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For years now the Iranian question has been making headlines around the globe. A plethora of questions relating to Iran's capacity to produce a nuclear warhead, the time it would take to complete this project, and whether Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is at all interested in producing a weapon have been dealt with incessantly in news broadcasts, talk shows and newspaper articles. Commentators have relentlessly debated whether the sanctions are working, and if Israel will attack Iran and how it could - or not - go it alone.

The US Congress has weighed in on the matter, as has the EU Parliament, while numerous heads of state have spent hours upon hours dealing with the issue. Millions of words have been written and uttered, and yet hardly anyone has been

Across the globe, headlines pronounced that a "breakthrough agreement" had been reached in Geneva. Iran's atomic ambitions had been curbed in exchange for limited sanctions relief, thus deflating the long-standing military standoff.

The deal hammered out between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia stipulates that Tehran will halt progress on enrichment capacity, stop developing its heavy water reactor at Arak, and open access to international weapons inspection. While this deal paves the way for Iran's reintegration into the family of Western nations, and can therefore be conceived as a real milestone, in terms of the Middle East nuclear problem, any robust agreement,however, will have to include Israel.

Within Israel, speaking about the nuclear programme in Dimona is taboo. Mysteriously, however, there is also a broad-based agreement to keep silent about it in Washington and in most European capitals. Despite claims made by independent analysts that Israel likely has around 80 warheads, and is believed to be the only state in the region that has produced separated plutonium, and possibly highly enriched uranium, the two key ingredients in nuclear weapons. Indeed, it may now have enough plutonium, including the plutonium already in weapons, for up to 200 nuclear warheads.

Creating a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East is actually not a new idea. Ironically, it was first proposed in the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 by no other than the major 'culprit' in the recent fray - Iran.

Broader framework needed

So why are politicians and mainstream media outlets concentrating on Iran and its decision to embark on a nuclear programme instead of adopting a more ambitious framework that considers the steps needed to make the Middle East a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction? To be sure, I am against Iran developing a nuclear weapon, but I am also opposed to Israel having a nuclear arsenal, which at 200 warheads, would be larger than the arsenal of Britain. There is, after all, a connection between the two and this connection needs to be spelled out, if a broader framework is to be adopted.

Creating a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East is actually not a new idea. Ironically, it was first proposed in the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, by no other than the major "culprit" in the recent fray - Iran. Together with Egypt, these two countries attempted to roll back Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons and to restrain further proliferation in the region by having all states join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In 1990, Egypt broadened the proposal to include a ban on chemical and biological weapons; namely, to create a Weapon of Mass Destruction free zone in the region.

Yet, as everyone knows, nothing came of these initiatives, even though nuclear weapon free zones have been established in five regions: Latin America and the Caribbean (in force since 2002), the South Pacific (1986), Southeast Asia (1997), Africa (2009) and Central Asia (2009). Today, nuclear weapon free zones cover the Southern hemisphere and have a combined membership of 97 states, more than half the states in the international community. And as to chemical and biological weapons, the existing conventions are global prohibitions rather than regional arrangements, with nearly all states being members.

Why, one might ask, should the Middle East be any different?

Creeping proliferation 

The problem, of course, is that the Middle East has emerged as a nuclear proliferation hotbed. Israel has held on to its nuclear weapons, refused to join the NPT, significantly expanded its stockpile of fissile material for weapons, and developed advanced delivery systems. Clandestine nuclear-weapon programmes were revealed in Iraq in 1991, in Libya in 2003, and in Syria in 2007 - all while these countries were signatories to the NPT. In 2003, Iran was discovered to have an undeclared uranium enrichment research and development programme, as well as a reactor under construction that could potentially be used for plutonium production for weapons.

Targeting one country will not solve this regional problem. In a bold report put out by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) based at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, a group of nuclear experts suggested introducing measures of collective restraint regarding fissile material production and use, in order to foster confidence that all nuclear activities in the region are indeed peaceful in intent and not being pursued as a camouflage for developing nuclear-weapon options.

The experience of creating nuclear free zones following the end of the Cold War, suggests that progress can be made in the absence of a larger or more comprehensive settlement of political conflicts and disputes.

The IPFM experts emphasise that Israel's eventual nuclear disarmament would be a necessary condition for any Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone, while regional measures would serve to bring the Middle East closer to that goal, and make the zone more robust. These measures would include stopping the separation of plutonium, a ban on the use of highly enriched uranium or plutonium as fuel, and the end of national enrichment plants.

As the only country in the Middle East with a national civilian enrichment programme, the experts from Princeton suggest that Iran could play a pioneering role precisely by advancing a global shift away from national enrichment plants. Countries in the region with plans to construct nuclear power plants (so far, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt) could join in the management of Iran's enrichment plants and help set the goals for the programme and fund any expansion. This would create a major barrier to Iran using its enrichment plants for making material for a nuclear weapon .

Israel, too, must take initiative to demonstrate that it is seriously interested in a regional zone free of weapons of mass destruction. The experts propose a series of steps: Israel should begin by ending any further production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, declaring the size of its stocks of these materials, and placing portions of its fissile material stocks under IAEA safeguards for elimination. By the time a Middle East zone comes into force, Israel would need to have eliminated all of its nuclear weapons and placed all of its fissile materials under international safeguards - as South Africa did when it gave up its nuclear weapons in the early 1990s.

Regional inspections

To keep everyone honest, the IPFM proposes that discussions be launched among the members of a possible Middle East free zone committee, on the design of regional verification arrangements strong enough so that all countries in the region can have confidence in the absence of secret nuclear weapon programmes, and that countries are complying with the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions. This regional inspection system would be in parallel to the international verification systems associated respectively with the NPT and the Chemical Weapons Convention. There is currently no international system to verify the Biological Weapons Convention.

The experience of creating nuclear free zones following the end of the Cold War, suggests that progress can be made in the absence of a larger or more comprehensive settlement of political conflicts and disputes.

Neve Gordon is the author of Israel's Occupation and can be reached through his website

Source: Al Jazeera