Think Big: Making Peace with the Cookie Monster
Its not often that we have opportunity to laugh at Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric about Iran and what the consequences may be, but his show at the UN on September 27 really took the biscuit (or the cookie, Mr. Fish might say). Holding up a large cartoon bomb, Bibi explained to us where exactly that “red line” should be that he has been demanding Barack Obama define.
Interestingly enough, Bibi is actually giving Iran more time by putting the red line between enrichment to 20% and enrichment to 90%. But that is as may be, since – by his own admission – we might not actually know even if they did start enriching to 90%. If Israeli suspicions played out, Iran would have to do such a thing so secretly, under some remote mountain somewhere, that the IAEA couldn’t even smell it happening. And, rest assured, the IAEA sniffer dogs are in Iran all of the time monitoring their uranium enrichment activities.
Note that Bibi says that not even his own beloved Mossad is foolproof in their estimation of what Iran is doing. The intelligence services seem to agree that there is no immediate threat. And he didn’t even mention the fact that IAEA inspectors are constantly checking that the cascades of centrifuges are sticking to the agreed levels of enrichment and, more importantly, Iran is letting them in to do that. If you read the IAEA reports, as I have but I suspect Netanyahu hasn’t, then you will find that, so far, everything Iran has declared about its enrichment has been verified. The row is about what they might not have declared. And this row could go on forever, since whatever is undeclared cannot be verified. It is simply impossible to verify 100% that a civilian nuclear programme is not clandestinely being used for military purposes – hence my belief that nuclear energy is too dangerous to be allowed, quite apart from all the health and environmental dangers involved.
There are, of course, concerns about how far Iran got with its alleged “military dimensions” before 2003 and how much of that work could suddenly become relevant if the decision to go nuclear was actually taken. So maybe we should be trying to find out where Iran’s red line has been drawn, at which point they would feel the need to actually build a nuclear bomb, rather than just have the option of doing so (which, by the way, many other countries in the world share).
It seems to me that we will not solve the immediate conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme without addressing the underlying conflict. The Arabic countries and Iran drew a clear red line for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995 and again in 2010, when they made it clear that any possession of nuclear weapons in the region should no longer be tolerated. Specifically, Israel should become a member of the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state and adhere to IAEA safeguards, like all the other countries of the region are presently. A treaty on a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is regarded by these countries as a condition of maintaining the non-proliferation regime – I presume that includes IAEA safeguards – as we know it. Without the NPT, we would all be up the proverbial creek without a barrel.
Israel has consistently said that there is no point in even discussing a WMD free zone while there is no peace or stability in the region. From the point of view of the logic behind their possession of nuclear weapons, this makes sense. Israel uses ambiguity about its nuclear weapons to deter conventional or WMD attack. At the same time it represents a Catch 22 because there will be no peace and stability in the region until those nuclear weapons have gone.
What is actually necessary, in my opinion, is a parallel process to negotiations on a WMD free zone. With that I mean we should be considering a comprehensive package: i.e. talks on confidence-building and common security for all the states of the region – not simply a peace process on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict but including it – at the same time as negotiations on a zone. It could be a long-term conference on how to build confidence and cooperation in the region, perhaps loosely modelled on the CSCE during the Cold War, and including recognition of Israel as a legitimate state, as well as confidence building and transparency measures on military forces and activities. Access to Parchin might, for instance, be one of these, or even Dimona.
This is the basic idea behind the IPPNW project on a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East (CSCME) which attempts to bring together civil society representatives to enact such a process on a civil society level and discuss how to get it established on a government level. We found out at the first meeting, for example, that how the region is seen, defined and named (Middle East versus West Asia) also contributes to the search for common ground and respectful recognition of differences. Such meetings show the value of civil society conducting dialogue and leading the way for governments to follow.
Themes that might need to be covered by a CSCME are, for instance, commitments not to attack the others’ nuclear installations, the recognition of the right to a state of both Israel and Palestine, negative and positive security guarantees, borders would need to be addressed and any threatening, inflammatory statements renounced. Whereas negotiations on a zone would need to include such items as the right of Iran to enrich uranium, the obligation of all countries of the region to put all nuclear installations under safeguards – including Israel – to abide by Safeguards Agreements with the IAEA already made – including Iran – and to strengthen them through signing and adhering to the Additional Protocol, transparency on stockpiles of fissile materials and the establishment of verification mechanisms. This list is by no means exhaustive. In both processes, there needs to be painful attention to symmetry, both real and perceived.
We criticise the current step-by-step approach applied to nuclear disarmament because we see the need for a disarmament process that is less dependent on each single step and more on a clear connection between agreed measures so as to make them mutually reinforcing. Our eyes have to remain on the final objective all the way through the process and it should not be possible to stop with the job half done and cement an advantageous position for any one grouping. This same applies to the Middle East where all parties are nervous that each step might put them at a disadvantage. Conducting parallel negotiations that reinforce each other can overcome this insecurity.
Just getting the countries around the table in Helsinki might be regarded by many as a major breakthrough. But unless we think much bigger and more comprehensively on this issue we will continue to perform the partner line dance (one step forward, two steps back). That will not lead us to world peace, but ultimately back to the stone age via nuclear war.
PS: Here is a new study by the Hinkley Institute of Politics on the human cost of military strikes.