Unconventional wisdom

By Martin B. Malin | May 28, 2012

As negotiations with Iran over the future of its nuclear program inch toward a possible deal, another intractable Middle East problem with a nuclear dimension is likely to start getting more serious attention. It is the question of whether there is any chance that Israel, Iran, and their Arab neighbors will agree to discuss establishing a regional zone free of all nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and their delivery systems.

Earlier this month in Vienna, Jaakko Laajava, a Finnish diplomat and the facilitator of the proposed 2012 Middle East WMD-Free Zone Conference, reported to the Non-Proliferation Treaty preparatory committee meeting that although he had conducted more than 100 meetings — both inside and outside the region — he had yet to secure an agreement from all relevant states on participation. News of Laajava's no-news statement was met with another round of eye-rolling and finger-pointing: The likely holdouts are Israel and Iran, with a major question mark hanging over Syrian participation.

After decades of backsliding, proliferation, and conflict in the Middle East, the conventional wisdom says the current round of efforts will fail. I think the conventional wisdom is wrong.

In the past, many leaders in the Middle East have seen chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons as an attractive answer to their problems. But this logic is changing. Developments in the region are creating conditions that make progress on arms control and disarmament more possible, not less.

Reviewing matters within. Internal conditions throughout the Middle East are becoming less conducive for either sparking or sustaining WMD programs. Arab protesters are demanding less corruption and more government accountability. Large, secretive WMD programs supporting unaccountable military-industrial cliques will be harder to support in the region's emerging political economies. The domestic political struggles underway across the Middle East have both leaders in power and their opponents focusing inward on reform, not outward toward old enemies.

If democratic processes begin to take root (and, admittedly, it is premature to say that they will), what effect will this have on the perceived role of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons? Research by political scientists Harald Müller and Andreas Schmidt suggests that democratizing states, in need of international acceptance and support, are particularly sensitive to nonproliferation norms and loathe to violate them.

Regional evolution. The region's historic military rivalries have receded and the security rationale for WMD is receding with them. Iraq, which was once Iran's bitterest enemy and in US crosshairs for its WMD programs (real and imagined), now closely coordinates its policies with both Tehran and Washington. Tension in the Saudi-Iranian relationship requires the attention of leaders in Riyadh and Tehran, but in no way resembles the military rivalry that once existed between Iran and Iraq.

Inter-Arab animosity has also moderated. In April, when demonstrations erupted outside its embassy in Cairo, Saudi Arabia quickly withdrew its ambassador, Ahmed Qattan. But within a week, Riyadh reinstated Qattan and promised a major aid package to Egypt. Contrast that incident with Saudi-Egyptian relations in the 1960s, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser deployed his country's troops in Yemen to defeat Saudi proxies and used poison gas to do the job. Times have changed

The Arab-Israeli conflict, the original driver of Israel's nuclear weapons program, has been reduced to two issues: the core question of Israeli-Palestinian relations and the future of the Golan Heights. Although each problem is vexing, neither is any longer the spark that can ignite region-wide conflict and threaten Israel's very existence. Israel's peace with Egypt may cool even further, but neither of Egypt's presidential candidates calls for abrogating the treaty because the treaty is as much an anchor of Egypt's national security as it is of Israel's.

Israeli and Iranian calculations. As Israel considers how best to secure its future, it must choose among three strategic options.

Israel can try to extend its nuclear monopoly by attacking or sabotaging the nuclear projects of Iran and perhaps other states down the road. This option, Israel's policy for the past several decades, is becoming increasingly untenable. In the short- to medium-term, bombing carries the risk of retaliation, and the unintended consequence of fueling the nuclear ambitions it is trying to stamp out. And Israel can only bomb what it knows about. But the long-term problem is more profound: Can Israel sustain a policy of militarily preventing nuclear development in a neighborhood of growing interest in nuclear power and a progressive diffusion of technology?

Israel's second option — deterrence — carries the price of eventually abandoning nuclear ambiguity, since maintaining an active deterrent through periods of crisis and change in Iranian capabilities will require explicit statements and even demonstrations of Israeli capability. Such demonstrations will threaten and provoke Arab states in a way that Israel's nuclear weapons now do not, further raising the costs and risks of deterrence.

In light of the above choices, Israel may come to see the third option as the least unpalatable: Entering into negotiations with its neighbors to establish rules for limiting the possession of WMD across the region, eventually putting its own capabilities on the negotiating table. Discussing a WMD-free zone would allow Israel to prolong its nuclear weapons monopoly with the fewest challenges for an interim period, while negotiating the terms of a transition to a nuclear and WMD free Middle East. It can also use a forum on regional arms control as a venue to raise its concerns about proliferation elsewhere in the region.

Iran has important security interests in pursuing a WMD-free zone. Tehran has a long-term strategic interest in denuclearizing Israel, and, odious as it might seem to Iran's leaders, direct negotiations with Israel on regional security and a WMD ban are the only way to do that. Iran would find other security benefits from engaging diplomatically on the issue: Regional security discussions can help Iran break out of its isolation. In WMD-free zone discussions, Iran can split the US-Arab coalition against it and focus attention on Israel's nuclear weapons. The creation of a zone — if it were to occur in the next several years — would leave Iran far ahead of its Arab neighbors in its nuclear knowledge and experience, preserving an important security hedge, while reducing the incentives for its neighbors to attempt to match its expensive fuel-cycle investment.

Wild cards. If the current P5+1 negotiations with Tehran collapse and Israel or the United States attack Iran, then both the political and security justifications for proliferation will be reinforced across the region. Voices within Iran calling for an operational deterrent will gain traction. And similar arguments will reverberate in Riyadh, Cairo, and possibly elsewhere. Failure of the proposal to hold a conference in 2012 on a Middle East WMD-free zone will be the least of concerns.

Syria also presents potential problems. In the short-term, having suspended its membership in the Arab League for its violent crackdown on protesters, many Arab states would prefer not to reward the Assad regime with a platform at a conference to discuss weapons of mass destruction. In the long-term, competitive external intervention in a Syrian civil war could help reverse the trends supporting the move toward WMD disarmament. Syrian behavior, together with its chemical weapons stocks, should remind everyone why the discussion of a WMD-free zone and regional security more broadly in the Middle East is urgent. The short-term political costs of Syrian participation are trivial by comparison.

Predictions. In capitals across the Middle East, policy makers will soon be pressed for their responses to a proposal to meet in Finland to discuss a regional WMD ban, possibly in December. Though Tehran and Jerusalem will grasp at old arguments to insist that the idea is foolish or unnecessary, a cold, hard look at emerging security interests in the new Middle East will take a bite out of old dogmas. Invitations to Helsinki will bring Israel and Iran to the negotiation table. Undoubtedly, the process will be long and frustrating. But the conventional wisdom will be overturned.

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