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Setting the Stage for a Middle East Free of Nuclear Weapons

by MOHAMAD HOMAYOUNVASH

10 May 2011 02:01Comments
nukezoneiran.jpg'Fukushima factor,' Arab Spring, Iran-West stalemate, calls for Israel to abandon opacity policy all contribute to improved prospects.

[ IDÉ ] While small, incremental steps have historically proven inadequate in surmounting the Middle East's nuclear proliferation challenges, a combination of momentous factors, outwardly unrelated but fundamentally interactive, may now be setting the stage for advancing the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. These contributing factors, if directed and facilitated with a strategic vision by the United States or if simply left unhampered to acquire their own momentum, enjoy the potential to regionalize the trajectory of the Middle East's nuclear dynamics and accelerate the realization of a proliferation-free Middle East.

At the global level, the "Fukushima factor," following the partial core meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, has deeply stigmatized nuclear energy and cast a shadow over its future sustainability. The Middle East hasn't been immune to the resounding anti-nuclear public outcry and its energy policy implications. In an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that the Fukushima disaster has caused Israel to lose its "enthusiasm" for civilian nuclear power plants. This uncharacteristic stance by a top Israeli official on a domestic nuclear issue may indicate that Tel Aviv is willing to join the global and regional conversation about the future of nuclear energy, at least in its civilian form.

The March 11 tsunami and its nuclear aftermath also sent shockwaves through the Iranian debate over nuclear energy, particularly in terms of the implications for the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), whose Russian-supervised construction seems never ending. The heated international debate following the Fukushima disaster reached such a pitch that Tehran broke its initial silence on the issue. This provided an opening for experts from across the political spectrum to weigh in on Fukushima's implications for Bushehr and, by extension, other nuclear activities in the Islamic Republic.

Shortly afterward, the Majles (parliament) set up a blue ribbon committee whose official mandate was to investigate the delay in commissioning the BNPP, but which had a broader agenda: soul-searching on the issue of nuclear energy in Iran. In April 2011, Hassan Ghafouri Fard, a nuclear expert and chair of the investigative committee, in some unprecedented public remarks, called for mothballing the BNPP indefinitely as its high capital cost has rendered it uncompetitive compared to building a new plant from scratch. These statements were remarkable in that they constituted a rare occasion when a ranking conservative legislator marshaled a purely technical and economic argument against the BNPP, one apparently unbeholden to political expediency. With the lame duck period of Ahmadinejad's presidency approaching and the criticism and marginalization of his apocalypticism-as-political-strategy mounting, such hardheaded judgments are increasingly likely to hold sway in the months to come.

The second factor impelling the Middle East toward a more localized proliferation solution is the Arab Spring. A crucial consequence of the ongoing wave of uprisings is the Arab street's growing realization that U.S. capacity and resolve to shape political developments in the region are becoming increasingly tenuous. A conceivable benefit of the newfound self-confidence in the Arab world would be a popular push for the adoption of independent foreign policy postures.

It is within this context that the Tehran-Cairo rapprochement is currently evolving. The two countries recently expressed willingness to mend fences and reestablish full-fledged diplomatic relations has already had a ripple effect across the Middle East. Not surprisingly, the majority of the Arab capitals bent on salvaging an anachronistic status quo view this development through a jaundiced lens, arguing that it threatens to undermine the united front many regimes in the Arab world have striven so hard to maintain against Iran since the 1979 Revolution.

Conspicuously absent from the alarmist discourse about the emergence of a Cairo-Ankara-Tehran axis are the potentially positive implications for the future of the non-proliferation regime, especially the establishment of a nuclear-free Middle East. Taking the historical perspective, Iran and Egypt were the progenitors of the concept of a Middle Eastern NWFZ, cosponsoring the initial draft resolution calling for the establishment of such a zone, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1974. Since the 2002 revelations about Iran's under-the-radar nuclear activities, however, a constructive and independent Arab voice has been lacking from the debate on the Iranian nuclear impasse. As a nuclear aspirant back in the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt in the post-Mubarak era enjoys both historical credibility and -- now -- an aura of independent legitimacy to fill that void and become, along with Turkey, a bona fide regional interlocutor on Iran's nuclear activities. If Tehran and Cairo manage to substantively overcome the hangover effect of the Mubarak era, it is realistic to hope for the resuscitation of a genuine conversation about an NWFZ in the Middle East.

A third factor contributing to the regionalization of the nuclear debate in the Middle East is the growing sense that Iran's nuclear standoff with the West has reached a stalemate. The bleak prospects for the emergence of an imaginative solution out of the deadlock coupled with the current frosty, at times outright acrimonious, atmosphere of Iranian-Russian relations has made the alternative cultivation of a regional solution inevitable. It is noteworthy that, in response to the shrinking role of Moscow in Iran's nuclear and strategic considerations, Tehran has demonstrated more receptivity and flexibility toward regional approaches to addressing its nuclear dilemmas and security concerns. A heart-to-heart between Tehran, Cairo, and Ankara on these issues will advance the cause of nonproliferation in the Middle East and help isolate the advocates of "panic politics" vis-à-vis Tehran in certain Arab capitals, a posture that has only perpetuated a dysfunctional, outworn status quo, both domestically and regionally.

A fourth factor, still embryonic and yet to appreciably contribute to the emerging regionalization, is the growing clamor in the nuclear intelligence and policy communities for Israel to abandon its archaic strategy of amimut (opacity or ambiguity) and normalize its nuclear status. If the calls gather strength sufficient to convince Tel Aviv to wean itself from amimut, Israel's legitimate security anxieties will find a more sympathetic audience in the Middle East.

It is only under such transparent circumstances that Israel, as the most pivotal and most vulnerable stakeholder in the future architecture of the Middle East, can bring its nuclear capability to bear on its power projection capacity and punch above its weight. This issue acquires even more urgency in light of the fact that the formation of an Iran-Turkey-Egypt axis will gradually shift the spotlight away from Tehran's nuclear ambitions to Tel Aviv's nuclear open secret. Israel's position that Middle Eastern denuclearization must be predicated on comprehensive peace in the region will come under increasing critique as obstructive. Therefore, and to minimize the present trust deficit, it would make strategic sense for Israel to initiate the process of delinking the two issues and pursuing them along separate tracks.

Based on these four factors, it looks increasingly likely that the thrust toward regionalization will define the contours of the Middle East's future nuclear paradigm. The ability of the United States to shape regional actors' threat perceptions will be further circumscribed and its security judgments will have less resonance. As the sole superpower, however, the United States can still facilitate the coalescence of these factors into an operational framework for a nuclear-free Middle East. To fulfill such a role, Washington needs to adopt a carefully calibrated and even-handed approach. One that, while it incorporates a Middle Eastern NWFZ into the Obama administration's "World Without Nuclear Weapons" vision, avoids making a nuclear-free Middle East hostage to the uncertain prospects for systemic global disarmament. The proposed 2012 conference on a nuclear-free Middle East, if it ultimately convenes, would be an indispensable venue to gauge the traction, direction, and pace of the developments described herein and how exactly they are interacting with one another.

Mohamad Homayounvash is a research fellow at Florida International University's Middle East Studies Center. Homepage photo: Flickr.com/PhotoGraham/cc-by-nc-sa 3.0. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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