Nukes and regional security

A picture of the first ever nuclear explosion, 0.016 seconds after detonation.

I know I've been doing a lot of linking to Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel lately, but it's because they have so much good stuff. One item I'd really like to highlight in this piece on the nuclear question in the Middle East by Ezzedine Shukri-Fischere. It matches my thoughts exactly, and highlights a dimension of the current debate over Iran's potential nuclear program that is rarely touched upon in the American or European debate:

In the Middle East, however, the situation is more troubling and continues to generate serious risks for the world as a whole. Iran seems like the most compelling case at hand, but it is important to remember that Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity also stands in the way of establishing a regional security regime in the region. In the multilateral security talks that followed the 1991 Madrid Conference, Israel adamantly refused to discuss its nuclear program unless conventional and unconventional threats of its neighbors were addressed first (including those posed by Iran and Saddam's Iraq). Conversely, Arab states insisted on including Israel's nuclear weapons in the discussion before any security arrangement could be agreed. As a result, the talks collapsed and were never revived in the years since. Had the US intervened 15 years ago and led Arab states and Israel towards overcoming their tit-for-tat attitude, a Mideast security regime, with confidence-building measures, safeguards and verification mechanisms, would probably have emerged by now.

Both the US and actors in the region need to start a dialogue on all security concerns in the Middle East that includes the nuclear issues. And they need to start this dialogue now, and urgently.

Such a dialogue would help address a number of challenges at the same time. First, it would lay to rest the complaints about double standards in the nonproliferation community and relieve the US - and Israel - from the untenable claim that Israel's nuclear arsenal should somehow be treated as exceptional (a claim that nobody outside Washington and Tel Aviv gives serious consideration). The double-standard argument has been the most successful weapon against nonproliferation, especially in mobilizing public support for nuclear projects like those of Saddam's Iraq, Ghaddafi's Libya or Iran (and you will hear a lot about it in the coming weeks leading up to the NPT review). Second, such a dialogue would significantly decrease the pressure on Arab governments to start their own nuclear programs and abort what could be the beginning of a nuclear race in the region. Third, this dialogue would pave the way for the establishment of a Middle East security regime, which could be the vehicle for addressing a wide range of security hazards in this troubled and troubling region. Finally, such a dialogue might offer a framework for addressing Iran's problematic nuclear activities, especially if accompanied by a package of stabilizing confidence-building measures.

It's really a shame that al-Shorouk stopped running Ezzedine's columns, especially when they now instead have Fareed Zakariya and Thomas Friedman — who needs more of them?

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.