GENEVA – International experts on nuclear proliferation and former government officials said a nuclear-free Middle East was a long-term possibility, and some voiced criticism of Israel’s tough stance on Iran nuclear negotiations.
The International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe held a conference in Geneva on Tuesday to advance ways of dealing with the growing threats to the nonproliferation regime and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
Large portions of the conference were closed to the press.
Viatcheslav Kantor, the president of the forum and also a prominent Russian-Jewish figure and philanthropist, said it was incidental that the conference was taking place at the same time and in the same city as the bilateral talks between the US and Iran.
Referring to recent growing tensions between the West and Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine, Kantor emphasized that “political issues” should not affect efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.
“Iran is probably close to delivery vehicles,” he said, “but it probably does not have the engineering environment to produce these on an industrial scale.”
He added that it was “unquestionable” that Iran was striving for nuclear weapons, but he felt the real worry should be about the “commercialization of the capability and dirty bombs.”
Talks about a nuclear-free Middle East are “way ahead of current reality,” but the idea could be pondered in the longterm, Kantor added.
Vladimir Dvorkin, one of Russia’s leading experts on nuclear weapons and chairman of the Luxembourg Forum’s organizing committee, said that an envisioned agreement with Iran would involve monitoring to slow down its progress, but that the situation “looks similar to the North Korean experience.”
“Russia’s position has remained constant over decades and boils down to saying there is no alternative to a diplomatic solution. Along with this, Russia reiterated a proposal to deny Iran full enrichment cycle capability,” Dvorkin said.
He added that Russia had always opposed new countries attaining nuclear weapons, pointing out that the only difference between Russia’s position and that of other countries was in the attitude toward sanctions.
Former UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Hans Blix told The Jerusalem Post in an interview at the conference that an Iran nuclear deal was desirable even if it was weaker than the one sought, since “the alternatives are terrible.”
Blix, who was in Iran in May – where he gave TV interviews and met with Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif – believes that 70 percent of Iran’s motivation for continuing its nuclear program is “self-respect” and 30% is due to “need.” Iran wants to be integrated back into the world, unlike North Korea, he said.
“The threat of force or an attack would be counterproductive,” as an attack could actually trigger Iran to push aggressively for nuclear weapons, he said.
Asked if a deal with Iran would be problematic because it would be impossible to verify compliance completely, Blix responded, “Israel is never going to get 100% security in this world.”
He seemed confident that there were other ways besides inspections to monitor Iran’s program, such as via intelligence- gathering methods and satellites.
Israeli intelligence is very good and on top of Iran, he added, and “maybe finds more than there is.”
Blix agreed with Israel’s concern over the Fordow uranium enrichment plant, but said the Israeli argument “to close the Fordow plant is a bit crude, since it is the only one it cannot bomb.”
Regarding the idea of a nuclear-free Middle East, Blix asserted it would be good for Israel, but, like Kantor, said it was a long-term idea.
“Everyone knows Israel has nukes,” he said, and as such, he understood Israel’s concern about being in the spotlight during such talks rather than Iran.
The spotlight “should be on both,” he asserted.
Other countries in the region besides Iran have undeveloped nuclear programs, the most well-advanced being Algeria and Egypt, he said, adding that Turkey could achieve success if its planned nuclear plants were built with the help of Russia and Japan.
Eugene Habiger, a member of the board of directors of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a retired former four-star US Air Force General, told the Post he was optimistic that the US would be able to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, and would support a deal if reached.
Asked about Israel’s concern that the deal currently under consideration would leave Iran with the capability to produce nuclear weapons, the former general responded that “Israelis want a perfect world,” but the US was taking a “more practical stance.”
In international politics, compromise is necessary, and this is the reality, he said.
Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament program at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former career US diplomat who dealt with nonproliferation issues during his last 10 years of service, told the Post that “the fact that the talks are taking place on a bilateral basis is an indication of the seriousness with which the parties are approaching this.”
The world powers and Iran are going to realize that a deal will not be possible by the July 20 deadline, he said, and “I am 100% sure everyone will agree to extend them,” because the alternative is worse.
Asked about Israel’s concern that a deal would not be completely verifiable, as Iran could still clandestinely continue toward nuclear weapons, Fitzpatrick, who served as deputy assistant secretary for non-proliferation at the US State Department, responded that “anyone who says a deal has to be totally verifiable does not want a deal, because they know this is not possible.”
A deal would involve intrusive inspections, he noted.
As for the Luxembourg Forum conference and the coming together of Russian and Western experts at a time when relations are strained over Ukraine, he said that one could sense the tensions during the closed session, but noted that “even during the height of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow cooperated on arms control.”
He thinks Israel should not drop its nuclear policy of ambiguity, as “it would force Egypt and other countries to take more problematic stances themselves.”
Jayantha Dhanapala, the president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs – which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for efforts to dismantle nuclear arms – told the Post that “Israel is in no position to preach on Iran, as it already proliferated itself.”
Dhanapala, who is the acting chairman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and a career Sri Lankan diplomat who has held senior posts at the United Nations, believes that on this issue “the US is sufficiently hard-headed” not to give up too much to Iran in negotiations.
“The current political atmosphere in Iran needs to be seized,” he asserted, noting that the IAEA had lately been making positive statements regarding Iran’s compliance.