced to open its currently unsafeguarded nuclear facilities to international inspection, leading to the exposure and dismantlement of its nuclear weapons. Problematically, Israeli justification for its nuclear weapons program has long pointed to omnipresent security threats it faces as a result of geopolitical positioning within a region dominated by Arab states hostile to its existence.  Thus even today, Israel claims that, “a full Arab-Israeli peace plan must precede any creation of a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction.”[4] It seems then, while Western diplomats cite the Iranian nuclear problem as hindering the potential for a successful NWFZ summit, in fact, the Israeli prerequisite for a peaceful Middle East is the primary inhibitor.

Although the Israeli desire to cling to its ambiguous nuclear status seriously jeopardises the potential for progress toward the establishment of a Middle East NWFZ, Iran’s behavior cannot be discounted. While Iranian representatives in Brussels did pledge to “participate actively” in the Middle East conference, the genuine character of this promise is questionable. An examination of its behavior in the last decade reveals that Iran rarely engages in cooperative talks with the sincere intent to achieve a positive collective outcome.

In this case then, it seems very possible that Iran only agreed to participate in the conference knowing that Israel itself was likely to refuse. Realizing Israel would be unwilling to suffer the interrogation a NWFZ conference would likely bring, Iran could affirm its attendance without fear that the conference—which could potentially impede its own nuclear development—would actually take place. Further, Iran would emerge with the image of a diplomatic state willing to discuss a NWFZ, while Israel would be perceived as rejecting a key step in the international effort to achieve total nuclear disarmament.

While Iran has not necessarily succeeded in attaining a widely recognized “good guy” badge this time around, especially as Israel has what seems to be unconditional U.S. backing, it has nonetheless established itself as the willing party in this case. If Iran continues to advertise its preparedness to engage in disarmament talks, the Israeli silence over nuclear weapons is likely to receive more attention. Internationally, people may begin to consider more seriously the injustice of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Why, for example, can Israel get away with launching counter-proliferation initiatives, including in Iraq (1981) and in Syria (2007), when Israel itself houses its own secret nuclear arsenal? Further, how can Israel justify its rampant public denouncements Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities when Israel’s own nuclear program is defined by its clandestine character?

While diplomats can point to the Syrian crisis, global tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, and now the Israeli-Gaza conflict as hindering the potential for a successful conference on the establishment of a Middle East NWFZ, the fact is that the time will never be opportune until Israel is willing to discuss publically what it never has—the existence of its nuclear weapons program.

[1] “Middle East Nuclear Talks Called Off.” NBC News, 10/11/12.

[2] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Review Conference, 1995. Resolution on The Middle East. 17 April- 12 May 1995. New York: United Nations.

[3] “Middle East Nuclear Talks Called Off.” NBC News, 10/11/12.

[4] “Mideast Talks Between Israel, Neighbors Called Off.” The Huffington Post, 12/11/12.