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Q&A: Malcolm Rifkind Sees Little Chance of Israel Discussing a Mideast WMD Ban

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

Former U.K. Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, seen in London in April, said in a recent interview that Israel's continued public silence about its nuclear arsenal makes it unlikely that the country would take part in any formal conference about banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East (Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images). Former U.K. Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, seen in London in April, said in a recent interview that Israel's continued public silence about its nuclear arsenal makes it unlikely that the country would take part in any formal conference about banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East (Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- A leading member of the U.K. Parliament, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, said Israel would be unlikely to participate in a proposed conference to discuss an eventual Middle East ban on weapons of mass destruction, given its continued refusal to publicly acknowledge its own nuclear arsenal and concerns about being singled out for criticism.

"The fact [is] that Israel has nuclear weapons. She's had them for about 30 years," the Conservative member of Parliament said in a late-September interview in his London office.

Rifkind said, though, that he does not believe Israel's atomic arms pose a serious threat to its neighbors.

"They have not destabilized the Middle East, because it is well known that the Israelis have them as an ultimate means of their own defense," he said.

Israel is widely believed to maintain the region's only nuclear arsenal, numbering an estimated 80 or more warheads. Meanwhile, many suspect that Iran has sought to develop its own atomic-arms capability, a prospect that has alarmed much of the world and led to a new interim accord aimed at dialing back Tehran's nuclear potential.

The idea of creating a special WMD-free zone in the Middle East would also extend to a regional ban on chemical and biological arms. A number of Mideast nations are believed to have carried out chemical and biological arms development over the past several decades.

A conference to discuss a potential WMD ban could be held in Helsinki as early as December, after being postponed in late 2012. Rifkind said, though, that any such gathering could simply collapse into counterproductive finger-pointing.

"If there's one thing that unites the Arabs and the Iranians, it is to be anti-Israeli," Rifkind told Global Security Newswire. "So the whole focus of the conference would take the heat off the Iranians and put it on the Israelis, with not the remotest possibility that the Israelis are going to say … 'We have them and if you'd like to come and collect them.'"

For now, he said, "the Israelis are playing along, which is hoping it will go away. And for the meantime, they don't want to make a drama out of a crisis."

The lawmaker noted that in addressing the prospects for an Israeli role in the possible conference, he was speaking more from his mid-1990s experience as foreign secretary in then-Prime Minister John Major’s government, rather than in his current role as chairman of the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.

Prior to his turn as top envoy, Rifkind served under Major as defense secretary. During a nearly 35 years in national politics, he has also held a variety of other leadership posts.

During the wide-ranging interview, the 67-year-old Conservative Party member representing the west London area of Kensington addressed questions about the U.K. nuclear posture, as well as security challenges posed by Iran and Syria.

The Edinburgh native also touched on Scotland’s upcoming referendum for independence -- an idea he opposes -- and explored its potential implications for British security.

Edited excerpts of the Sept. 26 interview follow:

GSN: Is it necessary for the United Kingdom to continue its so-called “CASD” policy, which allows "continuous at-sea deterrence" by keeping at least one nuclear-armed submarine on patrol at all times? Some argue that the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States -- Britain's closest ally -- instead could allow the United Kingdom to field fewer submarines and relax the need for 24/7 patrols.

Rifkind: I think we should continue with continuous at-sea deterrence, [or] CASD. … We have as a matter of policy over the last 25 years reduced our nuclear weapons to the absolute minimum required. …

If we were moving away from CASD, by definition that means that for significant periods of time, there would be no effective deterrent in the event of a sudden emergency.

Now people might say, ‘Well, you’re not going to get a sudden emergency and a crisis would build up.’ Probably that’s right. But [in the event of tensions] … your submarine which was based in its home berth would be seen moving out, thereby escalating what was already a crisis.

So there’s a whole series of considerations. The additional cost of CASD is insignificant. …

GSN: The junior member of the U.K. governing coalition, the Liberal Democrats, are saying that the world environment has changed, and it’s time to adjust the U.K. nuclear posture accordingly.

Rifkind: I don’t question their good faith. But they ignore two fundamental considerations. … I was defense secretary from 1992 to 1995, so I was part of [the post-Cold War nuclear reductions] process. Since the end of the Cold War, we have already made very major reductions in our nuclear-weapon capability to reflect that new situation.

In the 1990s, we had nuclear artillery, nuclear tactical weaponry. We got rid of them all. We had free-fall nuclear bombs from aircraft; we’ve got rid of that. …

Not just the government I was part of, [but also] the successive governments of both Labor and Conservative, have reduced the number of warheads that are carried in the Trident submarines.

So we have already gone about as far as you can go. So the argument that nobody’s been taking notice of what’s changed [in the] international environment simply isn’t true. The United Kingdom [has reduced percentage-wise] more than Russia, France or the United States, in terms of compared to where we started; we’ve done that in each case.

GSN: What do you see as the essential role of the British nuclear deterrent, as distinct from the nuclear umbrella that the United States continues to apply to many NATO member nations without nuclear weapons?

Rifkind: It’s a fair question. … Whatever decision we take has got to be [applicable] for 40 to 50 years. So no one knows what’s going to happen in the next 40 years.

And that’s not just a flip point or a debating point; [what] is fundamental to your defense capability is the unknown. And you can’t decide to get rid of nuclear weapons and then change your mind and expect 12 months later to have reestablished them.

Once you give them up, it takes years -- if it’s possible at all, it would take a decade to recreate a nuclear-weapons capability. …

GSN: What do you see as the most serious future threats that justify Britain’s continued requirement for its own nuclear arsenal?

Being realistic … the only possible aggressor with nuclear weapons over the short to medium term would [be Russia, though it would] not be the present Russian government. … We have problems with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, but not in that sense.

But Russia is not a democratic country. It’s gone backwards over the last 20 years. It’s an authoritarian society. Mr. Putin wants to it remain that way. He doesn’t know any more than the rest of us who might rule Russia [in] 10, 20 years’ time. …

I’m not making a prediction, [but] I’m saying potentially it could be some xenophobic Russian nationalist who uses their nuclear weapons as a means of trying to dominate the countries around them. That’s been historically [the case] -- Russia has always felt it can only guarantee its own security by controlling the territory around it. …

I’m not saying that will happen, but we don’t know what will happen. And therefore [it is unwise] to abandon something you’ve already got. …

Now … my answer comes to the U.S. dimension. … I have no reason to believe that NATO will not be around in 40 years’ time. I have no reason to believe that the United States will no longer be as committed to the defense of Western Europe as it’s been in the past.

However … I can’t be certain of that. America has had isolationist periods in its history. There are many in Congress that are saying, ‘What the heck are we doing defending Western Europe? These are rich, developed countries that are perfectly capable of defending themselves. You know, this is not the Cold War. This is not a Europe which was recently occupied by the Germans, by Hitler, and unable to have all of the economic wealth to defend themselves.’

I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but I can’t exclude it.

[Additionally] why should we assume that the United States would be willing to continue to guarantee by its own nuclear weapons -- at risk to its own security -- the security if those countries in Europe that have nuclear weapons unilaterally give them up?

[It would be wrong to] say, ‘To save money, because we don’t think they’re necessary, we’re going to give up our nuclear weapons. But America, will you please continue to provide us with the same guarantee?’

GSN: Even though the United States has continued to provide that security pledge to all NATO nations, regardless of whether they host or field nuclear weapons?

Rifkind: No, no. That was in everyone’s interests. Nobody wanted proliferation. … Because we were a single alliance and nuclear weapons underpin that alliance, the understanding is we don’t need to have 28 countries all with nuclear weapons. …

The idea that we should [disarm] unilaterally but still expect the Americans to risk their own security in order to protect us would be a gift to the isolationists. …

GSN: Turning to Iran, what signs are you looking for that would give you confidence that Tehran has turned its sights away from developing a nuclear-weapons capability?

Rifkind: … What would be real evidence of a willingness to make the necessary compromises and concessions would be, first of all, to acknowledge that they all have complete transparency and verification procedures: Open access to inspectors and not the constraints that have been imposed upon [inspections], that they should have no reason to refuse unless they have something to hide.

But secondly, what should be done with all the uranium that has been enriched beyond the civilian requirements? That should be handed over. [For] what possible reason should they [retain it]? They say they need it for medical isotopes. Well, I’m not an expert but my understanding is that medical isotopes require a tiny amount -- nothing remotely comparable to what is [believed] being processed. …

The real suspicion is that the most likely intention of the Iranians -- at least up till now -- has not been to develop nuclear weapons but to develop the capability to build nuclear weapons, but to stop just short of it. [They could do so] in a way that would enable them at a time of their own choosing to go that last stage in a very short period of weeks or months.

And now from the point of view of stability of the region, that would be just as dangerous a position for them to adopt as actually having the weapons themselves. … Other countries will not be relaxed simply because they have adopted a self-imposed decision not to go the final step at this particular moment in time, when they could change that view at a time of their choosing. …

GSN: Over what period of time do you think it may become clear whether or not Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei intends to relinquish any capacity to develop nuclear arms?

Rifkind: … It is perfectly possible [for Iran] to say, ‘If we were satisfied that our entitlement to enrich for civil nuclear purposes and our various other fundamental interests would be respected, then we would be prepared to do XYZ.’

There are various ways, when there’s a political will, you can do that.

When people are trying to find a solution, they find a solution. When they’re trying to find problems, they find problems.

And up till now, they’ve been trying to find problems. The only question is whether we’ve moved on from that.

Just to give an example: On the chemical weapons in Syria, the Russians suddenly decide for whatever their reasons, that they want to deliver the dismantling and removal of chemical weapons.

What happens? Within 24 hours, Assad is saying, ‘Yes, Mr. Putin. Yes, I have chemical weapons. Yes, I will provide a full list to the inspectors within a week. … We'll have to wait and see what he delivers.

But even in the words he chooses, he's confirmed more in the space of a week and a half than he has in five years. …

GSN: In agreeing with the Syrian regime about the details of disarming its chemical stockpile, have the United States and its partners erred by recognizing the current Syrian government as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people?

Rifkind: No, certainly not. Why?

GSN: Last year, France, the United Kingdom and United States all declared that the opposition was the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The United States has since signed an agreement in which the regime acts on behalf of Syria, and some say Assad is now in a stronger position going into peace talks.

Rifkind: No, the crucial word is 'legitimate.' No, they're not.

We recognize facts. We recognize the fact that there is a regime in power in Damascus, which controls a substantial part of the country and which controls the chemical weapons.

So obviously they must be involved in getting rid of these chemical weapons. But questions of legitimacy don't come into it. …

GSN: What do you imagine the U.K. role will be going forward regarding Syria, following the late-August parliamentary vote that denied Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to participate in a military strike against the Assad regime? Going forward, do you anticipate London’s role will be essentially diplomatic, or could the U.K. military still play a supporting role if the international community at some point returns to the idea of armed intervention?

Rifkind: The vote doesn't represent any fundamental change in the United Kingdom's foreign policy or willingness to have an act of foreign policy. …

I supported the government, as it happens, on this particular vote. But even those who did not support the government were not calling for an isolationist United Kingdom.

There were two groups of people who voted against the government.

There were those who said at the time of the vote, 'We are not yet satisfied the Assad regime were responsible for the chemical weapons [attack in August just outside Damascus]. We haven't seen enough evidence that points in that direction.'

And this is all part of the legacy of Iraq -- you know, the distrust of assumptions that are being made.

But there [was] also a group of MPs -- quite significant number -- who said, 'Even if we were satisfied that it was the Assad regime that was responsible, we do not believe that a military strike by the United States, with or without the United Kingdom, is the proper response.'

And either because they were concerned it would suck us into the conflict far more than we should be sucked in, or because they thought it would have a destabilizing impact beyond Syria -- in relations with Russia and other countries -- they had various reasons.

So occasionally the United Kingdom and the United States disagree. It doesn't happen very often, but it happens more often than people realize without damaging the fundamental relationship. …

GSN: How do you assess the prospects for U.N.-sponsored efforts to convene an international conference in Helsinki to explore the idea of establishing a ban on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East?

Rifkind: … What this is really about is: Are we entitled to put pressure on Iran while Israel has nuclear weapons? …

The reality is that if Israel has them -- we all know Israel does have them, though she doesn't admit it. The fact [is] that Israel has nuclear weapons. She's had them for about 30 years and they have not destabilized the Middle East, because it is well known that the Israelis have them as an ultimate means of their own defense.

Being a tiny country, if they were faced with a successful conventional attack, that is their ultimate line of defense. And the Arab states all recognize that. And although they don't like it, it's never been a gut issue.

It's only become an issue when Iran -- or people who are supportive of Iran -- have used it as a quid pro quo type argument.

And the concern about Iran's nuclear weapons is nobody believes that the Iranians want nuclear weapons purely to defend themselves.

The fear -- not so much of the Israelis [but] the fear of the Arabs, the Saudis, the [Persian] Gulf states -- is Iran wants nuclear weapons in order to have geopolitical supremacy in the Gulf, to be able to push around the Arabs on issues where they are in disagreement, by being the obvious superpower in the region.

Now, there [are] huge problems between Israel and the Arabs, but that's not one of them. …

GSN: So this raises an interesting conundrum --

Rifkind: What is the point of a conference -- if you had a conference -- first of all, the Israelis are in a quandary: Do they attend or do they boycott? And are you going to be hanged or shot?

And on this issue, the Arabs would combine with the Iranians. So the whole dynamic of a conference would be to put pressure on the Israelis.

And Iran would be sitting back, quite smug, saying, 'Well, you know, if the Israelis concede and get rid of everything, then of course everybody else would have to be acting similarly.'

In other words, it's a tactic, not a strategy.

GSN: Egypt has led the Arab League in calling for the conference, but Cairo has also intimated that it could develop nuclear weapons if Iran develops a nuclear-weapons capacity. How do you read that dynamic?

Rifkind: The interesting thing is [Egypt] has said that; it has never, in practice, said the same with regard to Israel.

GSN: Recently they have cited Israel’s nuclear arms --

Rifkind: I know they have. And it suits them … in terms of the Israel-Palestinian issue.

But the simple political-historical fact is that for 30 years, Israel has had nuclear weapons and the Egyptians haven't even started [developing their own]. Because they've known perfectly well that their problem with Israel is its conventional strength, not its nuclear strength.

The Arab problem with Iran is different. That's a historical rivalry between the Iranians -- the Persians -- and the Arabs, as to who's going to be dominant in their region.

GSN: Can you imagine some way in which this proposed conference could actually advance the idea of Middle East peace? Israel has not ruled out that it would attend, arguing that if the agenda is agreeable, it could take part. Or is that simply a political tactic, in your view?

Rifkind: … Because Israel doesn't even admit to having nuclear weapons, they can quite happily attend on the same basis as Jordan, as Egypt, as a non-nuclear-weapons state.

GSN: That could get a little uncomfortable.

Rifkind: We get into 'Alice in Wonderland' territory.

Now my main concern -- and I suspect it's the Israelis' main concern -- is that if there's one thing that unites the Arabs and the Iranians, it is to be anti-Israeli. So the whole focus of the conference would take the heat off the Iranians and put it on the Israelis, with not the remotest possibility that the Israelis are going to say, 'OK, we give in.'

GSN: The Israelis are unlikely to say, 'We have them and we'll give them up.'

Rifkind: 'We have them and if you'd like to come and collect them --' End of story. That's not going to happen.

So end of conference would be: 'Israel refuses to budge. Israel responsible for lack of --' you know.

It's entirely negative. There is no way it could have a happy ending, from an Israeli point of view.

And it's not just that [it] would upset the Israelis. The Israelis deserve to be upset some of the time; they can do some really dumb things, very stupid things.

But on the nuclear-weapon issue, the real issue that the Middle East has to face is not Israel and nuclear weapons; it's Iran.

Because if it were truly Israel, then the Arab states would be utterly relaxed about Iran with a nuclear weapon. …

GSN: So are you saying that Israel is playing a double game by taking part in these consultations but with no intention of attending a Helsinki conference?

A: The Israelis are playing along, which is hoping it will go away. And for the meantime, they don't want to make a drama out of a crisis …

Do I expect anything to happen? No, I don't. I don't think anybody else does, either.

GSN: Finally, turning to Scotland’s referendum for independence next fall: How do you imagine that could affect U.K. security, given that the Scottish National Party has vowed to eject Britain’s entire fleet of four Trident submarines from its sole home port at Faslane if independence is achieved?

Rifkind: … The Scottish nationalists say -- one of their great arguments is independent Scotland would get rid of Trident.

But an independent Scotland would apply to join NATO. And it's being made clear to them, 'Well, come on! NATO is a nuclear-based alliance. If you think you can make life miserable for NATO by expelling nuclear weapons from Faslane, and at the same time be accepted as a member of NATO, you're living in Cloud Cuckoo-land.'

Now, in a small way, that is relevant to our earlier discussion about what would happen if Britain unilaterally gave up its nuclear weapons.

GSN: Because this would essentially be a forced disarmament?

Rifkind: Yeah, you know, if the United Kingdom gives up its nuclear weapons, it can't automatically assume the United States will take on the burden by itself.

Now, the theoretical, hypothetical possibility of an independent Scotland expelling Trident while it's [applying to join NATO]: You don't apply to join an organization when you're simultaneously undermining its defense capability.

GSN: Would the United Kingdom effectively exercise veto power over a Scottish bid to join NATO if British nuclear arms were evicted from bases in an independent Scotland?

Rifkind: We'd just be the U.K. I don't know -- but my guess would be that the U.S. would also say [no]. …

The American government would be very unhappy for the United Kingdom not to have a nuclear deterrent. …

GSN: What do you think about the possibility of Britain leasing the Faslane home port, as well as the nuclear-warhead storage facility nearby at Coulport?

Rifkind: … Oh, this is the Russian-Ukrainian Sevastopol option! …

Russia still has its main Black Sea naval base in what is now an independent Ukraine. … That's where the Black Sea fleet was based during the Soviet days.

And there was a lease, which was due to run out, and the previous Ukrainian government said you will have to go.

But when [Viktor] Yanukovych won the [2010 presidential] election, he was slightly more pro-Russian, [and] he did a deal with the Russians where in exchange for favorable pricing of gas imports, he gave them 20 years or whatever it was [of] leasing.

GSN: So could something similar happen in Scotland with the U.K. Trident subs?

Rifkind: Who knows? The whole nationalist argument is, 'We don't want nuclear weapons on our territory. And whether you have them leased or in any other way, you still have them on [our] territory.’

So, anyway, this is all hypothetical.

GSN: Because a vote in favor of independence probably won't happen?

Rifkind: It's not probably. It's not going to happen.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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