Security and Non Proliferation in the Middle East

Statement by MOHAMMED ELBARADEI
 

Delivered at the 12th Session of the Amman Security Colloquium,  24 November 2018


Summary: A Quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, a time when we dreamt of a new world order, it is appalling that no tangible progress has been made in this direction. Quite to the contrary the existing order is sliding backwards in many ways. Violence and polarization, between and within nations, is spreading, inequality is more flagrant, democracy is in retreat, and international law and institutions are losing authority and influence. Our global security system is fraying. Instead of looking for multilateral dialogue and collective security, we are relying more and more on confrontation and unilateral use of force. This paper will address the most horrifying component of our security system, namely nuclear weapons. The grim reality is that these weapons continue to be perceived and relied on as the ultimate security assurance and insurance. We remain dependent for our survival on MAD, a doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction which is dangerous, unsustainable, and naïve. It is a doctrine that is grounded on the premise that some- those who have nuclear weapons- are more equal than others; is subject to the inevitable human fallibility and miscalculations; and is totally irrelevant to extremists.

 

A Quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, a time when we dreamt of a new world order, it is appalling that no tangible progress has been made in this direction. Quite to the contrary the existing order is sliding backwards in many ways. Violence and polarization, between and within nations, is spreading, inequality is more flagrant, democracy is in retreat, and international law and institutions are losing authority and influence.

Our global security system is fraying. Instead of looking for multilateral dialogue and collective security, we are relying more and more on confrontation and unilateral use of force. This will address the most horrifying component of our security system, namely nuclear weapons. The grim reality is that these weapons continue to be perceived and relied on as the ultimate security assurance and insurance. We remain dependent for our survival on MAD, a doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction which is dangerous, unsustainable, and naïve. It is a doctrine that is grounded on the premise that some- those who have nuclear weapons- are more equal than others; is subject to the inevitable human fallibility and miscalculations; and is totally irrelevant to extremists. Yet today 15,000 nuclear weapons are still in existence and 2000 are on high alert.

Almost all prominent statesmen, have argued forcefully that reliance on nuclear weapons is becoming “increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective”. In 2011 former US secretary of defense Bill Perry talked about three false alarms he knew of, in which Soviet missiles were thought to be screaming towards the US. He added “To this day I believe that we avoided nuclear catastrophe as much by good luck as by good management”.

But despite so many warnings have we seriously started to take meaningful steps to get rid of nuclear weapons; to drastically reduce their numbers; to alter the “prompt launch” warning system, where an American or a Russian president has less than ten minutes to respond to a “reported” nuclear attack, with the odds of miscalculation increasing exponentially as a result of cyber manipulation? The short answer is a resounding no.

Under the treaty of the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) the so-called five Weapon States party not only have an obligation to negotiate in good faith towards nuclear disarmament , but equally, in the words of the International Court of Justice “ the obligation to achieve a precise result : nuclear disarmament in all its aspects”. However, after almost five decades, all the nuclear weapon states are moving in the completely opposite direction. They are modernizing their arsenals to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.


In 2003, as Director General of the IAEA, I called for a new approach to nuclear disarmament: to curb the proliferation of the sensitive parts of the fuel cycle, uranium enrichment and plutonium separation, by bringing it under international control; to conclude a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty to prohibit the further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons; and to begin a drastic reduction of the weapons’ stockpile.

The recently inaugurated LEU bank in Kazakhstan, owned and operated by the IAEA, is a small step in the right direction. But the multilateralization of all uranium enrichment and plutonium separation facilities is regrettably not on the cards in the foreseeable future. And the proposal for a cut-off treaty has been dead in its tracks for over twenty years and is not moving. And no negotiations are currently planned to follow up on the 2010 New Start treaty between the US and Russia which limits the strategic deployed nuclear warheads of each to 1,550. The Treaty was concluded for a duration of ten years and can be extended for no more than five years.

It is against this gloomy background that I touch on the subject of a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East, a subset of the efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons. Since 1974 the United Nations General Assembly adopts an annual resolution calling for the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East. In 1991 the Security Council decided to dismantle Iraq’s WMD programs supposedly as a first step “towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from WMD”. In 1995, as part of the package to extend the NPT indefinitely, the Review Conference called upon all States of the Middle East to accede to the Treaty as soon as possible. It also called upon them “to take practical steps … towards … the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological and their delivery systems”.

One of my duties as then Director General of the IAEA, was to report every year on my consultations with the states of the Middle East on applying IAEA verification to all nuclear activities in the region. Not surprisingly, and despite all my efforts, I hit a brick wall. My successor has not been able to break through that wall either. The Arab states, naturally frustrated and angry to find themselves in a situation where Israel is the only country in the region to have nuclear weapons and is not party to the NPT, continue to advocate the view that ridding the region of nuclear weapons will promote and contribute to regional peace. Israel on the other hand, continues to obviously believe that nuclear weapons are its ultimate defense, and takes the view that a nuclear weapon free zone could not be established or even negotiated until after a comprehensive peace and security arrangement has been reached in the Middle East. This sharp divergence of views remains solid and irreconcilable despite all the Kabuki dance around it. So for fifty years there has been a plethora of resolutions, much rhetoric and soundbites but zero progress. And the “match” among the parties continues to be a “paper match” as to which language could be adopted in which resolution and by how many votes. But on the ground nothing is moving.

Adding of course to the complications was the concern in recent years over the nature of Iran’s nuclear program, especially the possible existence of a military dimension. After more than a decade of complex negotiations and verification, six major powers were able in 2015 to reach an agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known as The Iran Deal. The Deal which was endorsed by the Security Council is meant through an elaborate combination of legal commitments and intrusive verification measures to provide assurances that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful in return for the international community opening up trade and economic relations with her. The Deal is based on the premise that through confidence building measures and gradual cooperation, the outstanding issues between Iran and the West could be resolved, and that the normalization of relations should facilitate the overall objective of peace and security in the Middle East. The IAEA, the verifying body under the Deal, continues to declare Iran’s full compliance with its terms.

In May, however, the US administration decided to withdraw from the Iran Deal, citing Iran’s support of proxy armed groups in the region, as well as its development of her missile program. These issues are not covered by the nuclear deal. The US president described the deal as “a horrible one sided deal that should have never, ever been made”. All other parties to the Agreement nonetheless, including the European Union restated their continuing commitment to the Agreement as the binding international legal framework for the resolution of the nuclear dispute with Iran.

The US then renewed the imposition of sanctions on Iran. Some of the financial sanctions came into force in A ugust, and the ones affecting Iran’s ability to export oil and gas, through imposing sanctions on companies doing business with her came into force on November 4. Iran in return threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, the main shipping lane to around 30% of the world’s sea born crude oil and gas. Meanwhile the Europeans have been trying to salvage the deal through legislations aiming to protect European business from the effects of the US sanctions, and by encouraging more European enterprises to do business with Iran.

This is a short summary of the status of nuclear weapons globally and regionally. Let me then make a few related observations. The first is that the very existence of nuclear weapons bears the seeds of their proliferation, because they continue to be seen as the ultimate security deterrence and a major source of global influence and prestige. That some countries possess them, or are protected by them within an alliance, while others are asked not to have them, is oxymoronic in the long term. As I often mention, you cannot credibly ask a person not to smoke, while you are dangling a cigarette from your mouth. Every state without exception, irrespective of the nature or orientation of its regime, will do all it can to buy influence and protect itself against perceived threats and insecurity. It is naïve to expect countries in a dire security situation, real or imaginary not to try to acquire nuclear weapons to mimic the “big boys”. And more ominously, how long will it take before a terrorist group with no return address lays its hands on a nuclear weapon or at least a dirty bomb.

The second observation is that there is a symbiotic linkage between the three issues I discussed: global reliance on nuclear weapons; efforts to rid the Middle East from nuclear weapons; and Iran nuclear program. To be able to move on any of the three issues long term and in a realistic manner we have to be aware of such a linkage.

The third observation is that it is wishful thinking to believe that we can separate peace from security. They are two sides of the same coin. You can’t achieve peace without security and in turn without security there is no peace. I believe therefore that to move on eliminating nuclear weapons from the Middle East it has to be addressed in the context of comprehensive peace and security in the region. Otherwise we will remain in the vicious circle we have been in for decades, and moreover should not be surprised if other states in the region will look into getting such weapons. I don’t know if Israel understands that it can’t continue to have a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East, particularly in the light of the prevailing sense of injustice on the part of the Arab states with regards to this asymmetric security situation and also the lack of any prospects for a just resolution of the Palestinian question which lies at the core of peace in the region. Obviously the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, with the current waves of extremism, will be a calamity for all but we need seriously to work hard and beyond rhetoric to avoid it.

The fourth and final observation is that we need an urgent top down approach by the weapon states to start genuinely moving toward nuclear disarmament. It is not that they can’t! It is whether they want. The recently concluded Treaty on the prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by 122 states (69 states did not vote) which prohibits the acquisition of nuclear weapons and asks the weapon states to get rid of them was a logical step. The international community has already prohibited biological and chemical weapons, land mines and cluster munitions, classes of weapons that are less destructive than nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons were therefore, until the conclusion of the new convention, a historical oddity. Deplorably none of the weapon states adopted this convention. Instead, the US, UK, and France quickly declared that they “do not intend to ever become party”.

I wish I could be more optimistic but I believe I have to tell it like it is. All I can add is the hope that we could all come back to our senses soon and be able to achieve peace and security in the region and beyond based not on demonizing each other and flaunting our destructive abilities, but on the basis of our shared humanity and a security system that is equitable, inclusive and reliable. In such a system, weapons of mass destruction would have no place. Humanity deserves no less.

 

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