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World powers must start taking steps toward nuclear disarmament

Two minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock remains stuck at its all-time “high,” stressing the acute dangers to the planet of nuclear Armageddon and climate change. This symbolic clock, used by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, serves to highlight the grave dangers we face. In their view, the situation is more serious than even at the height of the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the exception of 1953 — the only other time midnight was so close. 

More states now possess nuclear weapons: A total of nine, although the global figure of nuclear warheads has dropped from a Cold War high of around 70,000 to 14,485. Chemical weapons have been deployed in Syria by both the regime and non-state actors. Ballistic missile technology is spreading. 

The prime fear centers on US-Russian tensions over disarmament. President Donald Trump announced his intention last February to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The US has, for over four years, accused Russia of violating the treaty by deploying its Novator ground-based missile, claiming it violates range limits.

Malcolm Chalmers, of the Royal United Services Institute, warns that: “If the INF treaty collapses, and with the New Start treaty on strategic arms due to expire in 2021, the world could be left without any limits on the nuclear arsenals of nuclear states for the first time since 1972.”

As during the Cold War, the risk register looks bleakest when turning to the Middle East. Regional power rivalries, tensions and a complete lack of trust make for a disturbing mix. Enduring conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are underpinned by a Saudi-Iranian cold war and a failure to even get close to resolving the issue of Palestine. None of this is helped by massive inequalities, wealth disparities and diminishing resources. Climate change serves only to exacerbate all of this. 

What are the international bodies tasked with disarmament doing to diminish this threat? Multilateral bodies are only ever as strong as the will and determination of their members. In the last two years, the trend is moving away from international cooperation to putting national “interests” first. 

Next year will see another of the five-yearly review conferences of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Central to the debate will be, after 25 years, the complete non-implementation of the famous 1995 Middle East resolution that called for all states in the region to accede to the NPT and move to establish a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Not once have we been close to implementing this, primarily because Israel refuses to enter the debate, but also because the US and, to an extent, the UK, have essentially vetoed any step that is not approved by Tel Aviv. 

Publicly, Israel maintains its longstanding position of nuclear ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying its nuclear arsenal. Not one state in the region, let alone further afield, is in any doubt that Israel is a major nuclear power, with 80 to 200 nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them.

Israel views nuclear proliferation as the issue and the reason why it needs to keep its arsenal. Other states see it the other way round — that it is Israel’s nuclear status that drives proliferation. Israel wants regional recognition and full diplomatic ties, amongst other confidence-building measures, before it even considers participating in any disarmament effort linked to the NPT. Hence it refused to attend the proposed Helsinki conference in 2012, effectively killing the initiative off. 

Israel will not relax while it believes Iran craves to be a nuclear power. Benjamin Netanyahu devoutly believes that Iran has no intention of giving up this ambition and will indulge in a whole range of nefarious activities to cover this up and fool any inspection regime. 

Tensions over Iran also threaten to undermine disarmament efforts. For the time being, the International Atomic Energy Agency considers Iran to be in compliance with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015, but for how long given that the US has effectively nixed the economic advantages of sanctions relief for Iran? Tehran has also ramped up its ballistic missile tests from 12 in 2017 to 23 in 2018. The fear is that some hardliners in Iran see its options as getting the bomb or being bombed. 

The only bright spot in recent years for WMD disarmament was Syria. In 2013, Syria did, under massive pressure, sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention and 1,300 tons of declared chemical weapons were destroyed. That said, charges of chemical weapons use continue not just by the regime but, on two occasions, ISIS. One hopes that, whatever undeclared remnants the Syrian regime does possess, is relatively minor and far from the size and potency of the arsenal of old. 

The depressing reality is that next year’s NPT conference is likely to slip into the same bout of recriminations and political grandstanding as before. Israel will not budge. Few states will back Iran. Other states may feel the need to develop their own capabilities. 

Yet, as the clock remains perilously close to midnight, innovative and bold ideas must come to the fore. If disarmament is not possible right now, what confidence-building measures can be implemented? Are there deconfliction mechanisms that might stop a war from happening by mistake? Tick-tock, tick-tock.