Warding off risks from Iran’s nuclear plans

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Iran’s development of nuclear power provides an opportunity for reaching an accord on a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ). Talks between Iran and representatives of the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China can help develop a consensus to ward off a possible Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran.

The call for such a zone in the Middle East was first issued in 1974. That year the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for all countries in the region “to declare that they will refrain from producing, acquiring or in any way possessing nuclear weapons and nuclear explosive devices, and from permitting the stationing of nuclear weapons in their territory by any third party.”

On Sept. 17, in a nonbinding ballot, the International Atomic Energy Agency adopted a resolution, 100-1 with four abstentions, urging all Mideast nations to forswear atomic bombs. Israel voted “no” because the resolution retained a clause calling “upon all states in the region to accede” to the Nonproliferation Treaty.

A nuclear-armed Iran is of concern not only to Israel but also to Arab states in the region. Iran’s weapons development could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would divert precious resources from economic development and have serious consequences for peace and stability in the region.

The establishment of nuclear-free zones in other parts of the world has been an effective deterrent to nuclear proliferation. Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and Africa are all NWFZs. Since the establishment of that status, no country in these regions has sought nuclear weapons capability.

Only the U.S. has the clout to revive discussions to create a Middle East NWFZ. Such a move would be consistent with President Barack Obama’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons, and would eliminate the main threat to peace in the region. The U.S. could provide security guarantees to both Iran and to Israel.

In Iran’s case, the U.S. could reaffirm adherence to the 1981 Algiers Accord (brokered by Algiers to resolve the Iran hostage crisis), one provision of which is that the U.S. will not intervene politically or militarily in Iran’s internal affairs.

The U.S. could also remove its freeze on Iranian assets and trade sanctions on Iran, while offering Israel additional security guarantees to reaffirm America’s sustained support for that country’s political and security aims.

Incorporating the NWFZ into discussions with Iran would indicate a paradigm shift toward an effective road to peace in a region of the world where war has exacted a terrible price.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., a cowinner of the Overseas Press Club of America award, writes on human rights issues and foreign affairs.