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This Week: Complacency is slowly killing the non-proliferation regime

Fatalism over the chances of achieving agreement on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation is symptomatic of a failure that goes deeper than the inefficiencies of the diplomatic process.

Arab decision-makers and security experts met last week at the Amman Security Colloquium and nuclear forum, expressing their frustration with the lack of progress on a diplomatic agenda to achieve a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. They are considering their strategy to find leverage over those that appear comfortable with protracted conversations focused only on defining principles and agenda. However, the Arabs are not the only ones who may get in the way of any consensus that papers over the cracks when senior diplomats meet next May at the month-long nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference to discuss progress in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The world of nuclear diplomacy is in broader crisis over dashed expectations on the disarmament agenda; nuclear arsenals are being modernised for a new generation.

So what are the consequences in the ‘real world’ of declining confidence in the NPT?

In several meetings in the Gulf last week run by BASIC, people from the region expressed deep anxieties about Iran’s nuclear programme and its other activities in the Arab world. We are on the verge of a possible historic deal with Iran that should increase assurance for the regional and international community. The deadline for this round of talks is 24 November. Whilst Gulf states support the process in public, the level of suspicion and gut opposition is tangible. From their perspective, an agreement could be used by Iran to neutralise western opposition and win the upper hand in the region in a much broader and deadly contest of influence. Those states have generally delegated their strategic security, having opened up their economies and even cultural identities, to those very states who are now dealing with their adversary Iran. Representatives express a sense of exposure and vulnerability that many of us cannot understand. It may mean Saudi Arabia could start considering options that involve diversifying their sponsors or developing their own capabilities.

Saudi Arabian officials have in recent years been suggesting that the Kingdom (KSA) cannot simply stand by and watch the revolutionary Islamic Republic strengthen their hand with a strategic nuclear weapon capability whilst also building their soft power and military influence in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. There are whispers of an agreement between KSA and Pakistan, whereby KSA could call in favours involving nuclear guarantees or the actual transfer of warheads. This is clearly designed to signal to the Iranians the consequences of their nuclear ambiguity.

But it is unclear that KSA can rely upon any such agreement, should they call it in–it would put Pakistan in a very uncomfortable strategic position with their Iranian neighbour, with whom they have largely had a stable relationship. Pakistan is not looking to open another hostile front when they already feel exposed to a much larger adversary to their east. So there may well be strong incentives for the Kingdom in the coming years to follow up those rumours with real independent actions. It may be worth the KSA investing in dual-use technology, not because they choose to have a nuclear weapons capability, but because they believe the ambiguity and the possession of a credible independent option is necessary for their diplomatic strategy with Iran.

There is another dimension to this that concerns nuclear blackmail–not of adversaries, but of one’s allies. We have seen it before. Apartheid South Africa‘s possession of a handful of nuclear weapons in the 1980s, at a time of desperation, boycotts and international isolation, was not intended to directly intimidate its strategically weaker neighbours, but rather to threaten the international community with a bloodbath in the region, thus persuading them to tolerate the status quo.

A clearer example of this is Israel. In a blog post earlier this year, BASIC’s Lianet Vazquez highlighted a similar strategy first identified by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Israel’s use of nuclear weapons in the region would not only be disastrous for its neighbours, but it would be what has been described as a Sampson option. Israel’s nuclear deterrent of its Arab neighbours is less credible than its privileged ability to force the United States to ensure Israel’s security by supplying it with the most sophisticated conventional weapon systems and to restrict the capabilities of those it supplies to all Arab states.

In the 1973 conflict, the Arab states knew the Israelis had a nuclear weapon, yet still chose to confront Israel by amassing a combined Arab force. Deterrence had failed. The Israeli leadership at the time believed that the survival of the state was at risk yet chose not to deploy their nuclear weapon, or even ready it. Yet that arsenal did its job. The signal got through to the US, who then supplied the country with game-changing military equipment to dissuade the Israelis from contemplating the unimaginable.

It may seem extraordinary that the United States seems willing to tolerate such a continuing arrangement.

Whilst the nature of the relationship is very different, the Saudis could choose a similar route. They may think it a complementary strategy to their dependence upon the United States. The Arab monarchies are less confident of that US guarantee since President Mubarek lost control of Egypt. The Saudis are well aware of the importance of the non-proliferation regime. But if they lack the necessary trust in it, and they start to consider options that more clearly signal their discontent, then the NPT itself could be severely, perhaps fatally damaged.

This is not to say the deal with Iran is a poor one, or that we should be particularly cautious in agreeing one. Indeed, a deal is probably essential to the stability of the region. The bigger lesson is that members of the NPT, and particularly the depository states–the United States, the UK and Russia–need to deliver more clearly on their promises and restore the faith of the international community in the broader regime, and that means establishing a far stronger international consensus by demonstrating a more serious commitment to multilateral disarmament, and pressuring Israel to attend a WMD Free Zone conference in Helskinki at the earliest opportunity. Because without that faith, there is a very real possibility that we could enter into a new and unstable set nuclear relationships.

It seems there is already fatalism over the chances of achieving agreement at the NPT Review Conference, symptomatic of a failure that goes deeper than the inefficiencies of the diplomatic process. Governments seem to have priced in a failure to agree on an on-going action plan, and are already talking about picking up the momentum at the next meeting–in 2020. Some appear to believe we can manage this crisis using sanctions and bilateral talks.

This short-termist attitude is extremely dangerous. It is exactly when relations between states are stressed, and when turbulence and uncertainty is raging, that control over the possession and doctrine of nuclear weapons and other WMD is most important. It is at that moment that confidence in the NPT, and its contribution to national, regional and global security must be maintained. Member states need to feel secure within its constraints, rather than simply bound by its legal obligations or by threats from more powerful states to comply. It is therefore confidence in the stability of the regime itself that is as critical as the surviving legal terms.

When the five nuclear weapon states meet in London in February to discuss the possibilities on the multilateral disarmament agenda, and their lines for the NPT Review Conference explaining how they will meet their obligations under the 2010 Action Plan, let’s hope they have a good story to tell. And let’s also hope we have some positive news on that overdue Helsinki WMD-free zone Conference.


This article was originally featured on a regular column by Paul on Open Security, a section of OpenDemocracy.net.