by Dan Plesch
On Wednesday night, in London, there is a rare chance to engage in dialogue with Israelis and Palestinians on the issue of ridding the Middle East of nuclear weapons.With a US president who won the century-long battle for universal healthcare in one year, it would be rash to dismiss serious progress towards two of his other stated goals, the Middle East peace process and the abolition of nuclear weapons. On these issues, Bill Clinton's officials were wont to say "we agree with you, but the time is not right". Obama seems to follow Franklin Roosevelt's line of "you've convinced me, now pressure me".
In this light, the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) is honoured to host Ziad AbuZayyad and Hillel Schenker, co-editors of the Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, who have travelled to London in order to launching a special issue on the topic of a nuclear weapon-free Middle East. They are joined by Avner Cohen, who wrote the pioneering book Israel and the Bomb, the leading Jordanian intellectual Saad Abudayeh, and a leader of British anti-nuclear civil society, Rebecca Johnson, director of the Acronym institute and a protester against the British nuclear weapons programme. Cohen wrote recently in Haaretz that Israel and the west were grossly overreacting to the Iranian nuclear programme and that it was more sensible to regard nuclear weapons as unusable and Iranian hopes for the end of Israel as no more than that. His advice is important to consider.
President Obama inherited a US military machine whose plans for war against Iran had been advanced at Dick Cheney's insistence. Obama, much of the US military and public are united in not wanting to add a third war to those in Afghanistan and Iraq. But developments may push them in that direction. The US intelligence and military establishments have moved to saying that Iran is likely to have its first atom bomb next year. With Iranian leaders dismissing Obama's overtures as weakness and rumours of military strikes the auguries are not auspicious.
The Iranian issue is hard to treat in isolation. For many the failure of the international community to address Israel's nuclear weapons, and then in succession those of India, Pakistan and North Korea, has created a sense that western non-proliferation efforts are simply a new form of international discrimination. Egypt in particular is aggrieved since the leading role it took in the 1960s in the negotiation for the non-proliferation treaty has resulted in a broken bargain. Now, as a number of Arab nations begin to develop nuclear energy, western commentators see this as a competition with Iran and Israel.
A number of diplomatic initiatives that will help or hinder these issues come to a head in the next few months. First, France is holding a conference later this month on nuclear energy, at which marketing French-built reactors is the main focus. Next comes a nuclear security conference with Obama and then, in New York in May, comes a UN conference reviewing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Here the nuclear have-nots will be asking what the nuclear weapons states – including Britain – have done to get rid of their weapons as promised under the treaty. The sense of betrayal in the Arab world is intensified because it is likely that without Arab good faith there would be no viable NPT today. In 1995 the treaty was set to expire unless an agreement could be reached on extending its term. In those still optimistic post-cold war days it was agreed to make the treaty permanent and as part of a programme to make it more effective, it was agreed to pursue a Middle East weapons of mass destruction-free zone. Since then nothing tangible has happened to implement this commitment.
Before giving up, consider some hopeful signs in the present and some precedents from the cold war era. There are some signs that the US may take policy positions more independent of Israeli official views. The global anti-nuclear movement shows some signs of life with the emergence of the Global Zero campaign.
Looking back, we should remember that at the end of the 1980s, while the Soviet Union was still seen as the "evil empire", disarmament agreements were negotiated that resulted in the verified destruction of tens of thousands of weapons in a very few years. In Iraq, perhaps the one good lesson was that UN arms inspections were effective. Other campaigns are working to control arms and have gone a long way with cluster bombs and landmines. The Disarmament and Globalisation research programme at Soas looks to prepare a renaissance of disarmament, building on best practice. In one model, the Scrap concept, world disarmament could be implemented on a 10-year timetable.
• The For a Nuclear Weapons-free Middle East event will be held at Soas at 5pm on 24 March