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A Basis for Hope in the Middle East

by William Lambers on Apr 25, 2005

William Lambers

Everyone realizes that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave threat to the Middle East. But even a resolution to the Iranian nuclear dispute won’t remove the vicious cycle of hostility and arms buildups in the region. Only by establishing confidence-building measures among all nations in the Middle East can this be achieved.

In an area filled with animosities this idea may seem hopelessly idealistic, yet the Cold War enemies, the United States and the Soviet Union, learned to build confidence and trust. A key step for the Americans and Soviets was the 1986 Stockholm Conference, which sought to reduce tensions in Europe. The Conference produced agreement on the advance notification of military exercises by the Soviet Union, the United States, Canada and 32 European nations. Military maneuvers exceeding a certain size could be observed by each nation. These were major breakthroughs with regard to on-site inspection into the Soviet Union–an idea the Soviets had been rejecting for decades.

The Stockholm breakthrough set the stage for nuclear arms reductions at a time of great peril. In Eastern Europe, the Soviets had stationed SS-20 missiles that could unleash multiple nuclear warheads against U.S. allies. The United States placed its Pershing II nuclear missiles in West Germany during 1983 to counter the Soviet missile threat. These new, powerful and deadly accurate weapons sent fear rippling throughout Europe.

In the Middle East today, the growing missile capability of Iran, Syria, and Israel is causing alarm. As it was during the Cold War, arms control is necessary to confront this threat. But this can only be achieved through enhanced cooperation and trust throughout the Middle East.

Think of what such cooperation would mean for the new government of Iraq, which is surrounded by heavily armed nations. The Iraqi people could devote their resources to health care, food and science instead of armaments to counter external threats. Iraq is more likely to thrive in a region reliant on trust rather than the sword. But for this to become a reality, there must be an accumulation of goodwill. Like the Soviet-American negotiations during the Cold War, it will be a daunting task.

President Reagan stated the policy — “trust but verify” — when the Soviets and Americans agreed to eliminate their nuclear missiles in Europe during 1987. Without the establishment of on-site inspection at Stockholm, there could have been no such landmark nuclear arms reductions. “Trust but verify” would be an integral part of a Middle East peace process and could take root in an agreement similar to Stockholm’s.

Establishing on-site inspection would lead to arms control treaties verified by members of each Middle Eastern state. These actions would rein in the region’s growing missile capability and rid the area of weapons of mass destruction. Such a long-term goal is clearly in the best interests of Iraq and other nations in the region. But a gradual process to build trust must precede it.

There’s basis for hope. During the 1990s, a group of Middle Eastern nations, including Israel, agreed to notify each other in advance of military exercises and invite representatives to inspect these maneuvers. These agreements were never implemented because talks broke down owing to the controversy over Israel’s own nuclear capability. These talks should resume by adopting the Stockholm model. They should focus solely on confidence-building measures involving all Middle East nations and including mandatory inspection for relevant military exercises.

Until trust is established between all nations in the Middle East, such as that achieved to end the Cold War, a Middle East peace will remain elusive. The new Iraq government and its neighbors will continue to dwell in a region full of suspicions and heavy armaments. A hostile future will await them.


William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book “Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World” (2009).