Wednesday’s meeting of the security cabinet to consider regional arms control issues was the first such discussion in many years.
It was prompted by a number of developments, including Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi’s declaration that he would give up his nuclear and chemical weapons programs, which have set the stage for renewed discussion of regional arms control, including the idea of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
This long-term (or perhaps messianic) objective was the focus of many meetings of the ACRS working group formed by the 1991 Madrid peace conference. These talks, which were boycotted by Syria and Iran, broke down quickly.
The renewed rhetoric of regional arms control is also reflected in a Syrian proposal, introduced in the UN Security Council in the last days of its one-year term, and aimed primarily at pressing Israel to relinquish its nuclear deterrent capability. Similarly, Egyptian officials, as well as Iran and Libya, have reiterated the standard demand that Israel to end its policy of nuclear ambiguity, sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), accept international safeguards, and close down the Dimona complex. And the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammad el-Baradei, has also called on Israel to do its part for Middle East arms control.
However, the Bush administration is unlikely to join in pressing Israel, and recognizes the limitations of international arms control measures, as well as the stabilizing impact of deterrence. Israeli exceptionalism on the NPT, and the justification for maintaining a “weapon of last resort” is understood as reflecting the unique security environment, Israel’s extreme vulnerability, and pervasive demonization.
And the US and Israeli governments fully realize that behind the recent declarations, particularly in the case of Iran, a full-speed effort to acquire nuclear weapons may be continuing, requiring difficult decisions in the next few months. Iranian officials have not given up the rhetoric of threats to destroy Israel, even refusing to accept humanitarian assistance from the “Zionist entity” following the massive earthquake that destroyed the city Bam.
But given the recent strategic developments, the Israeli government correctly understood the need to consider the implications and possible responses. The threats of chemical and biological attacks from Saddam Hussein’s regime, whether real or greatly exaggerated, have been erased, and instead, the US Army is now sitting on the other side of Jordan. Iran’s nuclear weapons program has become the object of major international pressure, leading to reluctant acceptance of more intrusive IAEA inspections. And now Libya has invited inspectors from the US, Britain, and the IAEA to tour secret uranium enrichment and chemical weapons facilities. These events form the basis for the argument that Israel can and should find an appropriate means of adding to the Middle East arms control momentum.
However, the developments in Iran and Libya also highlight the lack of credibility inherent in the international arms control process, and the danger of relying on this for security and survival. Iran, Iraq, and Libya signed the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, promising not to develop any military capabilities and agreeing to place all of their “civilian” nuclear facilities under IAEA supervision. And yet, for many years, all three blatantly violated the terms of this treaty, and the IAEA, which lacked both the capability and the political will to fulfill its mission, gave all three countries a clean bill of health every year. Less than a month ago, Baradei told an Israeli reporter that the IAEA had no knowledge of undeclared Libyan nuclear facilities. At the same time, the governments that comprise the IAEA’s board of governors also played along with this charade. Israeli policy makers recognize the recent confessions were the result of massive pressure from the Bush administration, and the fear in both Teheran and Tripoli that they would be the next targets after Saddam. It is also far too early to assess the degree of long-term change in either country, and there may still be hidden WMD facilities and materials. This is hardly a solid foundation for a reliable international or regional arms control framework. A vigorous, professional, and transparent inspection and verification program is necessary, and the IAEA and its counterparts for chemical weapons – the OPCW – will have to clearly demonstrate that they have changed their approach.
And in the meanwhile, the tentative moves towards a possible change in the region, and abandonment of efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, can be welcomed as initial steps towards reversing very dangerous policies. Israel might go further, unfreezing the ratification process for the chemical weapons convention, or agreeing to discuss regional security and mutual inspection mechanisms in a revived multilateral process, including Iran and Syria. While making changes in policy is not on the agenda, such limited responses would add to the momentum without unacceptable security risks.