Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nuclear-Free Mideast: Walk the Talk

Suddenly, the whole world wants a nuclear-free Mideast. OK. A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step...

In 2007, while the neo-cons reigned supreme and when Iran had just a bit of uranium refining going on and when Turkey was firmly embedded in the Israeli sphere of influence, Cairo called for a nuclear-free Mideast [Spacewar 10/21/07]. The West, firmly behind Israeli regional nuclear hegemony, slapped Egypt down. Now Egypt is renewing its call [Global Security Newswire 4/20/10].

Having lost three years in its hubris, the West now finds Iran’s refinement industry booming, Turkey leading the way toward a conciliatory central position, and Obama taking a high-profile anti-proliferation stance that puts Israel firmly on the spot.

For six months, amid rising tension fueled by Iranian games and American threats, the Iranian nuclear issue has been sidetracked in a trivial argument over medical-grade uranium. Using medical-grade uranium as a proxy for a deadly serious competition over Iran’s role in the Mideast is a sad and expensive diversion. If resolution of this issue achieves a “ping-pong diplomacy” breakthrough by warming the Washington-Tehran tone, then it will have been worthwhile, but it works for now as yet another set of blinders obscuring the realities of the struggle for regional influence.

The rising chorus of calls for a nuclear-free Mideast, however, adds an interesting wrinkle. As Gates evidently pointed out to Obama in January, the U.S. has no satisfactory long-term strategy for dealing with Iran. Common acceptance of the vision of a nuclear-free Mideast as a long-term goal could provide a key element of such a strategy by defining an end-point on which all responsible statesmen could agree to talk. A strategy may have blunt power at its core and yet find its success promoted by a goal that all can honestly cooperate to achieve.

Once representatives from everywhere sit down and agree that, “Gee, in a perfect world…,” then the pressure to actually accomplish something will subtly rise, and folks will start asking questions that currently do not occur to a lot of world figures:

What might a joint first step look like?

Is there something Israel and Iran can trade off that will harm the security of neither?

Would the ground open and Israel be sucked out of sight were it to admit its holdings, affirm it wished they could be destroyed, and offer just a teeny bit of transparency?

There is a real danger that the distant vision of a nuclear-free Mideast might serve simply to conceal the struggle for regional influence under yet another layer of propaganda. If, for example, all sides just say they like it but don’t trust anyone else, then it won’t go anywhere. If Cairo proposes real steps forward and Tehran does the same but they carefully each propose steps they know the other will immediately reject, it won’t go anywhere either.

But what if they don’t? What if Cairo and Tehran had chats with Ankara and came up with a joint list of small initial steps that all three could support? What if Obama received an unofficial copy and held a quiet luncheon with representatives of Israeli civil society concerned about Israeli national security and obtained their approval for a subset of those steps?

Cairo has started off on the right foot:
"We want the Israelis to sit at a table and negotiate," Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations Maged Abdelaziz said, stressing the importance of Jerusalem's participation in the talks. "We're flexible on the location and the format of the conference," he said [GSN, op cit].

Now, what about Iran? Is Cairo going to let this degenerate into an anti-Iranian campaign in order to score petty points in its own bilateral competition for regional influence or is Cairo going to think more boldly and try to lead the region by inviting everyone to the table?

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