Mideast Arms Control: Attainable Dream or Desert Mirage?

Article excerpt

A news item in The New York Times calls back the dream expressed by a prominent Saudi businessman and former senior diplomat during the last hours of Desert Storm. In an interview in his Jiddah office in early March, he said: "The Middle East should become a zone free of all military weapons and equipment. I favor the disarmament of all Arab states as well as Israel. We should get rid of all weapons -- nuclear, chemical and even the conventional ones."

He said the arms race now underway is a dreadful drain on the entire region, and warned of an impending explosion that could engulf the entire region and beyond: "The amount of explosive power that is already concentrated in this small part of the world is beyond comprehension. It's like living on top of a volcano. A tragic eruption can occur at almost any instant, and it may not be deliberate."

The businessman predicted that the victory in the Gulf would actually stimulate arms purchases in the Middle East: "Every state is already looking with envy and anxiety at the smart weapons that proved so effective against Iraq. All will want as many of these advanced instruments of war as they can possibly secure. They will feel insecure without them. The appetite for weapons is insatiable. It is worse today than a year ago. There is no let-up in sight."

The New York Times item that caught my attention reported President Bush's proposal for a regional arms control agreement. It is viewed by some observers as President Bush's backup plan for a more peaceful Middle East, now that Israeli stubbornness seems to block all prospects for a successful exchange of land for peace.

With hopes fading for negotiations, President Bush's arms control plan now takes the center of the political stage.

It would limit missiles to a 90-mile range, prohibit the production of nuclear weapons materials, and require all governments to get rid of chemical weapons. It would also require international inspection of chemical and nuclear facilities, including Israel's Dimona reactor.

Another feature is a requirement that the permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China -- inform each other of weapons sales they plan to make in the region. The implication is that this requirement will inhibit the permanent members from making such sales.

If adopted, would this proposal be at least a step toward the realization of the Saudi businessman's dream? Unfortunately, other detail -- the fine print -- discloses a strong bias favoring Israel's interests.

For example, the proposed prohibition that relates to nuclear materials is limited to production, not possession. Under the terms of the plan, Israel could keep its nuclear weapons and thus retain its favored position as the only nuclear power in the region.

A point of concern is Israel's persistent attempt to purchase from the Soviet Union a 500-megawatt nuclear power plant. Israel says it wants the generator only to produce electricity and desalinate water, but acquisition would constitute a substantial advance for Israel's nuclear weapons program. Weapons-grade plutonium can easily be processed from the generator's spent fuel.

Israel may already have an abundance of material to meet conceivable future needs. Intelligence services determined years ago that Israel has an inventory of scores of nuclear weapons.

US favoritism toward Israel in the arms control proposal is all the more remarkable because Israel, unlike its Arab neighbors, still refuses to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear plants in Arab states are open to international inspection. Plants in Israel are not.

One thing is clear: no other state in the region has nuclear weapons or the capacity to produce them.

The US administration defends Israel's exclusive control over nuclear weapons in the region with this limp rationale: "Israel could not be expected to give up its existing nuclear arsenal until a durable peace is established in the region. …

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