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Phyllis Bennis Headshot

'A World Without Nuclear Weapons' Might Still Be Possible

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Washington's current debate over escalation in Afghanistan, the continuing war in Iraq, and the administration's refusal, so far, to exert any serious pressure on Israel, do not bode well for Obama's foreign policy. But in another key conflict area -- Iran -- President Obama appears to be implementing, at least for the moment, his campaign commitment to engage rather than threaten, to use diplomacy rather than force.

The fact that the latest round of U.S.-Iran talks is moving forward despite a deadly attack on Iran's Revolutionary Guard leadership by an organization long linked to the United States, means there is still hope. The October 18 suicide bombing claimed by the Jundullah organization took place near Iran's border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, leaving at least 15 top Guard commanders and many more people dead. While there is no evidence U.S. officials actually supported the attack, it could easily have derailed the talks, ending the sliver of hope that the U.S. would turn towards diplomacy rather than force to resolve its differences with Iran. But Iran allowed the hope to continue, the hope for serious diplomacy that could, just maybe, lead a few steps closer to the "world without nuclear weapons" that President Obama has called for.

But achieving what Obama calls a "world without nuclear weapons" means more than just talking, as earlier U.S. administrations always did, of preventing other countries from obtaining nukes. It means recognizing -- and implementing -- Washington's own obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), obligations to move towards complete nuclear disarmament. That was the NPT's deal -- countries without nuclear weapons, like Iran, agreed not to seek or make such weapons, in return for two things. First, they were promised access to nuclear power and nuclear technology for peaceful uses. Second, though too often conveniently forgotten, was the commitment by the Nuke Five - the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia -- to get rid of their nuclear weapons. That's Article VI of the NPT.

And reaffirming that commitment should be the starting point of any U.S. negotiations over anyone else's nuclear weapons.

Diplomatic engagement with Iran requires real engagement, recognizing both sides' rights as well as obligations. If negotiations with Iran mean Washington just goes through the motions, just to be able to say "we tried" before an inevitable escalation to harsher sanctions or even military strikes later on, diplomacy doesn't stand a chance.

So what should real nuclear engagement with Iran look for? One great medium-term goal would be the creation of a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone across the entire over-armed and volatile Middle East. A number of countries in the region have argued for such a zone for years, including U.S. allies such as Egypt. Iran would almost certainly be very interested. But there's a catch: there's a powerful nuclear weapons arsenal already in the Middle East, whose very existence is instigating a regional nuclear arms race, while undermining all disarmament and non-proliferation efforts. That arsenal belongs to a member of the small group of outlaw countries that have refused even to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its arsenal is widely known, but not officially acknowledged, and the UN's nuclear watchdog agency has never been allowed to inspect the hundreds of high-density nuclear bombs in its arsenal.

That country is Israel. And Obama, so far, has accepted Israel's policy of "strategic ambiguity," in which Tel Aviv refuses to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal. Israel rejects a nuclear weapons-free zone, because it would mean having to open its nukes to immediate international inspection and then quickly getting rid of them. Other countries that built and tested nuclear weapons, such as India and Pakistan in 1998, faced serious U.S. sanctions. But the U.S. refuses to hold Israel accountable for its dangerous nuclear weapons.

Similar nuke-free zones in other parts of the world -- in Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and (now pending) in Africa and Central Asia -- play important roles in shaping public and diplomatic discourse over ending wars, avoiding future wars, protecting impoverished and endangered peoples. Regional nuclear-free zones set the stage for global campaigns to strengthen the NPT and enforce the obligations of the five nuclear weapons states -- all of whom are currently violating their Article VI disarmament obligations.

A nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East would mean Israel would have to get rid of its nukes. Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and everyone else in the region would continue their current obligation not to create nuclear weapons. And the U.S. would be prohibited from sending nuclear weapons on ships, subs or planes into the no-nuke zone.

The great secret -- Obama's top officials may not even have been briefed about it -- is that support for such a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East is already U.S. policy. In 1991, the U.S. drafted the United Nations resolution that ending Operation Desert Storm, the first U.S. war against Iraq. Article 14 of that resolution calls for "establishing in the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and all missiles to deliver them." The whole region -- no exceptions. And Council resolutions are binding, so now it's the law -- for the U.S. and the whole world - enshrined in Security Council resolution 687.

A nuclear weapons-free zone would allow everyone in the Middle East to sleep a little better. And it would make future negotiations -- over issues including Iran's nuclear power facilities and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- much more likely to succeed.

If Obama is serious about "a world without nuclear weapons," he should be leading global efforts towards real nuclear disarmament -- and he could begin by talking with Iran about supporting a nuclear weapons-free zone. Ironically, he wouldn't even need to change U.S. policy. He just needs to acknowledge and make good on what official policy -- and the law -- already require.