To what extent can agreements on nuclear disarmament between the superpowers contribute to the reduction of tensions in regional conflicts, particularly in the Middle East?

Disarmament agreements are not perceived by the United States and the Soviet Union in the same way. The arms race adversely affects the Soviet economy, but it is highly profitable to many “defense” corporations in developed capitalist societies. Disarmament is a strategic objective for Gorbachev’s perestroika, but for Reagan it seems to represent a tactical option aimed at restoring his credibility after the Iran-Contra scandal and last October’s economic crash. Gorbachev is interested in making the process irreversible while Reagan’s interest lies, rather, in displacing the arms race from nuclear to chemical or conventional weapons, where no agreement has yet been reached.

Such uncertainties threaten to further exacerbate regional conflicts and heat up what the Reagan Doctrine calls “low-intensity conflicts.” Whatever the ambiguities of the new international situation, the superpowers seem to have become more aware that, in the nuclear age, the very survival of the human species is at stake. But nuclear war is not the only threat. At many levels, the world must be either one or none; all two-world dichotomies — East-West, North-South, summit-base — must accommodate this new rationality.

In obvious contrast with Stalin’s doctrine that the “two world camps” are irreconcilable, Gorbachev is championing a new “globalist” outlook. At the 70th anniversary ceremonies of the Bolshevik Revolution, he declared that “for all the profound contradictions of the contemporary world, it is interrelated, interdependent and integral.” Indeed, the threat of war extending to outer space, industrial pollution, the unpredictable adverse side-effects of contemporary technology on the ecosystem, the information revolution, the growing scarcity of the earth’s resources — all these are problems that do not, by their very nature, concern only part of the globe. No political frontiers, no national sovereignty prerogatives can prevent them from affecting the planet as a whole.

But in a world where the law of uneven development still prevails, parity between protagonists is the exception, not the rule. Military parity may apply to the superpower equation but not to belligerents in most regional conflicts. The principle of resolving disputes by peaceful means is impeded by the fact that the weaker parties are bound to interpret peace settlements as surrender rather than as a “no victor, no vanquished” outcome.

One prerequisite for nuclear disarmament has been the elaboration of ingenious measures of mutual verification, including on-site inspection. For parties to a conflict that are unequal, such interdependence smacks of interference and appears to violate the weaker state’s national sovereignty. For Third World countries, the main issue is national independence. They see interdependence between unequal partners as concealing new relationships of dependency and promoting new forms of neocolonialism. In the Middle East, Israel’s nuclear capability endows the inequality between the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict with a unique character. Unlike the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals, Israel’s is undeclared; any freeze, reduction or elimination cannot be subject to negotiation. Israeli policy-makers stick to the assumption that Israel must always maintain absolute military superiority over the military power of all Arab states combined. Israel must not only possess nuclear weapons, but must also have the means to prevent neighboring Arab states from acquiring any. For Israel, this circle extends to at least Pakistan eastward and Libya westward. This is the logic behind Israel’s 1981 raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear facility, regardless of guarantees by its French designers that the plant was for peaceful purposes only.

There can be no lasting peace in the Middle East if states in the region remain divided into nuclear and non-nuclear tiers. One nuclear protagonist is a permanent invitation to the other protagonists to also go nuclear. Moreover, a regional nuclear arms race can threaten progress in the global drive towards nuclear disarmament.

A solution must be found to the factors which have induced Israel into becoming an undeclared nuclear power in the first place. Israel must understand that, in the nuclear age, no state however strong or even the superpowers can ensure its security alone and against a large number of countries in its neighborhood. An international conference on the Middle East is absolutely necessary, but it will not fulfill its task if the effective denuclearization of the entire region is not included as a key item in the peace guarantees.

How to cite this article:

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed "Nuclear Summits and the Middle East," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).

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