Iran’s shady nuclear program launched a spectacular melodrama that has taken over our TVs, laptops, iPads, and Youtubes. Since the media spotlight is stuck on Israel’s response towards Iran (let us not forget Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s excellent “red line” visual ) the public has pretty much forgotten that there are 23 other countries under the banner of Middle East (the countries included fluctuate depending on who you ask. 23 is the magic number for the IAEA). And unbeknownst to a majority of the people around the world (I’m excluding those who are well-versed in nuke speak) some of these countries and other non-regional supporters are attempting [struggling] to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the region.
Yes, that’s quite right. A zone free of nuclear weapons.
Unlike leprechauns, bigfoot, and Tupac working at a Jamaican gas station, NWFZ – areas in which countries collectively commit not to possess, acquire, manufacture, test, or station nuclear weapons – do exist today. In fact, there are several UN-recognized zones in the world (Tlatelolco – South America & the Caribbean | Pelindaba – Africa | Bangkok – Southeast Asia | Rarotonga – South Pacific | Semipalatinsk – Central Asia). Creating one in the Middle East, however, seems as feasible as building a government-sponsored Death Star. Or finding actual evidence showing that unicorns once galloped the territories of North Korea.
Participants of the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference tried to lay the groundwork for such a zone by agreeing to convene a meeting among potential zone participants by 2012. In May 2012, the conference facilitator Jaakko Laajava (Finland) reported that he and the “conveners have a clear goal and commitment to work towards the organization of the conference in 2012 as agreed.” Everyone immediately felt warm and fuzzy.
Alas, 2012 came and went. There were many complications – lack of support from key participants, conflicting expectations during and after the conference, what to do with Israel’s nuclear ambiguity – that contributed to the event’s indefinite delay. Nuclear experts and policymakers wag their fingers and foreshadow rough times ahead: a conference in limbo could completely throw camaraderie out the window and jeopardize other nonproliferation efforts in the region.
But amidst pessimism, there are those who continue to cross their fingers and keep the hope alive. Negotiating terms for these zones are not a cake-walk; perhaps a mishap is not so much a sign of failure than it is a reminder that profound change naturally meets harsh resistance. For instance, the Latin American NWFZ was a pain to negotiate due to political skirmishes among participating states, but they eventually got it done (NICE!). Of course one must take into account the unique political dynamics and nuclear histories within a region (not to mention the negotiations with nuclear-weapon states), but just because something is hard to do doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Plans for a Middle East NWFZ continue to receive praise and scrutiny, but the dialogue remains inside the nuclear policy bubble. Some news outlets (Opinions on Al Jazeera | New York Times) have tried to push the issue into public consciousness, but it’s largely invisible to the public eye.
And with that, I leave you with Professor Noam Chomsky’s words (or foreign policy gripe). You may not necessarily agree with his views about the world, but this one, I think, is important to consider:
So, therefore, there’s no hope for an easy way to end what the West regards as the most severe current crisis [nuclear-related tension in the Middle East] — no way unless there’s large-scale public pressure. But there can’t be large-scale public pressure unless people at least know about it. And the media have done a stellar job in averting that danger: nothing reported about the [Middle East NWFZ] conference or about any of the background, no discussion, apart from specialist arms control journals where you can read about it. So, that blocks the easy way to end the worst existing crisis, unless people somehow find a way to break through this.
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