by Rod Mamudi
In its nuclear program, [Iran’s] government enters with full power and has complete authority. I have given the nuclear negotiations portfolio to foreign ministry. The problem won’t be from our side. We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem.
Such were the words of Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, last Wednesday, speaking to both domestic and foreign audiences by way of NBC News. They came one day after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei spoke of the virtues of “heroic flexibility” in negotiations. Since then speculation that Presidents Obama and Rouhani could meet at this week’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) — and in doing so, transform relations between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran — has been flourishing.
Unsurprisingly, Israeli concerns over this possibility are dovetailing with their reported dissatisfaction over the Syrian chemical weapons-transfer. Their key complaint was alluded to by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu last weekend when he repeated his call for a “credible military threat” in the US’s dealings with Iran. Tehran insists that its nuclear program remains geared towards peaceful purposes, but Netanyahu argues that the perceived military climb-down over Syria will embolden Iran in its alleged nuclear-weapons pursuit while it stalls for more time.
But Israel stands to gain the most from a peaceful resolution to this issue.
A non-nuclear Iran is a clear security imperative for the Israel. But this is just one component in the Israeli calculus. More broadly, Israel has a serious interest in maintaining the current Middle Eastern nuclear status quo, in which Israel is tacitly acknowledged as the sole regional state with a nuclear arsenal.
A negotiated resolution to Iran’s nuclear dossier can preserve this overall objective. A military strike on the other hand, while the most direct short-term route to a non-nuclear Iran, could endanger Israel’s nuclear monopoly.
Meeting with US Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey last month, Netanyahu stated that Iran “dwarfs” all other security challenges. In July, Netanyahu said on US television that Iran was now pursuing both uranium and plutonium routes to weaponization, and working on inter-continental ballistic missiles. A credible threat of force against Iran is therefore necessary, according to Netanyahu, because it is “the only thing that will get their attention”.
But Netanyahu has described the threat of force as necessary, not force itself. The Israeli position, vividly illustrated at last year’s UNGA, could be the “bad cop” to the US’ “good cop”; a method to harness both stick and carrot.
At some point, however, not delivering on a threat starts to become dangerous. Some speak confidently of Israel’s ability to conduct a surgical strike and eliminate an immediate threat of nuclear weaponization. But Iran is not Iraq or Syria. Either way, few argue this would keep Iran from a bomb indefinitely. In fact, striking Iran could speed up Israel’s worst nightmare as a cornered Iran rushes to defend itself.
There are, however, three possible alternatives to war: a continuation of the regional nuclear status quo; a proliferation of weapons in response to escalation; or a renewed drive to establishing a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, which I will focus on.
Normally a NWFZ treaty will seek to prohibit the acquisition, testing, and use of nuclear weapons in the region. It will involve some kind of framework for the treaty’s monitoring and implementation, and, importantly, positive and negative guarantees from the five nuclear-weapons states (NWS) including security assurances in the event of an attack from outside the Treaty-area and on the non-use of nuclear weapons against the treaty’s signatories. There have been various reservations to these norms, but this is the pattern.
Currently there are five NWFZ Treaties across the world. A treaty was applied in the Caribbean and Latin America in 1969. Costa Rica had made a proposal as early as 1958, but the reaction was cool. But by 1963, a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Mexico joined Costa Rica’s call. By February 1967, despite outright hostility from some quarters, a Treaty was prepared for signature. Cuba was the last to ratify in 2002.
The geostrategic situation post-Missile Crisis was ostensibly the same as that of the pre-Missile Crisis. The warheads had been removed, but the nearest countries had received a rude awakening; the crisis had thus served as a catalyst.
Prospects for a NWFZ in the Middle East are slim now for a number of reasons. But the idea is there. Iran and Egypt called for one in 1974. In 1990, Hosni Mubarak called for a weapons-of-mass-destruction free zone. UNSC Resolution 687, which terminated the 1991 Gulf War, described Iraqi disarmament as one of “steps towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction”. The UN’s 2010 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference called for a meeting on this subject by 2012 (yet to occur).
Political flux further complicates the issue. Outside powers may yet decide such changes require a stronger commitment framework.
A crisis, coupled with the many complications arising from an arms race, may begin to drive momentum on a NWFZ in the Middle East. None of this means Israel would disarm, but it could make its position extremely politically complicated. And however remote this prospect may seem today, the tides of change hardly look like they’ve receded in the Middle East. Indeed, how many could have guessed six months ago that much of the buzz ahead of the 68th annual UNGA would be around a potential US/Iran meeting?
Using the “military option” on Iran could see off an immediate threat to Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, but it could also trigger a crisis that compromises Israel’s currently favored status quo. But a negotiated settlement — the seeds of which could be planted at this week’s UNGA — bypasses this dilemma altogether, not to mention the many pitfalls of using force against Iran.
— Rod Mamudi is a recent graduate of the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po Paris, where his research focused on Iranian foreign policy.
– Photo Credit: United Nations