First published in The Drum on 11 April 2013.
Despite Australia's obvious national interests in the Middle East, our leaders have been strangely silent about the alarming security threats in that region, write Joseph A Camilleri and NAJ Taylor.
Weapons of mass destruction - biological, chemical and nuclear - are once again buzz words in the international corridors of power. In Australia, North Korea has attracted media headlines, but the more disturbing and far less predictable situation unfolding in the Middle East has yet to receive the attention it deserves.
The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iran nuclear dispute, Western-led interventions, popular uprisings, conflict in Syria, and actual and potential regime changes have combined to create a highly volatile and dangerous security environment in that region.
In 2011 there were serious concerns that Libya's chemical weapons stockpiles, though scheduled for destruction under international supervision, might nevertheless make their way to local non-state armed groups or to neighbouring states. The United States has at different times pointed to the risk of cross-border proliferation of both chemical and biological weapons from Syria, as well as possible deployment of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in the current conflict that has devastated the country.
Tensions have also arisen in relation to Iran's atomic energy program, with the United States and the European Union accusing Iran of surreptitiously pursuing an active nuclear weapons capability. Tough economic sanctions have been imposed as a way of forcing Iran to abandon its current uranium enrichment program. In both Israel and the United States, influential voices have called for pre-emptive and preventative military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
And in the meantime, Israel persists with its policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of its nuclear arsenal, widely thought to comprise between 75 and 200 nuclear weapons. Declassified documents are reported to show that in the 1970s Israel was actively engaged in negotiations for the sale of nuclear-equipped Jericho missiles to the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In June last year, Spiegel reported that Israel was equipping German-built submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
It is against this background that at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, the United States, Britain and Russia committed to work together with the UN secretary general to convene a regional conference in 2012 to discuss "a Middle East zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery". It was also agreed that these four parties would identify a government willing to facilitate and host such a conference. With Finland agreeing to take on this role, it was widely expected that the conference would be held in December 2012.
Regrettably, this important step has yet to materialise. Last November, the US unilaterally announced that the initiative would be postponed for lack of agreement among regional parties on acceptable conditions for the holding of such a conference. It was widely understood that Israel was the holdout state, unofficially citing as the reason lack of progress on the settlement of key conflicts in the Middle East. Nonetheless, while acquiescing to US pressure, the other three co-conveners issued statements calling for the conference to be held at the earliest possible date in 2013.
In all of this, Australia has remained strangely silent. Yet, Australian governments, including the present one, have repeatedly pointed to Australia's exemplary conduct in support of arms control treaties, notably the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention. The silence is all the more puzzling given Australia's recent success in gaining a seat on the United Nations Security Council - the result of a long and costly campaign in which Australia consistently argued that it was uniquely qualified to make a significant contribution to building a more secure international order.
How, then, are we to make sense of this glaring contradiction?
One explanation, often implied though seldom clearly stated, is that the Middle East is a long way from Australia, and that what happens there does not engage Australia's primary national interests. This is hardly a compelling line of argument - historically or in the present strategic, economic or political context.
The Middle East has in fact been critical to Australia's security and foreign policies during the entire post-1945 period. Australian governments have committed military and police personnel to numerous UN peace operations in the Middle East, including the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (1956) and specific taskforces and commissions relating to Lebanon (1958); Yemen (1963-1964); Israel-Syria and the Golan Heights (1974 to present); Egypt-Israel (1973-1979, 1982-1986, and then 1993 to present); the Iran-Iraq War (1988-1991); Saddam's invasion of Kuwait (1991); persecution of Kurd's in Eastern Turkey and Northern Iraq (1991); Iraq (1991-1998); Kuwait (1998); and most recently, Australia's involvement in the US-led war in Iraq (2003-2009).
In addition, the Middle East has assumed increased economic significance for Australia, with merchandise exports to the region rising annually by over 5 per cent in the five-year period from 2005 to 2010. In 2011, two-way merchandise trade with Saudi Arabia was over $2.1 billion and with the United Emirates, just under $6 billion. It is thought likely that in the next few years Australia will acquire increasing importance for Gulf states as they develop their food security and educational development strategies.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that Australia has been host to significant migration from the Middle East, in particular from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey. Many of these Australians are following events in the Middle East with apprehension, providing whatever help they can to relatives and friends whose lives are at risk.
The Middle East clearly does matter to Australia.
How, then, are we to explain Australia's relative inaction when it comes to supporting moves to denuclearise the Middle East? The only plausible explanation is the close relationship with the United States. Australia's political leaders appear unwilling to say or do anything that might be construed in Washington as conflicting with US priorities and preferences.
What might a more independent Australia do to promote a Middle East WMD-free Zone? Four modest but important initiatives suggest themselves. The first would be a prime ministerial statement strongly supporting the establishment of such a zone and explaining how this objective is in line with Australia's security and economic interests.
Secondly, Australian diplomacy could use the various channels available to it to encourage the convenors of the Helsinki Conference and regional states to work together in good faith to ensure the conference is held this year.
Thirdly, government funding could be made available to academic, intergovernmental and civil society initiatives in support of this goal. Lastly, a progress report should be presented to Parliament outlining steps already taken and further steps contemplated as preparations get underway for the 2015 NPT Review Conference.
In all it does, Australia will need to act in concert with like-minded governments and through appropriate international forums, especially but not only the UN Security Council. Care should also be taken to consult with and involve countries in our region - in particular countries including China, Japan, India that can wield significant influence, but also the ASEAN countries which can share their knowledge and experience in establishing the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.
It is time for Australia's political leaders to seize a unique opportunity to respond to one of the defining challenges of our time.
Professor Joseph A Camilleri has just completed seven years as founding director of the Centre for Dialogue.
NAJ Taylor is a research associate at the Centre for Dialogue, and a doctoral researcher in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland.