States That Talk Don't Shoot

For the Netanyahu government, the potential of a forthcoming policy to undermine a more assertive Iran is enormous. This could include using the conference as a means to address overall regional security concerns.

Bernd W. Kubbig, Roberta Mulas, Christian Weidlich
Bernd W. Kubbig, Roberta Mulas, Christian Weidlich

With the increasingly shrill rhetoric characterizing discussion of Iran's nuclear program, a unique, nonviolent means for addressing the threat is being overlooked. A conference planned for later this year in Finland will be devoted to discussing how to free the Middle East from all categories of weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, biological and chemical warheads, plus their means of delivery. Preparations for this event have been ongoing since Finnish Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava was selected as the facilitator. This initiative stands ready for the countries of the Middle East and represents the best alternative between military strikes and living with a nuclear Iran.

Instead of a public discourse focusing on the feasibility and desirability of attacking Iran, more fundamental questions regarding the security of Israel need to be explored. Air strikes might appear to bring short-lived gains, but they will not increase overall security in the long run. If history is any guide, sustainable security cannot be organized against adversaries, but only in cooperation with them. This is what the city of Helsinki stands for: Beginning in the 1970s, within the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE ), representatives from each side of the Iron Curtain discussed and negotiated agreements that brought the Cold War to an end, without any bloodshed.

This could happen again, but it requires the antagonists to sit at the same table. The Israeli government has not yet confirmed its participation in the conference. This is surprising, since for more than three decades now, the concept of a zone free of nuclear-weapons (later expanded to all weapons of mass destruction) has been unanimously endorsed at the United Nations each year, with the support of Israel. The same holds true for Iran, which was even a co-sponsor of the original resolution. With the advent of the 2012 conference, all Middle Eastern states have the opportunity to demonstrate that their voting is more than a ritual, and that they are prepared to seriously discuss and later negotiate an incremental path to such a zone.

The conference mandate clearly states that all arrangements will be "freely arrived at" by the states of the region. For Israel, this means not being forced into a process that might decrease its security. Yet, only participating states can set and shape the agenda. Israel, Iran and all the other states will have the opportunity at that forum to express their security concerns and foreign policy interests. Moreover, the mandate comprises not only nuclear armaments but also biological and chemical weapons, plus their delivery vehicles. All of them can be discussed "en bloc," allowing the fixation on the nuclear dimension to be considerably reduced, thereby increasing the possibilities for trade-offs and compromises.

The conference, with its confidential procedures and its comprehensive format, will offer a venue for what is most needed - direct regional dialogue, especially among the five most critical countries: Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The shape and fate of the Middle East will largely depend on establishing reliable lines of communication among these players: States that talk to each other do not shoot at one another.

This five-fold constellation shows that Israel and Iran are only part of a broader picture. A number of experts, among them some Israelis, have rightly emphasized that the Iranian nuclear and missile programs are not primarily directed against Israel. The implication of this finding is tremendous for Israel's policy: Despite Tehran's unacceptable rhetoric, it reduces the pressure to act militarily. Overly optimistic as it may seem, providing the proper forum for direct dialogue may open new opportunities. Already now, Ambassador Laajava, if asked, may be willing to help in de-escalating the current tensions.

Can the conference be used by Iran as a smokescreen for a relentless and clandestine arms build-up? Yes, but addressing Tehran's motives in a constructive way can help reduce its ambitions. Among the manifold domestic, historic and regional driving factors, Iran's number 1 security concern is the United States. While Israel sees existential threats coming from Iran, Tehran sees its regime being threatened by Washington. Hence, credible security assurances are important for both.

For the Netanyahu government, the potential of a forthcoming policy to undermine a more assertive Iran is enormous. This could include using the conference as a means to address overall regional security concerns. A two-track approach, with parallel peace and disarmament talks, should be favored. Israel could be the big winner with such an approach. The Arab Peace Initiative can be a central element for redefining Israel's relationship with the Arab world, especially in view of the underestimated opportunities of the Arab Spring.

The 2012 conference offers unique possibilities for Israel to discuss directly with its allies and major adversaries all issues that are central to its security. Intelligence assessments within Israel and the U.S. suggest that there is enough time for Prime Minister Netanyahu to seize the conference, with its zonal concept, as a promising window of opportunity. Like the rocky and long CSCE process during the Cold War, such a path could become a success story, proving that real security for all can be best reached by a combination of broad cooperation and military restraint.

Bernd W. Kubbig, Roberta Mulas and Christian Weidlich coordinate the international experts group Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East and edit the Policy Briefs series on the planned Middle East Conference at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.

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