A solution to the issue of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East needs to come from within the region and “cannot be imposed from outside”.
That was part of the justification given by the head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, Shaul Horev, last week for his country’s refusal to attend a nuclear-free Middle East summit in Finland.
In explaining the rejection, Horev ironically put forward the answer to a growing nuclear crisis that Israel has helped to inflame: regionalism. A regional framework is absolutely required to not only address the issue of weapons of mass destruction in the conflict-ridden Middle East, but broader regional security.
The Middle East stands alone in bucking the post-Cold War trend of regionalism. Whereas regional blocs have emerged worldwide in a bid to enhance security, as well as compete with great powers in the global economy, the Middle East remains bogged down in regional competition driven by mutual fear.
While it is imperative to contextualise each conflict, the standard assumptions of regionalism apply. There exists significant distrust between the main powers of the Middle East, which has given way to perceptions of fear and fuelled competition for supremacy. No natural alliance exists among any of the four regional powers — Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — with each viewing the other, to varying degrees, as competitors for regional hegemony.
Insecurity, paranoia and fear permeate throughout regional capitals as the Middle East witnesses the decline of US power. Without an overarching superpower to maintain regional security, the impetus has turned to local powers to manage regional affairs. Global wrangling over the Syrian crisis and Western failure to halt Iran’s nuclear program are examples of the lost ability of great powers to effectively stabilise the Middle East.
From within the two cases, however, has emerged a divergence between the interests of regional powers, and those of their global patrons. Regional US allies have each found themselves repeatedly rebuffed by Washington on the two issues in the past 18 months. The US has not backed Saudi and Turkish calls for greater intervention in the Syrian crisis, and publicly dismissed an Israeli push for tougher action on Iran.
The Obama administration is desperate to avoid another Middle East conflict, a calculation of its own interests that is seemingly at odds with its allies. Despite the intense state rivalry in the Middle East, security remains the fundamental policy driver of all actors. All three US allies view the respective crises as paramount to their security interests. The erratic over-anxiety currently being exerted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran’s nuclear program, for example, is emblematic of the deep-seated paranoia that engulfs Israel’s political establishment.
It is a firm Israeli belief that if their military supremacy in the region is even slightly eroded by the advancement of a neighbour, its existence will be jeopardised. That the United States has dismissed Netanyahu’s antics highlights two key points: that Israel’s paranoia is grossly overstated, and that the US is not prepared to dive into a Middle Eastern war that would prioritise an ally’s security interests over its own.
The clear divergence between US and Israeli interests over Iran should signal to Tel Aviv, among other major developments that have occurred around it in the past two years, that it can no longer ride on US power in the Middle East as a guarantor of its security. Rather, it needs to re-navigate its compass towards the region it lives in and engage its neighbours in order to achieve long-lasting stability.
It is for this reason that Israel’s decision to snub Finland’s nuclear-free summit is the wrong call, and sends the message that Israel — the only nuclear power in the Middle East — feels no need to co-operate with its neighbourhood on producing mutual security. Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have long lobbied to put the issue of Israel’s nuclear arsenal on the table of international forums. And Israel, with US backing, has long avoided frank international discussions about it. Wary of Israel’s attitude, Arab states on this occasion agreed not to mention Israel’s nuclear weapons in an unsuccessful bid to win its participation at the Finnish summit.
Israel’s refusal to entertain Arab calls for its disarmament highlights a significant factor that has so far eluded current discourse on the nuclear stand-off in the region: Arab and Iranian security interests. Israel is not the only state in the region to have its policies driven by fear and insecurity. Iran, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, has endured a Western and Gulf-backed Iraqi war (1980-1988), constant threats of regime-change, “Axis of Evil” charges, and the latest threat in Israeli strikes. In addition, Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers: Pakistan and India to its east; Russia to the north; Israel to its west; and US forces in the Gulf and Afghanistan. Although Iran has adamantly said it is not seeking nuclear weapons, any objective analysis of Iranian security interests would consider it imperative for Tehran to produce a deterrent.
Finding a solution to Iran’s nuclear stand-off also requires major attention to Iran’s security needs. Rather, Western powers are engaging the P5+1 talks with only Israel’s security interests in mind, and are struggling to balance Israeli anxiety with pragmatism. It is a futile strategy that will neither assuage Israel, Iran, nor lower the risk of confrontation. Iran’s nuclear program cannot be rewound, but Tehran can be convinced not to turn to nuclear weapons if it is assured of its security.
The equation to resolving this crisis is not beyond reach. Security anxieties felt by Israel and Iran need to be addressed, and can be achieved within a regional framework that — in line with other regional blocs — promotes mutual security and cooperation. The United States will not, at least in the near future due to domestic considerations, exert the kind of pressure on Israel necessary for it to make concessions, but neither will it enter a suicidal war with Iran on its behalf.
In the absence of a coherent US strategy in the Middle East, regional powers must take ownership of their neighbourhood and eliminate the barriers of fear and mistrust. It is a new reality that the region’s main powers — divided by historical rivalries and conflict — have so far found difficult to swallow. The responsibility is now on the powers of the Middle East to solve the qualms of the region, beginning with Iran’s nuclear stand-off and the Syrian conflict.
A regional war will weaken Israel and Iran as they each demonstrate their capabilities to inflict heavy damage on the other. If security is what Israel wants, then it’s going down the wrong path to achieving it by beating the drums of war with Iran, and shelving Arab attempts at fostering regional dialogue on security. Continued Israeli belligerence to its neighbours and dismissal of the Palestinian issue only endangers the very security it is trying to achieve. Israel requires a significant policy shift that reflects the changing realities in the region brought by the Arab revolts, and evolving global power dynamics that is seeing US influence in the Middle East wane.
No single Middle Eastern power will be able to replace the United States as regional hegemon, and any such attempt will result only in further conflict. The nuclear issue presents the Middle East with an opportunity to develop a regional consciousness within the political establishments of each power and promote the concept of mutual cooperation. But it will take exceptional political will from all regional actors to achieve it, commencing with Israel.
*Antoun Issa is a Beirut-based Australian journalist and the news editor of Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar English