This article was originally published by Al Jazeera.

Richard FalkFinally, there is some discussion in the West that supports the idea of a nuclear-free zone for the Middle East. Such thinking is still treated as politically marginal, and hardly audible above the deafening beat of the war drums. To the extent proposed, it also tends to be defensively and pragmatically phrased to reinforce the prevailing anti-Iran consensus.

For instance, in a recent New York Times article by Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull a full disclosure title gives the plot away: “Preventing a Nuclear Iran”. The authors offer us a prudential argument against attacking Iran to avoid a damaging Iranian retaliation and in view of the inability of an attack to do more than delay Iran’s nuclear programme by a few years. Beyond this, an attack seems likely to create irresistible pressures in Iran to do everything possible to obtain a nuclear option with a renewed sense of urgency, as well as to disrupt Western interests wherever possible.

This Telhami/Kull position is reinforced by evidence that Israeli society is not as war-prone as claimed, and would be receptive to a more cautious and less belligerent approach. They refer readers to a recent Israeli poll finding that only 43 per cent of Israelis favour a military strike, while 64 per cent support establishing a nuclear-free zone (NFZ) in the region that included Israel.

In effect, then, establishing a NFZ that includes Israel would seem politically feasible, although not a course of action that seems within the range of options being considered by the current Israeli political leadership.

The failure of the United States to raise the possibility of a solution to the conflict other than either an Iranian surrender with respect to its enrichment rights or an impending military attack is also discouraging. The silence of Washington with respect to a peaceful regional solution to the conflict with Iran confirms what is widely believed around the world – that the US Government will not deviate from the official Israeli line on security issues in the Middle East.

The fact that the Israeli public may be more peace-oriented than its elected leaders seems to make no difference to strategic thinking in the US, and what is more, the realisation that the exercise of the military option would have a likely huge negative impact on national and global interest is also put to one side.

Prince Turkis proposals

Another variant of NFZ thinking is more oriented to the realities of the Middle East. It has most clearly formulated by the influential Saudi Prince, Turki Al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the United States and once the head of his country’s intelligence service. He argues that NFZ is preferable to the military option for many reasons, and he believes, in contrast to President Obama, that it should be removed from the bag of tricks at the disposal of diplomats.

Prince Turki believes that sanctions have not, and will not alter Iran’s behaviour. His proposal is more elaborate than simply advocating a NFZ. He would be in favour of coercive steps against Iran if there is ever convincing evidence that it actually possesses nuclear weapons, but he also argues for the imposition of sanction on Israel if it fails to disclose openly the full extent of its nuclear weapons arsenal.  

Prince Turki’s approach has several additional features: extending the scope of the undertaking to all weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that is, including biological and chemical weapons; a nuclear security umbrella for the region maintained by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council; a resolution of outstanding conflicts in the region in accordance with the Mecca Arab proposals of 2002 that calls for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights occupied in 1967, as well as the political and commercial normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world.

Prince Turki warns that if some such arrangement is not soon put in place, and Iran proceeds with its nuclear programme, other countries in the region, including Turkey, will almost certainly be drawn into an expensive and destabilising nuclear arms race.

In effect, as with Telhami/Kull, Prince Turki’s approach is designed to make sure that worst case scenarios do not happen. It is more contextually framed to encompass several larger challenges in the Middle East, rather than confining its rationale to addressing the Israel/Iran confrontation.  

The Turki proposals have some problematic aspects, including the idea that governments in the region could be expected to rely on the five permanent members of the Security Council to co-operate effectively if faced with a challenge to the NFZ. From another perspective, the proposal might be questioned as a historically insensitive effort to delegate authority over future security issues in the region to former colonial powers.

NFZ or WMDFZ without Israel

There is another perplexing feature of Prince Turki’s vision of a peaceful future for the Middle East. He urges the adoption of such a collective commitment to the elimination of WMD in the region with or without Israeli support at a conference of parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty scheduled for later this year in Finland, which seems to play into the hands of Western hawks.

Israel is not even a party to the NPT, has so far not indicated its willingness to attend the conference, and if participating, would likely play an obstructive role. What is the point of a NFZ or WMDFZ without Israel? As long ago as the 1995 NPT Review Conference, the Arab countries put forward a proposal to establish in the Middle East a WMD-free zone, but it has never been subsequently invoked.

Israel, which is not a member of the NPT, has consistently taken the position over the years that only after peace prevails throughout the region, will it consider lending support to a legal regime, prohibiting the possession of nuclear weapons.

The NFZ or WMDFZ initiatives need to be seen in the setting established by the NPT regime. An initial observation involves Israel’s failure to become a party to the NPT coupled with its covert nuclear programme that resulted in the acquisition of the weaponry more than 20 years ago with the complicity of the West as documented in Seymour Hersh’s 1991 The Samson Option.

This Israeli pattern of behaviour needs to be contrasted with that of Iran, a party to the NPT that has reported to and accepted, although with some friction in recent years, international inspections on its territory by the Western oriented International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran has consistently denied any ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, but has insisted on its rights under Article IV of the treaty to exercise “… its inalienable right… to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination…”

Iran has been under constant threat of an attack by Israel. It has also been the target for several years of Israel’s extremely dirty low intensity war, as well as being the subject of a US Congressionally funded destabilisation programme of the US that is reinforced by a diplomacy that constantly reaffirms the relevance of a military option, and operates in a political climate that excludes consideration of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

What is surprising under these circumstances is that Iran has not freed itself from NPT obligation as it is entitled to do. All parties to the NPT have a treaty right to withdraw set forth in Article X requiring only that a withdrawing state give notice to other treaty parties and provide an explanation of its reasons for withdrawing.

Geopolitical priorities

Comparing these Israeli and Iran patterns of behaviour with respect to nuclear weapons, it would seem far more reasonable to conclude that it is Israel, not Iran, that should be subjected to sanctions, and put under pressure to participate in denuclearising negotiations. After all, Israel acquired the weaponry secretly and defiantly, has not been even willing to accept the near universally applicable discipline of the NPT, and has engaged periodically in aggressive wars against its neighbours that have resulted in several long-term occupations.

It can be argued that Israel was entitled to enhance its security by remaining outside the NPT, and thus is acting within its sovereign rights. This is a coherent legalistic position, but we should also appreciate that the NPT is more a geopolitical than a legal regime, and that Iran, for instance, would be immediately subject to a punitive response if it tried to withdraw from the treaty. In other words, geopolitical priorities override legal rights in the NPT setting.

The history of the NPT has reflected its geopolitical nature. This is best illustrated by the utter refusal of the nuclear weapons states, above all the US, to fulfill its core obligation under Article VI “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on The Legality of Nuclear Weapons unanimously affirmed in its findings the legal imperative embodied in Article VI: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament in all its aspects under strict international control.”

This finding that has been completely ignored by the nuclear weapons states (who had made full use of their diplomatic leverage in a failed effort to convince members of the UN General Assembly not to seek guidance from the ICJ with respect to the legal status of nuclear weapons and the obligations of the NPT). The refusal to uphold these obligations of Article VI would certainly appear to be a material breach of the treaty that under international law authorises any party to regard the treaty as void.

Again, the international discourse on nuclear weapons is so distorted that it is a rarity to encounter criticism of its discriminatory application, its double standards as between nuclear and non-nuclear states, and its geopolitical style of selective enforcement. In this regard, it should be appreciated that the threat of military attack directed at Iran resembles reliance on the so-called Bush Doctrine of preventive war that had been used to justify aggression against Iraq in 2003, and represents a blatant geopolitical override of international law.

Need to avoid war

In summary, it is of utmost importance to avoid a war in the Middle East arising from the unresolved dispute about Iran’s nuclear programme. One way to do this is to seek a NFZ or a WMDFZ for the entire region that must include the participation of Israel. What has given this approach a renewed credibility for the West at this time is that such a measure seems to be the only way to prevent a lose/lose war option from materialising in an atmosphere where mainstream pundits are increasingly predicting an attack on Iran during 2012. 

A NFZ plan has some prudential appeal to change minds in Tehran and Tel Aviv before it is too late, and could also encourage Washington to take a less destructive and self-destructive course of action. Whether this prudential appeal is sufficiently strong to overcome the iron cage of militarism that constrains policy choices in Israel and the US remains doubtful.

Thinking outside the militarist box remains a forbidden activity, partly reflecting the domestic lock on the political and moral imagination of these countries by their respective military industrial media think-tank complexes.

I would conclude this commentary with three pessimistic assessments that casts a dark shadow over the regional future:

(1) an NFZ or WMDFZ for the Middle East is necessary and desirable, but it almost certainly will not be placed on the political agenda of American-led diplomacy relating to the conflict;

(2) moves toward nuclear disarmament negotiations that have been legally mandated and would be beneficial for the world, and for the nuclear weapons states and their peoples, will not be made in the current atmosphere that blocks all serious initiatives to abolish nuclear weapons;

(3) the drift toward a devastating attack on Iran will only be stopped by an urgent mobilisation of anti-war forces in civil society, which seems unlikely given other preoccupations. 

To overcome such pessimism requires a broader vision of peace and justice that is even broader than the contextual approach taken by Prince Turki. It would centre on demilitarisation of the region through disarmament, as well as a firm regional commitment to avoid entangling alliances with external actors, meaning no military deployments or bases in the region. With drones engaging in lethal missions in the Middle East and an array of American military bases, this seems like a utopian fantasy, and maybe it is.

But maybe also we have reached a paradoxical stage in the region, and possibly the world, where only the utopian imagination can offer us a realistic vision of a hopeful human future.