I am truly honored to speak at the 13th Herzliya Conference. During my years as Ambassador to Israel, I had the opportunity to appreciate what a peak of excellence this forum represents in producing deep and innovative insight on regional and international affairs. Coming back always feels a little bit like coming home.
As you are aware, my country is undergoing a phase of parliamentary transition. During my tenure as Foreign Minister, I have made it a point to place the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the forefront of Italy’s agenda. Our Middle Eastern policy has long been built on a basis of coherence and continuity, principles that Italy will hold dear at any time, under any Government. As my country’s new political scene takes shape, I could seize no better opportunity than this to outline the rising challenges that lie ahead.
Nuclear proliferation, and particularly Iran’s nuclear ambition, is the most pressing of these challenges. Rivers of ink have been spilled on how to tackle Iran’s nuclear aspirations. The debate seems to have polarized into two main positions. According to the first one, a nuclear Iran cannot be reliably contained because there is no guarantee that it will behave rationally; therefore, it must be prevented at all costs. The second is that Iran is a rational actor, and can be deterred and contained; hence, the risks of preventing it are not warranted for.
However, I would argue that a nuclear Iran must be prevented precisely because it would act rationally. Should Iran acquire a nuclear military capability, it is mainly the conventional balance of the Region that would take a different shape. Under its own nuclear umbrella, Teheran would be free to raise and lower the volume of regional tension as best suits its national interest. Its range of foreign activity tools would instantly broaden, to include several destabilizing options. Increasing the tension on the Israeli-Lebanese border to make oil prices skyrocket would become a viable economic path. Arming a friendly and ruthless regime with weapons of mass destruction could become a rational course of action. Deterring its neighbors with nuclear threats, an ultimate assurance of victory in conventional disputes.
With a nuclear Iran, the rules of the Middle Eastern game would not only change overnight; they would change irreversibly. As it’s been appropriately put, in the Middle East “cost benefit calculations would be replaced by risk management”.
Iran’s nuclear pursuit is also a stark reminder that the general discussion on the role of nuclear weapons is in dire need of a drastic overhaul. For fifty years, we have been used to a “clean”, bipolar nuclear environment with simple, if frightening, rules. Those rules were applicable to a world where technology was scarce and out of reach for all but the superpowers, and cyberwar and nuclear terrorism simply did not exist.
The main change that occurred in these rules is that today’s multipolar nuclear order acquires a regional dimension. Nuclear dynamics are no more the tides of one “global” bilateral relationship. They are now defined not only in Washington and Moscow, but also in Beijing, Delhi, Islamabad and Pyongyang. These countries’ nuclear weapons, as would be Iran’s, could all be “aimed” at conditioning regional balances, which, in turn, interact with one another adding uncertainty and instability. Recurrent recent news of a possible nuclear dimension to the cooperation between Iran and North Korea is a troublesome reminder of this fact.
In the end, however “regional” the trigger, a nuclear crisis will always have a global impact.
This is why the perspective of proliferation in a region as volatile as the Middle East is so alarming. Should Teheran acquire nuclear capabilities, others would follow and the Middle East - the very doorstep of Europe - would enter this new regional nuclear race.
This trend is unfolding much faster than the discussion around it. We are largely stuck in an unrealistic cold war conception of nuclear issues, as are the international instruments we rely upon. The NPT is the most valuable multilateral system we have. It works to a very large extent, and can be regarded as one of the most remarkable successes of diplomacy for security. And yet, a reflection on how to make it stronger and fitter for today’s world is long overdue. A reflection that acknowledges the nature and diffusion of new technologies; the threat of cyber attacks on nuclear infrastructure, and nuclear terrorism; and the regional dimension of proliferation.
Ultimately, moving towards a Global Zero goal means pushing beyond the NPT as it is today, first by expanding and reinforcing its safeguards, and eventually through an international agreement for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
At the regional level, everybody recognizes that the Middle East is a very special case. The EU, as well as other partner, also in the framework of the UN, have long advocated the creation of a nuclear free zone. We are all well aware of the difficulties, and realism advises that we treat this goal as a long-term perspective.
Meanwhile, I personally believe that reasonable progress could be achieved in several domains:
Openness and communication on the regional countries’ security doctrines; commitments concerning limitations and destruction of WMD’s; positive influence, instead of a negative one, on non-state actors; confidence building measures and expanded ratification of instruments like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT).
The second main challenge arising in the Middle East and the Maghreb is, of course, the earthquake that is shaking the region's political landscape. We all wish for and are committed to a free, democratic and peaceful Middle East. Still, such an outcome is far from certain. Since the beginning of the process, our effort to decipher it has suffered a few setbacks. In interpreting this reality, our desire for justice and freedom blurred the difference between democracy and the holding of elections.
The Arab Spring also put us before historic contradictions that were ignored for decades, as the international community benefitted from an ephemeral stability. We have been resting on an inherent inconsistency that sometimes emerged between our interests and our values. To be sure, the Cold War largely limited our ability to build a new paradigm. Still, the deepest meaning of the Arab uprisings is a wake up call to remind us that such a discrepancy can only be tactical, and must be eventually recomposed.
This same inconsistency has also limited our ability to formulate policies. It revealed that principles that we hold dear - self-determination, non-interference, domestic sovereignty and responsibility to protect – can never be taken for granted and have to be mutually reconciled through the prism of an evolving world.
The Syrian tragedy is a telling example. For almost two years we have been caught between the urgency to end Assad’s slaughter of his own people, and an inability to make it happen. Responsibility to Protect has been a principle Italy has always kept in the highest regard. And it was exactly the goal of supporting the Syrian opposition, as a way to contribute to the protection and humanitarian needs of the Syrian people, that inspired last months' meeting in Rome. All Ministers of the high level group were united and determined in changing Assad’s calculation. In the press communiqué we pledged an increased support to Moaz Al-Khatib and to the Syrian National Coalition. The possibility of constituting humanitarian corridors was mentioned, as well as the opposition’s right to self-defense, while the atrocious use of Scud missiles by the regime against its own people was condemned in the strongest terms.
Yet still, for too long has the international community lingered in hesitation. Cautiousness, diverging agendas and a certain lack of information were the motives of the stalemate. Domestic politics were also a major factor. Meanwhile, Assad’s regime continued to receive lethal support from its allies, consolidated its grip on power and prolonged the bloodshed.
We can no longer afford delays in our action. No example is better than Syria to remind us that the Assad regime and its allies do not necessarily act under similar constraints. We are witnessing the emergence of fast-rising economic and military powers, in different regions, which pursue their interest with the power of a State and the flexibility of a non-state actor. These are decades of Asymmetric diplomacy. Firepower and wealth is outmaneuvered by flexibility, opacity and boundlessness.
It seems to me that we should quickly adapt to the new environment. We must, first of all, strive to defend respect of international law, search for political consensus, accountability to public opinion and international responsibility. Similarly, preserving our partnerships with the emerging regional powers will be a fundamental contribution to the defense of our values.
But most of all, we need new and more efficient mechanisms to increase cohesion with our like-minded allies, make our interests more coincident and help shape common positions. The idea of a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) raised by President Obama in the State of the Union address is an excellent step in this direction, and Italy strongly supports it.
In fact, I would like to conclude my remarks by suggesting that such a model could inspire a similar Euro-Mediterranean arrangement. In this region more than anywhere else, economic and social trends are key factors in determining political stability. The Mediterranean’s diversity, its main wealth, can also be a latent source of tension, as long as it is not harnessed through an integrated framework of cooperation. This framework would rest on an already solid basis. According to the European Commission, in 2012, EU exports to the Mediterranean countries amounted to 160 billion Euros, and its imports from the region reached 130 billions. In addition, the EU already has eight Euromed type Association Agreements in force with the countries of the Southern Mediterranean. Following the Arab Spring, the EU has also agreed to pursue free trade agreements with the countries that made and will continue making the most progress on the path towards democratic reform.
If carefully engineered, a comprehensive Euro-Mediterranean structure could bring great benefit to the Region. It would increase Europe’s commitment to the security of the Middle East. It would help propel political change in the Region towards a free and competitive market, thereby promoting progress and freedom. And last but not least, it would bring Israel even closer to a community of vibrant liberal democracies like itself.There is no better place to discuss these issues than here. Israel not only lies at their geographical center. It is also at their frontline. As the dust settles, and room grows for new ideas, Israel will be the first and foremost engine of a new path towards a more secure and peaceful Middle East.