Middle East nuclear abolition dreaming


Middle East nuclear abolition dreamingIn 1958, Aldous Huxley told a Californian university audience that the idea of human civilisation co-existing long-term with atom bombs was “utopian”. In the 21st century it is the vision of nuclear abolition which typically bears that label. Abolition? It’ll never happen. Not in my lifetime. Generations away.

Was Huxley dreaming?

Recent events in the Middle East have brought this question into sharper focus. Western nations are tightening the noose around Iran’s neck for its nuclear recalcitrance. How many centrifuges? How much Highly Enriched Uranium? How long will it take to build the Iranian bomb? Iran shelters under Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), which legally empowers it to develop a nuclear capability—on the understanding that it forswears military use of the dual technology.

Meanwhile, Israel lashes out at guerrilla forces embedded in civilian populations in Lebanon. Its leaders elect not to employ their most powerful unacknowledged weaponry—nukeson this occasion, but it raises the question of their broader role in middle-eastern politics. Israel has no nuclear competitors in the region: its atomic arsenal means it can punch well above its weight. Even if the Iranians manage to get off the blocks in a regional nuclear arms race, they are a long way behind the leader.

Middle East nuclear abolition dreamingThis is not to argue for less scrutiny of Iran, but for more scrutiny of Israel’s nuclear weapons project. Not just of the arsenal, but of the strategic doctrine on which it rests. While authoritative estimates put the number of Israeli nukes in the hundreds, nuclear strategy is utterly opaque due to Israel’s refusal to acknowledge their existence.

But the nuclear sceptre dangling asymmetrically over the Middle East merely reflects the wider global imbalance, as demonstrated at last year’s Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York. The NNPT is a bargain wherein the nuclear weapons states (NWS) agree to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, while the non-NWS relinquish the right to develop them. Despite having signed the treaty 36 years ago, none of the NWS look like concluding their side of the bargain any time soon. The stockpiles have been reduced, but they have also modernised their arsenals and/or updated their strategic doctrines for 21st century utility.

North Korea has created nuclear weapons from its “peaceful” nuclear program, and has withdrawn from the treaty. Meanwhile, Iran has violated its Safeguards agreement by conducting certain experiments and engaging with the Khan Network, and its virtual nuclear supermarket.

Middle East nuclear abolition dreamingThere are 42 other countries that have a nuclear capabilityreactors, enrichment facilities, expertise, fissile materialand not all of them seem content to accept NWS intransigence indefinitely: what gain is there for them in maintaining their side of a lopsided bargain? Political will alone stands between them and their own political nuclear weapons programs.

These are not abstract theoretical concepts. The small uranium bomb that obliterated the city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 killed around 70,000 people. Tens of thousands of them were children. The recent assessment by the Blix WMD Commission, "Weapons of Terror", calculates the current global arsenal at 27,000 nukesover 95% of them U.S. or Russian.

Authoritative estimates of fatalities in a major modern nuclear exchange range in the hundreds of millions. Blix observes, however, that "a nuclear disarmament treaty is achievable and can be reached through careful, sensible and practical measures".

At its biennial congress in Helsinki this September, the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear Weapons (IPPNW), took up Blix’s treaty challenge. Much of the groundwork is already done: a "model Nuclear Weapons Convention" (NWC) was drafted in the nineties and submitted to the UN General Assembly by Costa Rica in 1997.

Based on the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, the NWC is a detailed legal framework which sets out a phased program for the elimination of nukes. It languishes, due to a lack of political will. Middle East nuclear abolition dreaming

The IPPNW is launching the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN), working with other NGOs to put nuclear disarmament back on the political agenda (the Australian link organisation is MAPW).

Blix concluded that: "So long as any such weapons remain in any state’s arsenal, there is a high risk that they will one day be used, by design or by accident. Any such use would be catastrophic."

The aim of ICAN is to avert a nuclear catastrophe by the elimination of all nukes everywhere: rogue states possess nuclear weapons.

Utopian? Not in Huxley’s eyes.



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Existing comments

Huxley was, by the end of his life, a slightly addled idealist. MAD theory worked well through the period of the cold war. Though we don't want rogue states such as N Korea and Iran possessing nukes, surely some nations can be trusted to possess the weapons as necessary deterrents?
andrew johnson | 17 October 2006

I believe that no countries should posses nuclear weapons. A nation such as the US cannot pressure others to destroy their nuclear weapons while keeping its own vast stores.
Will Smith | 17 October 2006

I cannot agree with you Will Smith. Have you ever head of the theory of the 'benign hegemon' - this is the role that the US plays in the world. People jump up and down about the US being so evil and self interested, but would we rather China was running the show? or the old Soviet Union?
andrew johnson | 17 October 2006

Why should those nations who "run the show" as Andrew Johnson puts it, be given some extra right to possess nuclear weapons? What possible positive can come from any state possessing nuclear weapons and telling others not to create their own. How are states like the U.S ever going to have creadibility if they are not obeying the NNPT themselves?
Daisy | 17 October 2006

I agree with Daisy and Will. No nation has the "right" to possess weapons of such all-encompassing, destructive magnitude. What can it possibly achieve?
Ron Chatwin | 18 October 2006

everyone knows Israel has nukes, and has done since 1986, when the London Times published that whistleblower (whose name i forget)
You cannot compare the Israelis with Iran; Iran is a state led by a theocracy, and more to the point, it has a populist president who will do anything to stay onside with the theocracy, and with the people.
Israel is a democracy. Was it Waltz who pointed out that democracies never seem to go to war with each other?
Arthur | 18 October 2006


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