Comment: Israel, not Iran, is the biggest obstacle to a nuclear-free Middle East

By Jeremy Corbyn MP

Last Tuesday I asked the foreign secretary about progress towards the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free Middle East, as a vital component of ensuring peace in the region. The reply was: "We have no chance of achieving a nuclear-free Middle East as long as Iran persists in a programme that the world suspects is a nuclear military programme."

Of course, this programme – one that is 'suspected' by Hague, but not confirmed – is not the real stumbling block in establishing a new nuclear-free zone, but Israel's already- existing arsenal.

The prospect of the Middle East being free of weapons of mass destruction was revived by the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. Its final document reaffirmed the NPT signatory, stating "endorsement of the aims and objectives of the Middle East peace process", and recognised that efforts in that regard would contribute "to a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction". The document explicitly made the commitment to a regional conference to advance discussions.

That meant that Iran, as an NPT signatory, signed up to the proposal but Israel, having never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and developed its own nuclear weapons in secret, did not. But given the support for the document by the US, one could be forgiven for hoping Israel could be convinced to attend.

Since then the key movers behind the conference proposal, including the UK, have announced a host nation and facilitator in Finland and the willingness to host the conference before the end of 2012. But will Israel attend?

The Israeli ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, was recently quoted as stating that the country would only be willing to join a nuclear-free zone "when there will be comprehensive peace in the region. Before that we feel that this is something that is absolutely not relevant".

This is extremely worrying. Israel's refusal to countenance, or even discuss, nuclear disarmament before being satisfied, on its own terms, that there is comprehensive peace in the region shows how far we are from reaching that goal. Its existing nuclear arsenal and its threats of pre-emptive strikes are a cause of destabilisation and a threat to peace in the region.

The conference must take place and Israel must attend. It must admit to its possession of nuclear weapons and be prepared to discuss in detail what it has so far developed. We need to get to a situation where all nuclear sites in the region are open for independent inspection and examination, and that, in turn, disarmament not only takes place, but can be independently verified to the satisfaction of neighbouring states.

Iran must agree to this, and so must Israel. But let us be under no illusion where the greatest stumbling block lies. It is the state which has developed these weapons of mass destruction in secret, and which remains unwilling to discuss their existence with its neighbours. William Hague and the UK government should see this and put all their efforts into making the conference a successful stepping stone to achieving a peaceful Middle East.

Jeremy Corbyn is MP for Islington North

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