Security imperatives outweigh imported norms

By Ehud Eiran, July 1, 2013

This debate about the initiative to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is, it seems to me, characterized by two competing outlooks. According to one, weapons of mass destruction are a realm unto themselves, independent of broader regional security issues, and WMDs can be governed by norms and effective institutions. This approach is not something that I have espoused in this discussion, but it does represent a world in which I would prefer to live.

According to the other perspective, weapons of mass destruction are an extension of the region's broader political cleavages—cleavages that have an inescapable violent dimension. The development, deployment, and use of WMDs are driven by material interests and security concerns. Sadly, this is the world in which we live. Or at least it's the Middle East that actually exists.

Three countries in the region have now used chemical weapons against civilians or are strongly suspected of having done so—Iraq and Syria against their own people, and Egypt during the North Yemen Civil War. Another nation, Iran, is under heavy UN sanctions that relate to its nuclear programs. In each of these instances, international norms have failed to override national perceptions of security interests. This suggests that imported norms will not eradicate weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East. Rather, the incentive structure that governs state decisions must be altered. Israel in particular finds its security environment threatening, and this is why it has not chosen so far to join a norm-based security arrangement regarding WMD.

From the Israeli perspective, the WMD-free-zone initiative can seem to spring not from a genuine desire to create a better future for all concerned, but from something nearer the opposite: the desire to erect a set of constraints that will prevent Israel from defending itself. Very few parties in the region have condemned the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons against its own citizens, or condemned Iran for its calls that Israel be destroyed. Abolishing WMDs can seem merely a cover for a political agenda that threatens Israel.

But this is not to say that Israel rejects outright the idea of banning weapons of mass destruction from the region. Indeed, as Martin Malin has noted, Israel is open to discussing arms control, though the process "can only begin after political relationships in the region improve." Israel was always frank about its perspective toward organizing a 2012 conference on WMD, but made no wholesale effort to postpone it. For example, the head of Israel's atomic energy commission made a statement in September 2012 at the general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency that was critical of the planned meeting. But I understand from an individual connected to the process that the next day a senior Israeli official communicated to process facilitator Jaakko Laajava that the speech should not be understood to mean that Israel would not attend the conference.

I am no blind believer—not in realism and not in Israel's current policies. And I concur to some extent with my colleague Mansour Salsabili's arguments that, in effect, no state is an island and that joint mechanisms can help achieve security. I even concur to some extent that security is tied to states' notions about their own identity. But I am simply not convinced that Israel's identity and its realist outlook are the sole reasons for the failure of regional arms control efforts. I would add that, before Iran's revolution, Israel demonstrated its trust in joint security efforts by maintaining close relations with Tehran. But this alliance collapsed when Tehran—not Jerusalem—underwent a radical change in political and ideological identity.

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