Why the Helsinki Conference is crucial for the Middle East

Johannes Hautaviita and Bruno Jäntti

For the postponed Helsinki Conference to be successful in the future requires a genuine commitment by the West, especially the US, to a nuclear-free Middle East, according to specialists on the Middle East and nuclear non-proliferation.

The significance of the Helsinki Conference

At the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for “progress towards a nuclear-weapon-free-zone in the Middle East”. The final document of the review conference underscored the importance of the establishment of a NWFZ “especially in the Middle East”. The UN endorsed that all states in the region convene in a conference scheduled for 2012 to negotiate towards the implementation of the initiative.

In October 2011, Finland was chosen as the host of the conference, which was to be held under UN auspices in Helsinki in December 2012

Iran agreed to attend the negotiations. Israel, however, refused. In November, the US cancelled the Helsinki Conference.

The failure to get the relevant parties to join the negotiations marks a major setback for, and displays the fragile state of, the NPT regime in the 21st century. Parties to the NPT have a binding legal obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith” on measures relating to “cessation of the nuclear arms race” and “nuclear disarmament” (NPT Article VI). In 1996, this obligation was reinforced in a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the highest judicial body in the world.

In addition to the severe consequences for the viability of the NPT regime, the failure of the conference has potentially adverse repercussions for the security and stability of the Middle East.

In January 2013, the European parliament passed a resolution expressing its disappointment over the postponement of the conference and called for a new date to be set as soon as possible.

For the supporters of a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East, the Helsinki process remains the primary instrument to prevent a regional nuclear arms race and avert the threat of a large scale military confrontation in the Middle East.

Therefore, it is crucial that the political obstacles blocking the Helsinki Conference are analyzed thoroughly and carefully. Without an accurate account of the reasons behind the current deadlock, the Helsinki Conference efforts are likely to remain unsuccessful.

Iran and the NPT

In November 2012, when the Obama administration unilaterally announced the annulment of the Helsinki Conference, it referred to “turmoil and dramatic political change taking place in the Middle East and Iran’s continuing defiance of its international nonproliferation obligations.”

The US has supported, to a varying extent, India, Pakistan and Israel in their respective nuclear programs. All three are countries that are in possession of nuclear arms and refuse to sign the NPT. Also, the US continues to undermine the established NWFZ in both Africa and the South Pacific by not ratifying the treaties. It is likely the US wants to use its Pacific dependencies as well as the African island of Diego Garcia for storing nuclear weapons. In light of the above track-record, the US comes across as arguably the most serious violator of the NPT.

Contrary to repeated assertions by the Obama administration, there is no evidence of Iran’s failure to meet its obligations under the NPT. Indeed, the overwhelming evidence and documentation that refutes this claim is often disregarded.

According to the US Intelligence Community, Iran has not had a nuclear weapons program since 2003. These findings have been reported to the US Congress.

Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has, during the last ten years, spent more resources on inspections in Iran than in any other country in its history, the IAEA has found no evidence of Iran having an active nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, the IAEA has found no evidence of Iran having diverted nuclear material for military purposes.

According to Asli Bâli, Assistant Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law, the UN Security Council Resolution 1696, which calls on Iran to discontinue all uranium enrichment, is not based on a finding that Iran has violated the NPT. As there was no basis under international law for adopting resolution 1696, it effectively “overrode the existing legal regime governing nuclear non-proliferation”, says Bâli, “by dictating requirements of Iran that are not found in that body of law.”

The NPT guarantees the ratifying states, such as Iran, the right to enrich uranium under international safeguards.

If the US is concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, the establishment of a NWFZ in the region would be the most efficient strategy to ensure that Iran remains a non-nuclear-weapon state in the future.

Eric Hooglund, Professor of Iranian studies at Lund University and an academic authority on contemporary Iran, writes: “The US and Israeli public preoccupation with an imagined nuclear weapons program in Iran is a cover for Washington’s real political objective: regime change in Tehran.”

The fabricated threat of Iran’s nuclear program deflects attention from the only serious obstacle to establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East, i.e. Israel’s massive arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Israel’s position

In September 2012, Shaul Horev, the director of the Israeli Nuclear Energy Committee who reports directly to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, articulated the thrust of the Israeli position towards the nuclear-weapon-free-zone in the Middle East:

“This is an idea born in other areas and alien to the reality and political culture of the area. Nuclear demilitarization in the Middle East, according to the Israeli position, will be possible only after the establishment of peace and trust among the states of the area, as a result of a local initiative, not of external coercion.”

It seems rather peculiar for a high representative of the only nuclear weapons state (NWS) of a region to seek to convince the international community that nuclear demilitarization is “alien to the reality and political culture” of that area. Putting that aside, the most untenable part of the official Israeli position is the precondition of “the establishment of peace” because of Israel’s own relationship to this endeavor

An overview of the diplomatic record of the Israel-Palestine conflict evinces that the modus operandi of all Israeli governments has been one based on the rejection of political arrangements that would enforce the rights guaranteed to the Palestinian people by international law. The Jewish Israeli political parties are united in their categorical rejection of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Also, the Jewish Israeli political culture has been and remains adamantly opposed to recognizing a Palestinian state on the internationally recognized borders, or the 1949 armistice lines.

Accordingly, the Jerusalem Post reports in June 2013, elaborating on the international debate taking place at the UN, Israel’s assertion that “the concept of the right of return for Palestinians to the State of Israel undermines the basic principle of a two-state solution” and that “Israel has rejected the idea of a two-state solution on pre-1967 lines or halting settlement activity as a precondition for talks”.

The most comprehensive peace initiative in the history of the conflict is the Arab Peace Initiative presented by the Arab League. Proposed in 2002 in the Beirut Summit by the then-Crown Prince, King Abdullah of Saudi-Arabia and endorsed again in the 2007 Riyadh Summit, the peace plan calls for normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel, in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories and “a just solution” to the Palestinian refugee question.

The offer was constructed on the premises and provisions of international law and would have enabled significant progress on resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The plan was supported by every single member of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Israel rejected the plan, labelling it “a non-starter” and stating that it would lead to the destruction of Israel

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Each year the UN General Assembly votes on the peaceful settlement of the Palestine question. The resolution calls for settling the conflict based on the same international consensus that was also the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative.

Reflecting similar respective approaches by the parties of the conflict towards the framework of international law, the entire Arab League annually lends its support for the resolution, while Israel, the United States and typically a handful of Small Island Developing States in the Pacific Ocean vote against it.

It merits emphasis that, whereas Israel is adamantly opposed to both the annual UN General Assembly resolutions on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Arab Peace Initiative, the government of Iran supports both endeavors.

“Nuclear-free ME or nuclear-free Iran?” 

Experts on Middle East politics and nuclear non-proliferation stress that the successful realization of the initiative for a NWFZ in the Middle East and the Helsinki Conference are of paramount importance for the security of the region.

Mouin Rabbani, who is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies and a Co-Editor of Jadaliyya, points out that nuclear weapons are not the only type of weapon of mass destruction (WMD) found in the Middle East.

“Given that the ME is thoroughly over-saturated with weapons of all kinds, including WMD”, Rabbani notes, “a NWFZ is the only manner of preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”

A former director at the IAEA, Robert Kelley, underlines that “the failure of the important NWFZ conference on the Middle East shows the tenuous nature of the NPT these days.” Kelley elaborates: “if the NPT review conference promises a MENWFZ conference and the NWS cannot even get the critical de facto nuclear weapons state to show up, it is a sign of tremendous weakness.”

Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and Professor Emeritus at MIT, has been among the most vocal supporters of the Helsinki Conference internationally. Commenting on the unilateral US-Israeli decision to cancel the conference, Chomsky maintains that “the essential problem is gaining the agreement of the US not only to attend, but to take the initiative seriously. A coordinated effort by Europe could make a difference, and Finland, as the host nation, could play an important role in this. The primary effort should be in the United States.”

Here Chomsky echoes Rabbani’s analysis. According to Rabbani, “the current American position is to ensure that Israel maintains a nuclear monopoly in the region, a position that is effectively supported by Europe, particularly those states in Europe that continue to knowingly provide Israel with nuclear-capable weapons systems, and even funding them.”

Rabbani emphasizes that to effectively tackle the issue of “Israel’s active and growing nuclear arsenal. . . requires a Western – and particularly – American commitment to a Middle East free of nuclear arms.”

“Until the West begins to advocate a nuclear-free ME rather than just a nuclear-free Iran, the region will remain on the knife’s edge of a potentially catastrophic nuclear arms race”, Rabbani concludes.

Indeed, for the planners of the Helsinki Conference and those who support the notion of a NWFZ in the Middle East and want the initiative to succeed, it is vital to diagnose the security problems in the Middle East accurately and meticulously.

Johannes Hautaviita and Bruno Jäntti are investigative journalists specializing in international politics.