Do We Dare Dream of a Middle East Without WMD’s?

Just a few short months ago, speculation regarding a US attack on Syria centered only around when the attack would take place, how large it would be and how long bombardment would continue. But then accidental diplomacy broke out and it appears to be moving along remarkably well. Last week, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons certified that Syria has complied with the first stage of its giving up chemical weapons:

The Joint Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Mission confirmed today that the government of the Syrian Arab Republic has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable.

By doing so, Syria has met the deadline set by the OPCW Executive Council* to “complete as soon as possible and in any case not later than 1 November 2013, the destruction of chemical weapons production and mixing/filling equipment.”

On a separate front, Iran’s Foreign Minister announced yesterday that he feels an agreement on Iran’s nuclear technology could be reached as early as this week:

Two days before negotiations resume in Geneva between Iran and the United States and other Western powers aimed at ending a fight over the disputed Iranian nuclear program, the country’s foreign minister sounded an optimistic note on Tuesday, saying a deal was possible as soon as this week.

“I believe it is even possible to reach that agreement this week,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview with France 24, a major television network here, before meeting with the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius.

It is possible that these two diplomatic breakthroughs have provided cover for an even bigger diplomatic effort. An initiative had grown out of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Review Conference to work toward an agreement banning all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. A conference based on the initiative had been planned for last year, but the United States announced it had been delayed just before it was scheduled to begin.

A planning meeting for the formal conference was held October 21-22 in Switzerland. The Nuclear Threat Initiative outlined a number of issues that were to be addressed a few weeks before that meeting:

A United Nations-appointed diplomat on Tuesday said he will convene multinational consultations in Switzerland later this month as a potentially key step toward discussing an eventual ban on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

If nations in the region can agree on the terms and objectives of regional discussions, a formal conference on creating a Mideast WMD-free zone could occur in Helsinki, Finland, as early as mid-December, according to international diplomats and expert observers.

Jaakko Laajava, a Finnish envoy who serves as facilitator for the prospective talks, played down continued differences between Israel and its Arab neighbors over the necessity of this month’s multilateral planning session, which is to take place in Glion, a lakeside retreat roughly 60 miles northeast of Geneva.

Yes, you read that correctly. Even though Israel was not a participant in the 2010 conference that created this initiative, Israel now is suddenly a party to the discussions. Of course, the region faces a multitude of WMD issues and especially non-compliance issues for agreements already reached:

Speaking on a panel discussion alongside Karem on Tuesday, retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom rejected Fahmy’s call for a treaty-based process for instituting a WMD ban in their region, saying his own nation’s views must be taken into account if a gathering of all Middle East countries is to succeed.

He called the Middle East a region “that excels in noncompliance with signed agreements.”

“Why should we think that signing on another agreement — [one] on a WMD-free zone — will lead to better compliance with this agreement?” said Brom, now senior research fellow and director of the Institute for National Security Studies’ Israel-Palestinian Relations program. “And therefore, Israel does not think that the establishment of a WMD-free zone can simply be achieved by all states signing on the NPT and other things.”

The Nonproliferation Treaty “has proven too weak” to prevent proliferation in the Middle East and elsewhere, he said.

With that warning, then, we can at least note with some optimism that Israel did indeed show up for the meeting. Israel’s Foreign Ministry even saw fit to issue a statement downplaying the significance of the meeting and suggesting that Israeli and Iranian representatives never actually talked to one another:

The participation of Israeli and Iranian officials in a meeting last month in Switzerland for a proposed conference on a nuclear-free Middle East had no more significance than when the two countries sit together in at various other international meetings, a Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.

This was a completely procedural meeting, and there was no contact between the Israeli and Iranian representatives, the official said, downplaying reports of the meeting.

Reuters provides a bit more on the meeting and the basis for a bit of optimism:

An Arab diplomat told Reuters: “That they were there, the Israelis and Iran, is the main thing.” The discussions were also attended by representatives of the United States and some Arab states, the diplomat added, without naming them.

There were 13-14 delegations around the table and Finnish Foreign Ministry Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava, who is charged with organizing the Middle East conference, was among the participants, another diplomat said.

The discussions were “quite constructive,” the diplomat said, adding that another meeting was likely later this month, although it was still unclear exactly who would attend.

Hmm. I will take “quite constructive” any day when you have Israel and Iran among 13 or 14 delegations discussing how we get to a Middle East free of WMD’s. Given the actual progress on Syria’s chemical weapons and the apparent progress on Iran’s nuclear work, there is hope for the first time in many years that concrete steps could be taken to remove a number of devastating weapons from an area where their use could unleash unprecedented damage and decades of reprisals. I know, it’s crazy, but imagine both Israel and Iran without any nuclear weapons or their technology (or chem or bio weapons, either) and a system of international parties working together on verification. Not likely, but that people are even working toward it now is very encouraging.

Postscript: It seems that The Hill believes the October 21-22 meeting was “secret”, despite the clear description of the participants, topic, date and location in the article from Nuclear Threat Initiative linked above and published on October 1.

21 replies
  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Laajava also spoke of the meeting earlier at an IISS conference. There was a Twitter exchange yesterday about the Reuters article, which referred to the meeting as “secret.” Mark Fitzpatrick provided the IISS link. It may have been that exchange that caused Reuters to change its article, which was probably where The Hill got its misconception. As usual in the MSM, Reuters simply changed the article and didn’t note that. The Hill got caught with the hot potato. Or maybe they’ll change their article too.

    Apparently any meeting that reporters don’t know about is “secret.”

  2. Jim White says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Thanks so much for that clarification. I hadn’t read the Reuters article in detail yesterday before it got changed. Yeah, as things stood when I wrote this morning, The Hill really did get hung out to dry.

  3. kris says:

    It seems more likely that Israel simply became dismayed when it realized actual progress might take place among the other participants, which would leave it isolated and looking very bad. By joining as a participant, Israel can make sure no real deal is reached and claim it was due to problems internal to the negotations (distrust, inability to verify fully, etc.) without having its actual intention of never giving up its WMD made universally obvious. It’s exactly what the US would do.

  4. TarheelDem says:

    Nations have figured out that weapons of mass destruction are fundamentally useless except to make one a target and an excuse for a WMD arms race. Having built them, backing away from them unilaterally is a non-starter. Hence the elaborate dance of diplomacy over decades.

    The key nation in WMD negotiations in the Middle East is Israel. Israel has not signed the NPT and does not acknowledge what everybody else acknowleges: Israel has maybe as many as 200 nuclear weapons. Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention but did not ratify or implement it and is reported to have a chemical and biological weapons facility in the Negev. If Israel has finally decided that it no longer needs these weapons as a nominal deterrent, negotiations could move quickly. The only WMD nation in the Middle East left in outside WMD agreements is Egypt, which is not a party to the CWC.

    If Iran and Syria are seen by Israel to be in compliance and Egypt comes into compliance, Israel will have enormous diplomatic pressure on it to follow suit. Given the world’s realization of the reality that Likud has finalized the creation of a one-state apartheid solution, Israel is already at a diplomatic disadvantage with everyone but its protector, the USA. The pretense of diplomacy has been an Israeli tactic dating from prior to the UN establishing it as is the mendacity of its diplomatic claims.

    Let us hope that this effort can navigate that morass. That would leave agreements involving India, Pakistan, Angola, Myanmar, South Sudan, and importantly still on the table before moving to the biggies–US, Russia, China.

    But Israel as the sole WMD state in the region gives it no advantages. Especially as long as the US, Russia, and China are consulting on defusing situations instead of being engaged in geopolitical cold war.

  5. Betty says:

    But, but Barbara Starr just reported that US Intelligence people thinks that Assad may still hide some of his chemical weapons- despite all the progress being reported. Is that because it is what they would do?

  6. Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Betty: The United States and Russia have a pretty good idea of Assad’s chemical stocks. Now that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been inside the production facilities, they have a good idea of what could have been produced.

    Might Assad try to hide some of his chemical weapons? Wouldn’t be surprising, but it wouldn’t be a lot.

    Also – I don’t see this much mentioned, but it’s obvious to me that Russia is holding Assad’s feet to the fire. They don’t want chemical weapons rattling around the area. That would be the reason Assad has been so cooperative. So, if I’m right about this, stashing some cw away would put Assad at odds with his patron. Yes, he might do that, but it would be pretty dumb.

  7. Don Bacon says:

    A ME-NFWZ has been a discussion topic and a priority for the Arab League for at least ten years. Its chances have been little, and are probably diminished now because of the new love affair between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

    By the way, Israel is a charter member of the IAEA and it does have some limited monitoring of a few nuclear facilities under a restricted safeguards agreement.

    The IAEA, a non-UN agency, is the hidden force behind any progress or lack of it in the nuclear field. Despite its limited treaty authority, the IAEA with US help punches way beyond its weight and is often described (inaccurately) in the press as “the UN nuclear watchdog.”

    The IAEA, a US puppet, in its reports never even hints that Israel has a nuclear weapons arsenal. Israel’s position on ME-NFWZ is that “Agency safeguards, as well as other regional security issues, could not be addressed in isolation from the creation of stable regional peace, and such a process could only be launched when normal relations and confidence were established.”

    And of course a stable Middle East is not in the US interest; quite the opposite is true.

  8. TarheelDem says:

    @Jim White: Without a doubt.

    Last month Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told a conference in Sweden that if Iran got the bomb, “the Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb, they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring.”

    Interesting source. Interesting condition. Interesting information.

    Interesting diplomatic tangle. Nukes v. drones.

  9. TarheelDem says:

    @Don Bacon: “And of course a stable Middle East is not in the US interest; quite the opposite is true.”

    Elaborate on why that is still true. What exactly is the US interest at stake? I’m not necessarily disputing this position but interested in your analysis and what you are seeing.

  10. Don Bacon says:

    According to ME polls, Arabs in the ME of course fear the US and Israel in large part because they do have nukes, and not Iran which doesn’t. So when Israel says Saudi Arabia would get or is getting nukes because of some fantasies about Iran it is simply criminals acting badly, and has nothing to do with either the Arab people or with Iran.

    Of course when a radical, dictatorial terrorist-sponsoring radical kingdom acquires nukes then it changes the equation. What’s fit for the goose . . .

  11. Don Bacon says:

    The US for many years, since the Carter Doctrine, has “owned” the ME and a main ingredient of US ownership strategy is a divide-and-conquer policy of continued instability and weakness.

    Therefore much of southwestern Asia from the Indian border to the Med is now unstable. Currently, what, half a million Syrians are living in tents and winter coming.

    There are many components of this, including invasions and occupations. A principal US-abetted action was the destruction of the mosque in Samarra, Iraq in February 2006, which inflamed Islamic sects against each other to a higher degree than ever existed before and mandated a longer US military occupation until Iraq threw the US military out.

    One of the principal features of this policy is the fifty-year irrational belligerence toward Iran, because of Iran’s fictitious “nuclear ambitions”. But hey, it pays well, with huge “defense” budgets and sixty-billion dollar foreign military sales deals to Saudi Arabia, and others, because of the “threat” from Iran.

    Why would the US change that? There’s less profit in peace.

  12. Don Bacon says:

    Here’s an example in the “news” today from CNN:

    The United States accuses Iran of covertly developing a nuclear bomb. In its latest quarterly report published in August, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency suggested Iran’s nuclear program had “possible military dimensions.”

    * The IAEA is not an agency of the UN. –duh, CNN
    * The IAEA according to the NPT has one function and one function only — to verify “the fulfillment of its obligations assumed under this Treaty with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons.” That’s it. Iran has not diverted, according to the IAEA.
    * The IAEA chief is verified US puppet (by wikileaks) so of course he’s going to dream up “possible military dimensions.” Otherwise the check isn’t in the mail.

  13. TarheelDem says:

    @Don Bacon: What would the US change that?

    Changed patterns of US interest. You cite the actions and the history without identifying the interests that the foreign policy experts in each of the administrations saw driving the “necessity” of their action.

    The Carter Doctrine has been framed as warning against Soviet incursion into the Persian Gulf region but occurred in the midst of the Hostage Crisis with Iran, which means that it was announcing US power against an Iranian government now considered hostile. A rapprochement with Russia and Iran would change the calculus of that situation. The question right now is whether the US is capable of abandoning its Silk Road strategy and Central Asia to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or seeks to contain both Russia and China with an expensive presence in the Persian Gulf.

    The Middle East from World War I had been a US interest because of its oil resources; it is why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was set up to begin with and why Mossadegh was overthrown and Shah Reza Pahlavi set up as as US puppet. The change to an oil futures market did much to fragment the power of oil producing states to use oil politically. Moreover, instability bring oil spikes that are domestically harmful to the US. And the US failure in Iraq meant that US companies did not become the main beneficiaries of Iraqi oil reserves. It is likely that offshore corporate subsidiaries of major US oil and oil service firms already do business with Iran. The reconfiguration of the global economy seems to have made this mercantile interest more of a wash.

    At the moment the domestic political forces are still in austerity mode. We will see likely in the next three or four months whether the military budget is still a sacred cow with respect to Congress. And whether in light of Saudi statements the US still considers the sale of sixty-billion in military goods a good idea. Given sluggish consumer spending and business investing, and austerian views of government spending, expanding exports is the only economic policy lever left to the administration and $60 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia looks like a desperation move.

    The US has a domestic political interest in Israel because a significant number of Jews have made the survival of Israel a political third rail in certain states and Congressional Districts. But Muslims are beginning to gain political power in the US and have their own agenda. The calculus in US “unwavering support of Israel” is changing as well.

    My position is that we might see a re-evaluation of US policy in the Middle East in spite of a long history of destabilization. Or we might not. The people making those decisions are still making those decisions.

    In fact, there is more profit in peace. The question is whether there are any of our elite smart enough to figure that out and figure out how to make it happen.

  14. TarheelDem says:

    CNN’s a bit behind the curve if they are quoting from an August report that came prior to the opening with Iran. And most people here understand that CNN is not the sharpest knife in the US media box. Whatever happened to that Peter Arnett fellow?

  15. Don Bacon says:

    The objectives of US foreign policy have long been a strategy of control, power and profit, and those are achieved by the divide-and-conquer policies I described. It started with the Native Americans, reached fruition under McKinley and Wilson, and has persisted ever since. It’s called “protecting US interests” which means killing and subjugating as many foreigners as it takes, with the weapons available, anywhere in the world.

    Here it is visually.

  16. Don Bacon says:

    “the opening with Iran”

    What opening with Iran? I thought the story line was that the crippling sanctions have been so effective that they have forced Iran to concede to the great satanbenevolent US.

  17. Don Bacon says:

    Peter Arnett? Cheez, you go way back. He was fired by CNN for telling the truth, and then by NBC and National Geographic for the same reason. Arnett wouldn’t spin the government line. He should have learned at Dan Rather’s knee:

    DR: “Look I’m an American. I never tried to kid anybody that I’m some internationalist or something. And when my country is at war, I want my country to win, whatever the definition of ‘win’ might be. Now, I can’t and don’t argue that that is coverage without prejudice. About that I am prejudiced.” So Dan brought us through the criminal war against Vietnam and the Nixon presidency. — from Norman Solomon’s “War Made Easy” — How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.

  18. Don Bacon says:

    Well bless your heart you are an optimist, believing the tiger will change his stripes.

    What I think is that this is just another Obama charade. It it had a website it would crash. It will be another “Well I tried” moment for the 0-man. And the US will slink home, and there will be more sanctions, and Iran will say ‘So what. I told you they couldn’t be trusted.’

    But then nobody can predict the future.

  19. TarheelDem says:

    @Don Bacon: “Well bless your heart you are an optimist, believing the tiger will change his stripes.”

    The tiger’s illusion about infinite capabilities is being slowly punctured. You can thank George W. Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney for that accomplishment. The rest of the world knows US limits and US hot buttons.

    At my age optimism and curiosity to see how it turns out is the only thing that lets me talk coherently with my grandchildren instead of ranting about the absolute mess of things compared to the illusory days of the early 1960s.

    Heck, I remember Pauline Frederick from the UN telling us that everything would be OK. We wouldn’t be getting blown up today. And Dan Rather crouching behind a wall in Vietnam with US troops telling us they were getting shot at in what were the previous day considered secure areas. And Walter Cronkite’s raised eyebrow every time he read the body count report for the day.

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