Is a nuclear-free Mideast possible?

Delegates from around the world are gathering at the United Nations this month for a summit on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the landmark 1970 agreement designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. But as negotiations begin, diplomats are grappling with a tricky problem: How to ensure that the Cold War-era treaty remains relevant in an era of rogue nations and homemade bombs.

The current conference is also taking place amid a much different, and perhaps more hopeful, atmosphere. President Obama has unveiled a series of initiatives aimed at restarting disarmament talks: striking a new accord with Russia; revealing, for the first time, the exact size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal; restoring proportionality to nuclear policy; and renouncing the development of new nuclear weapons.

Now the world’s major powers have turned their attention to a 1995 agreement calling for the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. The primary goal is to put additional pressure on Iran, which most experts believe is developing the material for a nuclear weapon. But the agreement would also put one of the U.S.’s closest allies, Israel, in a bind. Israel is widely presumed to have a secret nuclear program, and has steadfastly refused to discuss it. So far, Israeli leaders have balked at attempts to create a nuclear-free zone until conditions in the Middle East change.

To get a sense of whether progress is possible, and understand the historical context for these issues, Need to Know spoke with Jacqueline Shire, a former State Department official and nuclear weapons expert currently with the Institute for Science and International Security. She has spent several days at the conference in New York.

Sal Gentile: What is the purpose of the review conference?

Jacqueline Shire: The Non-Proliferation Treaty is the most widely adhered-to treaty outside of the UN charter. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the treaty that helped establish the norm, meaning non-possession of nuclear weapons. For the most part, barring a couple of outliers that pop up like North Korea and Iran, people go along with this idea. And so every five years, 189 countries come together and they review the state of the treaty: Is it still working? Does it need to be strengthened? Are there big problems with it?

Gentile: And what do you and other non-governmental organizations do there?

Shire: A lot of members of the Non-Aligned [Movement] like to argue that the nuclear weapons states haven’t done enough to advance disarmament, and therefore why should they take on extra obligations with respect to curbing illicit trade and proliferation? And that’s a sensible, understandable argument under the circumstances. So one of the things that we’ve been trying to suggest in our discussions is that, when there’s greater transparency over a state’s nuclear program, that can lead to less suspicion, which in the case of a country like Iran can lower the temperature of a situation, and lower the risk that [developed] countries would be willing to take preemptive military action.

Gentile: What is the Non-Aligned Movement, and what role does it play at the conference?

Shire: The existence of the Non-Aligned dates back to the Cold War era, when you had the Warsaw pact countries, you had NATO countries. Today you would say that the Non-Aligned exists to articulate the needs of countries that are developing. The Non-Aligned still sort of has an agenda that you would say is somewhat contrary to the agenda that the United States has. It’s not hostile, by any means. Egypt is a really important ally of the United States.

Gentile: And so you’re trying to convince Non-Aligned countries, like Iran, that it’s in their interest to cooperate with the rest of the world?

Shire: What we’re saying to countries is, “Look, we acknowledge that there hasn’t been enough progress.” Although recently there’s been some very significant progress, and I think everyone acknowledges that. And I think that one of the things that you hear is that this conference is taking place in a very different atmosphere than the last review conference took place in, and that’s a very important thing.

Gentile: What’s the difference between this conference and the 2005 conference?

Shire: In the last review conference, senior U.S. officials in general were sort of scoffing at the notion of disarmament as an important thing, expressing a little bit of contempt, even, for it. And then in this review conference, you have President Obama having just come off this whole series of steps that have brought the issue of nuclear weapons back center in the conversation, where it hasn’t been in decades. There’s just been a whole series of events that have underscored that the United States is really on the side of advancing the cause of disarmament, wherever and whenever possible.

Gentile: Who are the key players other than the U.S.?

Shire: If you’re going to show up at the review conference and want to meet with members of five delegations, Brazil and Egypt would be on your list.

Gentile: Why those two?

Shire: Egypt is the head of the Non-Aligned Movement right now, and Brazil is on the Security Council, and has historically played an important role in a lot of these issues.

Gentile: Iran’s nuclear regime is obviously a major concern at this conference. Are there any other dominant issues?

Shire: The big issue is: How can we advance the Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone? And so it’s getting at the Israel problem.

Gentile: What do we know about Israel’s nuclear program?

Shire: It’s commonly understood that Israel has a few hundred nuclear weapons. And Israel doesn’t formally declare them, and Israel is not a member of the NPT. And so that’s the issue. The U.S. position is that they want Israel to be part of the treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state. So this is all about getting Israel to take baby steps toward perhaps moving in that direction

Gentile: How does the U.S. do that if Israel isn’t even willing to acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons?

Shire: This is not anything that’s going to happen, maybe, in our lifetime. But what you do is you lead by example. And one thing is to devalue the role of nuclear weapons in our defense, which the [U.S.] Nuclear Posture Review did. It created a much more narrow set of contingencies under which the use of nuclear weapons would even be remotely considered. Continue making deep cuts, negotiations with Russia — all of those are things that the U.S. can do to lead by example.

Gentile: How do we know what we know about Israel’s nuclear program if it won’t discuss the issue publicly?

Shire: First of all, there are the countries that helped Israel with its nuclear program, which are France, the U.K., and the United States to a certain extent. So there’s a lot of information in the open literature about the history of Israel’s program. It’s the most poorly kept secret in the world, which is kind of the way Israel wants it to be.

Gentile: Why?

Shire: If Israel comes out and declares that they have a nuclear weapon, that puts a great deal of pressure on other countries in the region to match them. So if you think about it, if you’re Egypt, do you really want Israel to come out and say, “Here, look at our nuclear weapons?” Because “the street” is going to demand that Egypt throw together a nuclear weapon. And thoughtful people in leadership positions don’t want that.

Gentile: What does the U.S. hope to get out of this conference?

Shire: I think they’re being pragmatic about what’s possible at a conference like this, because it’s operated by consensus, and there are 189 countries involved. So you’re not going to get a highly complex, detailed document spelling out step by step how the whole world’s going to join hands and get rid of its nuclear weapons.