Saturday, May 15, 2010

The non-proliferation equation

Stale and outmoded, it is the content, not the implementation, of the nuclear non-proliferation regime that needs to be rethought, writes Ayman El-Amir*

For nuclear weapon capable states, a stockpile of nuclear warheads is more valuable than gold reserves, a national army and the gross domestic product combined. To ask them to abandon these assets is to expect them to give up their national prestige and survival itself. For non-nuclear weapon capable states, or those aspiring to develop nuclear programmes, they feel left out in the cold with no credible guarantee against nuclear annihilation by a hostile nuclear power. So, like in the old days of the Cold War, mutual retaliation capacity remains the safest haven for those that can acquire nuclear arms capability, particularly in regions of conflict. And this remains the most formidable challenge to nuclear disarmament and non- proliferation, debated at the UN Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York.

Although the review conference has about 38 items and sub-items on its agenda, the main focus has been on Iran, a non-nuclear power, and on Israel, a 40-year-old non- declared nuclear power in a volatile region. Iran is under siege by the US-led Western alliance because they suspect its nuclear development programme could have military purposes. They are driven primarily by Israel, the sole nuclear weapon state in the Middle East and that will do anything to maintain its nuclear monopoly status. Israel, which like India and Pakistan is a non-signatory to the NPT, has long maintained a position of ambiguity over its nuclear weapons arsenal, estimated by most experts to run into hundreds of nuclear and low-yield neutron bombs. Since it produced its first three nuclear warheads in 1968, Israel has reiterated the standard response to any question: "We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." In the mid-1990s, Shimon Peres, now president of Israel, came as close as any Israeli official could to acknowledging Israeli production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, shrouding it in a double-edged vagueness. He stated in an interview, "We managed to create sufficient suspicion for there to be deterrent, without having gotten to a status of clarity which would behoove [US] sanctions against us."

Israel had developed its nuclear weapons capability by subterfuge, connivance, stealth and blackmail of successive US administrations. That is why it is suspicious now that Iran is developing nuclear weapons capability under similar cover.

Israel has the Western allies who had helped it develop its nuclear weapons capability on its side and against Iran. It claims Iran poses a threat to regional and international security because of unproven suspicions, while Israel which, by all accounts, has hundreds of nuclear devices and has waged several wars in the Middle East is exempt from the rigorous criteria of non-proliferation. It is this hypocritical approach that undercuts the credibility of the NPT and threatens its very existence. Under these double standards, all US administrations since the Nixon- Kissinger era followed the equation, "Don't ask, don't tell" with regards to Israel. The Reagan administration turned a blind eye to Pakistan's development and testing of a nuclear bomb in the late 1970s and early 1980s because it needed its cooperation in providing a free passage for the mujahideen into Afghanistan to battle the Soviet occupation. By comparison, US sanctions were imposed against India but were later lifted and replaced last year with a nuclear cooperation agreement that left its undeclared nuclear weapons intact. And none of the two Asian states is likely to join the 181-member NPT any time soon.

The Obama administration, which has so far failed to move Israel one iota from its expansionist policy in the occupied Palestinian territories, just to breathe new life into the peace process, is unlikely to undertake the risky mission of trying to rid Israel of its nuclear arsenal. The 30-year-old nuclear-free Middle East project will not happen because Israel will wiggle out of any commitment, assisted by the US where no administration could face the Jewish lobby's emotional charge of endangering the survival of Israel. Arab countries are helplessly wringing their hands at Israeli defiance. They are disingenuously shooting themselves in the foot by bowing to the Israeli-US ruse that Iran, and not Israel, is the rising threat to security in the Middle East. The long- standing proposal for ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction is still on the books, and even at some point may turn into a conference, but it will at best be similar to the UN Commission on Disarmament that was created in 1946 and has proved to be nothing more than a debate forum. The real action, if any, will take place somewhere else. By selectivity and bias, the substance of the NPT is riddled with holes.

The narrow focus of the US, Israel, the Western alliance and even some Arab countries on imposing a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions on Iran wrecks the eighth Review Conference. Unless key Western players adopt a serious position on the monitoring, inspection and verification of Israeli nuclear arsenal within the framework of the NPT, and the involvement of the Security Council, there is little chance that any progress will be made on nuclear disarmament in the Middle East. That may be too big a chunk for the Obama administration to chew, but the decades-long policy of "Don't ask, don't tell" will have to be reopened for discussion if Iran's nuclear programme is to be debated in a meaningful way. The failure of the review conference, even if gift-wrapped in positive diplomatic language, further weakens the NPT itself and encourages other ambitious countries to circumvent it. It is significant enough that almost 20 per cent of state signatories are not taking part in the conference in New York.

To developing countries, the argument about Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions is wearing thin, despite Israeli-US vitriolic attacks. It makes no sense that unproven suspicions of Iran's nuclear intentions are more of a security threat than Israel's undeclared nuclear reality. Unless both cases are approached with the same set of criteria, there will be no reason for Security Council members to single out Iran and turn a blind eye to Israel, even if one is an NPT signatory and the other has opted out.

Iran will not abandon its nuclear enrichment programme. Overzealous Western countries will either adopt an attitude of resignation that may recognize Iran as a de facto nuclear power, or Israel will risk a military strike against suspected Iranian targets with possibly disastrous consequences for the entire Middle East region and the world at large. Israel has successfully counted on US indulgence and protection to avert any punitive measure. However, with Iran's fearless determination the stakes for the US are getting higher in the Middle East. In the case of the Middle East conflict, the US has always counted on its ability to bend the will of its client Arab states in favour of Israeli policies and strategy. Iran has proved to be of a different mettle. Anti- colonial Arab nationalism has taken a back seat while Iranian nationalism is rising vigorously. This is as much a source of concern for the US and Israel as Arab nationalism was in its heyday.

The world scene has undergone a great deal of change in the 42 years since the NPT was adopted in an environment of superpower confrontation. What needs to be done to make it more effective is to review the fundamentals of the treaty itself, not just its mechanisms, to bring it up to date with new global realities.

* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington DC. He also served as director of the United Nations Radio and Television in New York.