Oxford Seminar on Nuclear Arms Race
September 2013

SFG co-chaired and participated in an international seminar on motivations for acquiring nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The seminar was hosted by Harris Manchester College of Oxford University in cooperation with Artis Research Group was held in September 2013. It was convened and chaired by the Right Hon. Lord Alderdice, Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party in the House of Lords, and Senior Research Fellow at HMC, Oxford.

The three day closed door seminar had participants from Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, US, UK, and SFG. The focus was on discussing motivations for inflicting organised violence and acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The Lord Alderdice emphasised the need to understand irrational motivations. He pointed out that diplomats and negotiators often act on the basis of rational calculations, but in the real world many influential actors are motivated by drivers which we may consider illogical.

The seminar underscored the importance of futuristic thinking in view of changing dynamics in the Middle East. Only five years ago, Turkey was in a position to negotiate peace agreements between Israel, Palestine Authority and Syria. It was then a respected neutral player. Currently Turkey is on one side of the geopolitical competition in the region. The role of Iran has strengthened. Russia and China, which had marginal presence in the Middle East politics are now important players.

While on one hand, the political situation appears increasingly complex and pessimistic, there are new openings. The election of a President in Iran, who is known for liberal economic thinking and preferred engagement with the West may open possibilities for rapprochement between the United States and Iran. If the window of opportunity in the US-Iran relations is used, it will not take too long to work out a massive bargain including the lifting of sanctions by the United States and the freezing of the nuclear programme at an agreed level by Iran. This may also lead to resolution of the Syrian issue and pave a way for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

If the present window of opportunity in the US-Iran relations is not seized, it could lead to a nuclear arms race between Israel and Iran and continued impasse in Syria. This will also have implications for other countries. Presently, Saudi Arabia and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have announced plans to develop peaceful nuclear power for electricity and desalination within the framework of the NPT regime. In the next 10-15 years, they will have nuclear infrastructure of civilian nature. If Israel-Iran nuclear arms race gathers momentum, the Arab states may also feel tempted to acquire nuclear weapon capability. In such a scenario, Turkey will not remain quiet. Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey is also developing civilian nuclear power. It may also be possible that nuclear arms race in the Middle East will tempt Turkey to develop nuclear weapons. The risk of a deadly arms race in the decade of 2020s in the world’s most challenging region is very real.

Compromises are not easy. A compromise between Israel and Palestine or the United States and Iran would be particularly difficult. However, living with a deadly arms race involving nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction would be even more difficult and dangerous. The seminar at Oxford called for a sombre reflection on changing dynamics and further engagement between thought leaders representing the important countries and forces in the Middle East.