Though Finnish diplomat Jaako Laajava tried diligently for more than a year to convince all stakeholders to participate in the 2012 Conference on a WMD-Free zone in the Middle East, it was finally cancelled due to the "poor geopolitical climate". In spite of the difficulties of convening various nations, there was no apparent lack of enthusiasm for this cause among NGOs and academia. Indeed, though no one has any lingering hopes that it will happen this year, the work to convene it next year will probably continue unabated. Kate Hudson of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament stated that while “questions over whether [the zone] can succeed are surfacing […] the consequences if it should fail are unthinkable". However, whether or not the conference is held, the broader purpose will ultimately fail while it seeks to address a symptom of distrust and insecurity rather than addressing root causes.
This time, Israeli reluctance motivated the decision to call off the conference. A continuously recurring theme at the 2012 7th London Conference on a Middle East WMD Free Zone was how to get Jerusalem to participate and whether a conference without Israel would be useful. While professor Gilbert Achcar called for pushing the US to pressure Israel into participating, Israel is unlikely even to consider agreeing to such a zone while its security still needs to be ensured in non-nuclear ways.
While Israel has not formally acknowledged possession of nuclear warheads, there is plenty of evidence that it has them, most notably the photographs and testimony disclosed by Mordechai Vanunu in 1986. Its policy of nuclear opacity is essentially an attempt to enjoy the defensive benefits of nuclear deterrence without suffering the political cost in the form of various international restrictions and oversight. Silence also increases the likelihood of Israel retaining its regional nuclear monopoly; it is easier for Arab states to ignore the nuclear option as long as Israel is not boasting about theirs.
There are understandable reasons for this monopoly: Israel has fought three bloody wars where its very survival was at stake, and while Israel now has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, it remains immensely unpopular in the region. Compounding this legitimate security concern are Israeli fears of the Arab Spring bringing popular democracy to their neighbours.
Israel is outclassed numerically in conventional military terms, even if their equipment is superior. While this leaves them capable of winning blitzkrieg-like campaigns, they are less likely to win a war of attrition. In the event that Israel disarmed and another crisis erupted, it would be more likely to aggressively launch a pre-emptive strike to avoid a drawn out scenario, much like during the June 1967 war.
The 'threat' from Iran
The prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons only increases Israel’s perceived need for a nuclear deterrent. However, the assumption in the west that Iran wants to develop a nuclear weapon should be questioned and put into perspective. While the threat of an Israeli-American attack certainly bolsters the case for Iranian hawks to develop this capability, there are many reasons why Iranian doves would most likely prevail in such a debate.
First, Ayatollah Khamenei has stated publicly that nuclear weapons are against Islam and that the country does not intend to acquire any. While these may seem empty words to a great deal of western observers, they do not consider that a regime that gains its legitimacy through religion cannot revoke religious edicts lightly. Revealing that Iran actually has a weapon after having decried this as un-Islamic would severely undermine the regime’s standing in the eyes of their main supporters. A broken fatwa would mean a severe crisis of legitimacy.
Second, any nuclear strike on Israel would also kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of faithful Muslims and most probably destroy the third holiest site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Third, if Iran were to launch a nuclear attack, they might well lose the few regional allies they have left.
While these factors do not guarantee that Tehran is not developing a bomb, it does ensure that any such development will remain secret, only to be revealed to select foreign officials at Tehran’s choosing to ensure the deterrent effect. There will be no unprovoked strikes on Europe, Israel or the US. The Iranian regime would only use nuclear weapons if its survival were directly threatened by a foreign invasion – much like the Israeli bombs. However, Iran has indicated its willingness to take part in the conference.
Unhelpful bombastic rhetoric
This was unfortunately glossed over when Israeli PM Netanyahu presented a cartoonish bomb in front of the UN General Assembly and threatened unilateral military action by next summer. Instead of being caught up in this theatre, it is helpful to pause and consider how we reached this impasse.
In a moment of similar dramatic flair at a 2005 Tehran conference, President Ahmadinejad infamously stated, “Israel must be wiped off the map”, causing much anxiety in Israel and the west about Iranian intentions. Pressure mounted on Iran to increase transparency over its programme, leading to increased sanctions and in turn reinforcing Iranian indignation and resolution not to give in to western ‘bullying’.
Why did Ahmadinejad find it prudent to use such strong rhetoric against Israel in the first place? Because of the unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine, and a peace process frozen by Israel’s relative complacency regarding the status quo and the general unwillingness on all sides to compromise.
Changing geo-politics - and hope for a renewed peace process?
However, as politics in the region shift, Washington’s alliance with Israel is turning into a liability. That Jerusalem could draw the US into an unwanted war further makes the case for re-evaluating Israel’s role in their regional strategy: but America continually restates its firm commitment to its Israeli alliance. This reflects the powerful influence of the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC in Washington, but even this leverage cannot trump US national interests indefinitely.
Israel risks continued international isolation and without superpower patronage, it could quickly be relegated to the pariah status currently experienced by Iran. The recent UN vote on Palestinian statehood dramatically illustrated how limited Israel’s support is worldwide. America’s reaction to 3000 new illegal homes on the West Bank and construction in East Jerusalem also showed that even Israel’s strongest supporters are losing patience. The US, if it gets its act together, can put significant pressure on Israel to come to an agreement. The twist here is that a nuclear Israel will actually feel safer, and therefore more likely to compromise.
Arab leaders can also feel the winds changing, hence their current assertive posture – threatening to boycott the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee event scheduled for April in Geneva to push for a conference on the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Whether this is strictly a bargaining tool or a deflection for other interests is up for debate. Nevertheless, this puts the Obama administration – which has made non-proliferation a key strategic priority of its foreign policy – in an extremely uncomfortable position. Left with choosing between fighting the Israeli lobby or risking regional proliferation, it is yet unclear how they will respond.
Israel’s nuclear weapons and Iran’s (assumed) desire to acquire them are symptoms of the unrelenting Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We need to treat the cause of Middle Eastern insecurities, not the symptoms. In other words, we need to talk about land, not weapons.