A Nuclear-Free Mirage

The Middle East cannot be freed from weapons of mass destruction unless the US turns the spotlight on Israel

As Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, finalizes his report on Iran's nuclear program, the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, has been promoting the "historic idea" of a Middle East free from weapons of mass destruction.This overlaps with a goal adopted by the UN security council back in 1991 when resolution 687 talked about "the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region of the Middle East".

The resolution, approved after the expulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, had eight paragraphs dealing with Iraq's programs in biological, chemical, and nuclear arms, and made clear that sanctions were to be lifted if, and only if, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other UN inspectors had given Iraq a clean bill of health regarding its WMD activities.

Paragraph 14 notes "that the actions under paragraphs 8-13 of this resolution represent steps towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons".

However, there is a subtle but important difference between a WMD-free Middle East and the establishment of a WMD-free zone "in" the Middle East as set out in resolution 687. The resolution does not attempt to define the zone (at least, not beyond Iraq) and the word "in" suggests such a zone might not apply to the whole of the Middle East.

Presumably this omission was not accidental, though the idea of a WMD-free zone covering only parts of the region makes no sense. The objective of a Middle East free of WMDs can be achieved only if Israel is also declared free of them by IAEA and other UN inspectors.

In defiance of the security council resolution 487 of June 1981, Israel has not placed its nuclear facilities, whether civilian or military, under IAEA safeguards.

Indeed, while it is an open secret that Israel's nuclear facility at Dimona started producing atom bombs in 1968, and that it has built up an arsenal of some 200 nuclear bombs, it has not officially acknowledged the existence of such activity.

Moreover, Israel has ongoing biological and chemical weapons programs. The Israeli Institute for Biological Research (IIRB) at Nes Ziona, south of Tel Aviv, established in 1952, is the Israeli military and intelligence community's front organization for developing, testing and producing biological and chemical weapons. Access to Nes Ziona is denied even to the members of the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defence committees concerned about the health risks to the residents of the area.

The US Office of Technology Assessment for Congress reported in 1993 that Israel had "undeclared offensive chemical warfare capabilities" and was 'generally reported as having an undeclared offensive biological weapons program.' In that year the Israeli government acknowledged that Marcus Klinberg, deputy head of the IIRB, was given 20 years sentence in solitary confinement in 1983 for leaking information on Israel's biological weapons program to the Soviet Union. In 1998, despite the protest by Nes Ziona's residents, the government extended the IIRB site by a further 41 acres.

Unless Washington takes a lead on turning the spotlight on Israel's WMD, the idea of the WMD-free Middle East will remain empty rhetoric.

© 2023 The Guardian