Last week the latest quinquennial review conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) ended as a failure, without issuing a formal statement or report. The single biggest snag concerned whether to call for the convening of a conference on a Middle Eastern nuclear weapons free zone (MENWFZ). Fingers of blame were pointed in various directions, including at Egypt for pushing some procedural changes regarding the convening of such a conference that some other delegations regarded as needless complications. But the procedural issues were not much of an obstacle and could have been resolved. The more fundamental roadblock was the same one that has been decisive every time the subject of a MENWFZ has come up. Israel doesn't like the idea, and the United States, acting as Israel's lawyer (Israel itself, not being a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, was only an observer and not a full participant in the review conference), blocked approval of the draft statement that was on the table.
Israel doesn't like the idea because Israel itself would naturally be the chief focus of any discussion of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, given that it has kept itself outside the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and is the owner of what just about everyone in the world believes to be the only nuclear weapons possessed by any Middle Eastern state. Israel's official position regarding a conference is that discussion of nuclear weapons can only take place amid a discussion of “the broad range of security challenges in the region,” and it says it would consider joining the NPT only if Israel were at peace with the Arab states and Iran. That position is, of course, a formula for putting off the subject of a MENWFZ indefinitely, given that the Israeli government has sworn eternal hostility toward Iran and is determined—all the more so in the Israeli government's latest post-election configuration—not to settle its conflict with the Palestinians and therefore will not be at peace with most Arab states either.
None of this is altogether new. The 2010 NPT review conference did produce a recommendation to convene a regional conference by 2012, and considerable preparatory work was done under Finnish leadership. But the Israeli government was infuriated by the whole idea, and on its behalf the United States helped to throw enough dirt into the diplomatic gears for the regional conference never to take place.
What makes this month's failure to make progress on this front even more unfortunate is that another set of negotiations has made the opportunity for progress toward a MENWFZ greater than ever. These are the negotiations that are close to completing a comprehensive agreement to restrict and monitor Iran's nuclear program. Although Iran evidently has not decided to build nuclear weapons anyway, the impending agreement, if completed, would be a major accomplishment on behalf of the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. Iran is a significant country in this regard given that it is one of the largest countries in the Middle East, it has a substantial nuclear program, and it probably has in the past actively considered building nuclear weapons. The agreement currently being finalized provides for major restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities and a system of international monitoring of those activities that is more extensive and intrusive than what any other country has ever voluntarily imposed on itself. The agreement thus provides a very useful model for extending the cause of nuclear nonproliferation throughout the Middle East, while embodying the NPT's principle of reconciling the widespread peaceful use of nuclear energy with stringent safeguards to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. It provides a model, and it provides momentum. And despite the many sharp disagreements between Iranians and Arabs, a MENWFZ is one concept on which they agree.
The potential for the Iran agreement to serve as a region-wide model is underscored by how many of its provisions (as revealed in the partial “framework” agreement announced last month) resemble recommendations of a recent report from an independent group of nuclear experts on controlling fissile materials in the Middle East. These provisions include limiting enrichment of uranium to specified low levels, prohibiting the stockpiling of enriched uranium, banning the reprocessing of plutonium, and adhering to international safeguards such as the Additional Protocol for inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
All this potential gets swept out of sight by the campaign of those who for other reasons oppose reaching any agreement on anything with Iran and would have us inhabit an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which we are supposed to believe that placing major restrictions on someone's nuclear program is a blow against rather than in favor of nuclear nonproliferation. It is in the same topsy-turvy world that leading the charge against this agreement is the most prominent nuclear outlaw state in the Middle East.
All of this is regrettable, but doubly so when it means blowing a good opportunity to make progress toward keeping nuclear weapons from being part of this conflict-ridden region.