North Africa, West Asia

Nuclear standoff between the Arab League and the west

For decades the west has covertly supported Israel’s nuclear programme while pretending to support a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. Exasperated by this, the Arab League is spearheading a major international move to challenge the west’s double standards.

Bob Rigg
26 August 2014
Negev Nuclear Research Center at Dimona, Israel, photographed in 1968

Negev Nuclear Research Center at Dimona, Israel, photographed in 1968 by American reconnaissance satellite. US Government/Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

On 16 June the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna circulated a request backed by 18 members of the Arab League calling on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the IAEA’s inspection regime and to formally commit to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). 

This Arab resolution, which has been something of a hardy annual for decades now, will also be supported by almost all Muslim states, many non-aligned states, and others. Although the IAEA cannot require Israel to join the NPT, its members can apply enormous political pressure on Israel through the IAEA’s premier decision-making body.

In the meantime the Arab League Secretary General has “urgently” contacted all IAEA states, formally requesting them to support the Arab initiative.  The IAEA General Conference will open on 22 September. 

Arab League, a historical commitment

All Middle Eastern states other than Israel have already joined the NPT. None of these states possesses nuclear weapons, while Israel is generally agreed to possess between 100 and 200 state-of-the-art nuclear warheads fitted to long-range ballistic missiles, and a handful of submarines armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, as well as nuclear-capable strike aircraft and powerful conventional armed forces.

If or when Israel eventually decides to accede to the NPT, it will be required to declare all nuclear weapons, to open them up to international inspection and eventually to destroy them.

It should be noted at this point that France, Norway, the UK, and the US all helped Israel to develop its clandestine nuclear program, at different times, under different governments. When the NPT entered into force in 1970, France, the UK, and the US knew that Israel already possessed at least one nuclear weapon. They did not request Israel to ratify the treaty, and have publicly covered for its expanding nuclear arsenal ever since. The treaty’s non-proliferation regime was accordingly still-born.

Bad faith and the regional WMD-free zone

Until the present day the west has paid lip service to the notion of a nuclear-free Middle East, while consistently turning a blind eye to Israel’s burgeoning nuclear capability.

Arab and Muslim states, often supported by members of the non-aligned movement, have long lobbied through international forums for the adoption of resolutions supporting a WMD-free Middle East. These initiatives were normally thwarted by the US and the west. 

The US and Israel have so far ensured that only they may threaten the Middle East with the possible use of nuclear weapons.  They want it to stay that way.

Arab anger boils over

Arab frustration over western stonewalling of a regional nuclear weapons-free zone boiled over at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, when the west desperately wanted the NPT to be extended indefinitely.  If it had not been extended, governments worldwide could have participated in a nuclear lolly-scramble. A powerful coalition of Arab, Muslim and other states dug in and refused to back the treaty’s extension unless the west agreed to prioritise the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

Sadly, Arab states and others then accepted wishy-washy undertakings dangled before them by the west. As soon as the indefinite extension of the NPT had been formally adopted, the west drove a horse and carriage through negotiated loopholes, and ceased to view a regional nuclear weapons-free zone as an ongoing commitment of high priority. 

Israel’s formidable nuclear capability, coupled with the massive US military presence in the region, means that the US and Israel have overwhelming military superiority.  Ironically, decisions by all Arab governments to renounce the possession of nuclear weapons also played into the hands of the west and Israel, further strengthening their hand.

The US and Sunni states rethink their position on Iran

In 2011 and 2012 some leading Sunni Arab states were influenced by western-inspired concerns about the peaceful nature of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program to suspend their support within the IAEA for a regional nuclear weapons-free zone.

They were also persuaded that, if they backed such a resolution, Israel would boycott international consultations on the subject.  However, Israel has, unsurprisingly, refused to commit seriously to any diplomatic process that could lead to the destruction of its nuclear arsenal.

And in the meantime the west is suddenly singing from a different hymn book where Iran’s nuclear program is concerned. Although the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are divided over almost everything else, they are united in their resolve to pull off a nuclear deal with Iran.  No one really wants a war to end all wars in an already perilously unstable region of great strategic importance.  Moreover, Obama is craving a foreign policy legacy to match that of Nixon in China.

The startling speed with which the Middle East has recently descended into turbulence and fragmentation has encouraged Iran’s regional adversaries to accept that, whether they like it or not, they have to collaborate actively with Iran on core issues such as Iraq, the Islamic State, and a regional nuclear weapons-free zone.

These considerations, coupled with the balkanization of Syria and Iraq and the freeze in Israel-US relations following Israel’s barbaric bombardment of Gaza, have prompted the Arab League to seize this opportunity to push energetically for an IAEA affirmation of a regional WMD-free zone just one year before the impending 2015 NPT Review Conference, at which this will undoubtedly be the key issue.

If the IAEA adopts the Arab League resolution in September, this will have far-reaching consequences for the outcome of the 2015 review conference. 

Probable linkage between IAEA votes and seats on the UN Security Council

Three members of the IAEA – New Zealand, Spain, and Turkey – are currently locked in a hard-fought battle for two seats on the UN Security Council.  Spain is regarded as being a certainty for one of the two seats, with New Zealand and Turkey fighting it out for the remaining second seat.   

In October the UN General Assembly will vote to decide which two of these three states is deemed most suitable to represent world opinion. New Zealand is widely perceived as another follower of the US in the Asia/Pacific region, although its profile is lower than that of the current hard-right Australian government, which already has a seat on the security council. New Zealand is also generally identified with the policies of the west worldwide. In the context of the UN General Assembly this is not necessarily advantageous.

Just one year ago Turkey would have had the upper hand where New Zealand is concerned. But its recent inglorious record in brutally putting down domestic opposition has seriously dented its standing on the international stage. New Zealand is undoubtedly trying to capitalize on this.

Given the key role to be played in the IAEA vote by the Arab League, Muslim states, and the non-aligned movement – key constituencies of opinion within the UN General Assembly – the way in which the three contenders vote on the highly contentious question of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East could well predetermine the outcome of their battle for places on the UN Security Council.

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