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A Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East: Fathollah-Nejad

March 1st, 2012

Ali Fathollah-Nejad writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

A Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East
Why It Would Be in the Long-Term Interest of Both Iran and Israel

The conflict in Western Asia (the “Middle East”) is escalating. In order to escape its dead-end logic, a nuclear-free zone should be established – since the conflict between Israel and Iran is primarily geopolitical in nature.

More than ever before, the endless spectacle surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme is marching the world toward war. While most security policy debates incessantly sway between the devil (war) and the deep blue sea (sanctions), it is clear that neither option can eliminate concerns for nuclear proliferation and the well-being of civilian populations.

The only sensible way forward would be to abandon such a policy choice, which has proven counterproductive and, not surprisingly, has pushed the conflict to the brink of war. Instead, it would be best to focus efforts on achieving regional disarmament and ultimately a nuclear weapons-free zone. Contrary to widespread assumptions, it can be argued that both Tel Aviv and Tehran have a long-term strategic interest in such a zone.

The only way forward is that of regional disarmament

For Israel, the danger would lie in the nuclearization of other important countries in the region (such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey). Such a “threat balance” would then have an unfavourable impact on its security and definitely curtail its military deterrence capability towards its neighbours. Since the “military solution” against the nuclear armament of a larger country – as can be observed in the case of Iran – is hardly considered a sustainable one by Israeli strategists, the only solution would consist in regional disarmament as a way to effectively provide for security.

For its part, if Iran over time were to become a nuclear weapons state, that development would almost certainly trigger the nuclearization of its geopolitically weaker neighbours (especially those on the Arabian Peninsula). In turn, this proliferation of nuclear weaponry in the region would cause Iran abruptly to lose its natural, geographically determined power position in Western Asia. Thus, in the medium to long term the possession of nuclear weapons would constitute a great disservice to the grand strategic interests of the country.

If decision-makers on both sides are far-sighted, it is hard to see how they can avoid coming to the conclusion that fragile short-term security calculations are no guarantee of a secure future. That goal can only be achieved through a zone free of nuclear weapons.

The situation necessitates alternative approaches

The above considerations are not meant to obscure potential difficulties with this approach. They are intended to underscore that a mature view of national interest might offer an exit from the current impasse. After all, the centuries-long, bloody arch-rivalry between France and Germany has unexpectedly been overcome in the post-war period. History shows us that the Iranian–Israeli rivalry is of geopolitical nature and as such it is by no means immune to a resolution.

The current situation in the region calls for alternative approaches in order to avoid a disastrous war with global ramifications. The spiral of armament and hostility can ultimately only lead into an abyss.

As a reported by the East-West Institute outlined last month, it is high time for a regional security architecture in Western Asia. Both the U.S. and the EU should actively be engaged in assisting such a process, which would require nothing less than a paradigm shift. In order to lay a first foundation stone and at the same time send out de-escalating signals to Tel Aviv and Tehran, active political support from the West will be crucial to calling a UN Middle East WMD-Free Zone Conference and making it a success. If the security dilemmas afflicting the region continue to be dealt with only through escalating sanctions and ultimatums, it is only a matter of time before a conflagration turns Europe’s doorstep into an inferno.

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Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a political scientist educated in Germany, France and the Netherlands. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the universities of London (School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS) and Münster (Germany). In 2010, Fathollah-Nejad was a Visiting Lecturer in Development and Globalization (with a focus on the Middle East) at the University of Westminster in London. He is the author of The Iran Conflict and the Obama Administration (in German), published by Potsdam University Press in 2010 (reprinted in 2011). He is also a member of the working group on Security Policy of the civil-society initiative for a Conference for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East (CSCME).

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