Rethinking Security Interests for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East

15 December 2007

Rebecca Johnson

A nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East began to be mooted during the 1960s, and was formally put on the non-proliferation and security agenda in 1974 by Egypt and Iran. In 1990 the nuclear-weapon-free concept was broadened to encompass the idea of a "zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East" (WMDFZ).

Though Israel's development of a nuclear arsenal (believed now to be between 60 and 80 nuclear weapons with different designs and yields) was the primary reason for many states to back the initiative, the call for such a zone was frequently employed as a mechanism for stigmatizing Israel and to fulfil other political and diplomatic purposes, rather than being genuinely pursued. Israel, for its part, accepted the idea of a NWFZ in principle (though it preferred the WMDFZ concept), but sought to deflect calls for progress or negotiations by setting peace and security in the Middle East as a precondition before it was prepared to discuss a NWFZ or WMDFZ.

NWFZ have essentially functioned as confidence-building arrangements to enhance regional stability in the absence of full regional adherence to multilateral, global constraints. In this regard, an essential prerequisite is that the relevant states perceive the regional arrangements to be in their national security interests. Until now, Israel has not perceived any security benefit for itself in a regional NWFZ. On the contrary, it has benefited from the constraints imposed on its neighbours through their participation in multilateral regimes, especially the nuclear restraints based around the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Israel has not joined.

Whether perceived in Israel yet or not, the cost-benefit calculation is changing, due to erosion of the non-proliferation regime, Iran's incipient nuclear programme, the declining political 'marginal utility' for nuclear weapon possessors (including Israel) as more states acquire such capabilities, and the irrelevance of nuclear weapons for Israel's core security, which depends on a just settlement with the Palestinians. To a greater extent than before, it is in Israel's direct interests to ensure that the global non-proliferation regime is reinforced and that no further states in its own region use the deficiencies of the NPT to develop nuclear weapon capabilities or options of their own.

The idea of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is one whose time has now come. Like the other regional NWFZ, it can be constructed to plug gaps in the global regime and provide stronger mechanisms to address issues of specific concern, such as missiles and delivery vehicles, proliferation sensitive fuel cycle technologies, enhanced verification, and security assurances.

It is now in the interests of all states in the region, including Israel, to rethink regional security and recognize that there is an intrinsic value to a NWFZ or WMDFZ in the Middle East for their own national security as well as regional relations and the sustainability of the global non-proliferation regimes. It is time to start laying the groundwork for a more constructive approach to opening discussions in earnest. For this, all countries need to set aside the rigid and unattainable preconditions that have been used to prevent progress in the past, and recognize that these conditions can be worked on as part of the process towards building a NWFZ or WMDFZ.

Much has been said and written about the 'what': i.e. scope, technical and political provisions and verification for such a zone. To avoid reinventing the wheel, this article will focus on how to get to the starting line and bring the relevant governments to take this objective more seriously as a realisable regional measure for security and non-proliferation.

Background on NWFZ

The first nuclear weapon free zone was opened for signature 40 years ago, on February 14, 1967, to cover Latin America and the Caribbean. The Tlatelolco Treaty was led by Mexico at a time of nuclear build-up and instability in the region, with military antagonism between several countries. Brazil and Argentina competed for regional power projection, with military build-up in both countries that included nuclear weapon programmes. And it was achieved just four years after the deployment of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba as part of the Cold War US-Soviet rivalries had nearly led to global nuclear war. Though some states in the region did not fully abandon their nuclear ambitions or activities for many years, and the final state - Cuba - did not formally accede until October 2002, the Tlatelolco Treaty played a very important role in building regional security and creating a nuclear-free norm that helped make rival governments abandon their nuclear weapon programmes.

A year later the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was concluded. Though the NPT governed global non-proliferation and was, at least in the minds of the non-nuclear weapon states parties, intended to facilitate the universal elimination of nuclear weapons, it recognized the value of regional agreements. Article VII stated: "Nothing in this Treaty affects the right of any group of States to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories."

Viewed by some as a stop-gap measure to keep hopes for progress in disarmament and non-proliferation alive during the Cold War, the pursuit of NWFZ has emerged as one of the real success stories in the history of international peace and security. Four more NWFZ have followed: the 1985 Rarotonga Treaty in the South Pacific; the 1995 Bangkok Treaty in Southeast Asia; the 1996 Pelindaba Treaty covering Africa; and, most recently the Treaty of Semipalatinsk covering five Central Asian republics, which was signed in 2006.

Existing zones now cover the Southern Hemisphere, and the Central Asian NWFZ expands the application of the concept to a zone entirely north of the equator. Speaking at the 40th anniversary of the Tlatelolco Treaty in Mexico, the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, said: "Today these five NWFZ cover between them nearly two-thirds of the countries of the world and virtually the entirety of the southern hemisphere. In effect, NWFZ constitute important first steps to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world."[1]

These zones serve important functions. They fill the gap in the NPT that allowed the foreign deployment of nuclear weapons on the territory of non nuclear weapon states; no such weapons may be lawfully stationed in the zones. They complement and reinforce the basic non-proliferation commitments of the NPT. Through their protocols, they give members of these regimes the legally-binding negative security assurances that many such states have sought for decades. Some contribute to the strengthening of full-scope IAEA safeguards by requiring domestic implementation and/or the application of such safeguards for exports leaving the region, and they also help to strengthen the global norm against nuclear testing pending entry into force of the CTBT.

Yet it should not be glossed over that these regimes also face many challenges. The Pelindaba Treaty, though almost a decade old, has not yet entered into force. Of all the protocols to the various NWFZ treaties containing obligations and commitments for the P-5 nuclear weapon states (NWS), only the relevant protocol to the Tlatelolco Treaty has been ratified by all five. None of the NWS has ratified the protocol to the Bangkok Treaty, although China has said it may independently agree to it. None of the zones has provisions for commitments or assurances from the three de facto nuclear weapon possessors outside the NPT - India, Israel and Pakistan (D-3).

Many states parties to the zones have failed to conclude their required full-scope safeguards agreements with the IAEA, and only a handful have ratified the Additional Protocol. While the treaties are of indefinite duration they also contain withdrawal clauses, opening up questions about the potential reversibility of such arrangements. Proposals to establish a NWFZ in South Asia were shelved indefinitely following the nuclear tests in 1998, and efforts to start the process towards a NWFZ in the Middle East have been repeatedly stymied.

Pressure for a NWFZ in the Middle East

As concerns in the Middle East grew over Israel's nuclear weapon programme, Egypt and Iran in 1974 formally proposed the concept of a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East in a joint resolution to the UN General Assembly. The subsequent use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, and growing concerns about biological and chemical weapons programmes in a number of states in the region, led President Mubarak of Egypt to launch a broader initiative for a zone free of WMD in the Middle East in 1990. This was not intended to be a replacement to the original NWFZ concept, but something to be pursued in parallel.[2]

In 1995, concerns about Israel almost derailed agreement on extending the NPT. Some of the Arab states had made clear that they would not support indefinite extension of the NPT as long as Israel remained outside the Treaty. Two - Libya and Syria - actually said that they would not support any extension of the NPT without a timetable for Israel's accession. Arab States therefore sponsored a resolution on the Middle East. When this hit stalemate during the conference endgame in the final week, they asked the Conference President, Jayantha Dhanapala to take it over. He brokered a deal whereby the resolution dropped its explicit stigmatization of Israel, which the United States and others opposed, but was given greater authority and weight through sponsorship by the three depositary states, Britain, Russia and the United States.[3]

In addition to calling on all states in the region, without exception, to accede to the NPT and put all their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, the resolution in operative paragraph 1:

"Endorses the aims and objectives of the Middle East peace process and recognizes that efforts in this regard, as well as other efforts, contribute to, inter alia, a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction".[4]

The Resolution on the Middle East was adopted without a vote (in effect by consensus) directly following the adoption of the decisions on strengthening the review process and on Principles and Objectives (P&O) for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which also cross-referenced the issue in its paragraph 6:

"The development of nuclear-weapon-free zones, especially in regions of tension, such as in the Middle East, as well as the establishment of zones free of all weapons of mass destruction, should be encouraged as a matter of priority, taking into account the specific characteristics of each region."

Notably, this was qualified by paragraph 5, which reiterated the understanding that:

"The conviction that the establishment of internationally recognized nuclear-weapon-free zones, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the States of the region concerned, enhances global and regional peace and security is reaffirmed."

Part of the political context that underpins these fundamental agreements for many states in the Middle East is that during the period 1994-2000 Egypt took the lead in persuading all remaining Arab states to become NPT parties and to support the extension of the NPT in 1995, with the understanding that the United States and other Western countries had given their undertaking that if the Arab states joined the Treaty and supported its extension, Israel would be put under much greater pressure to give up its nuclear weapons.

Following desultory negotiations initiated in 1975, the UN Disarmament Commission in 1999 adopted a set of "Guidelines" on the establishment of further NWFZ.[5] The General Assembly and the nuclear weapon states have also recognized the nuclear-weapon-free status of Mongolia. Countries unilaterally prohibiting nuclear weapons through domestic legislation include Austria, the Philippines, and New Zealand.

At the 2000 NPT Review Conference there was yet again an eleventh hour stand-off on the issue of how to deal with the Middle East. This was resolved and the Review Conference was able to adopt a substantive final document containing, among other things, the Thirteen Steps for implementation of the NPT's disarmament obligations. It also reaffirmed the 1995 Resolution and confirmed "the importance of Israel's accession to the NPT and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards". Although the 2000 NPT Review Conference also agreed that states should submit annual "reports" on their efforts to implement both the nuclear disarmament commitments and the 1995 Resolution calling for the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, the NWS have only recently begun to issue such reports in good faith.

Laying the Groundwork for a NWFZ in the Middle East

The 1995 Resolution linked the peace process with getting a WMDFZ in the Middle East. Various diplomatic documents also uphold the principle that NWFZ should be established "on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the States of the region concerned".

As discussed in more detail by Merav Datan in the following article, Arab states want to focus on nuclear weapons (though they have extended this to include chemical and biological weapons), while Israel wants to focus on normalisation and peace treaties.[6] While both need to be addressed, the dialogues tend to go past each other. The two aspects - the elimination of nuclear weapons from the Middle East and establishing a more effective peace and security framework for countries in the region - are too often linked with the purpose of blocking initiatives, when in fact they would be mutually-reinforcing. Each affects the other: perceptions of peace and security are clearly a relevant factor when considering a WMD-free zone, but achievement of peace and security should not be made a precondition.

This suggests that it would not be possible to resolve the nuclear issue on its own, since the regional peace and security issues are too entangled. At the same time, however, the link does not mean that no progress can be made towards a NWFZ until all the complexities of regional peace and security are resolved. That would be - and has been - a recipe for doing nothing.

There is a parallel with how some of the NWS address the nuclear disarmament obligation in Article VI of the NPT. There, they argue, nuclear disarmament cannot happen without general and complete disarmament; here, Israel argues, a NWFZ or even WMDFZ cannot happen without peace and security.

The problem is that while general disarmament and enhanced peace and security are clearly important and relevant, they are too often evoked as if they are essential preconditions, and it is hard not to become cynical that this is deliberately done to justify retaining the respective nuclear arsenals, i.e. an example of setting the goalposts so far away that no progress seems possible - so making it pointless even to try. The correlation should not be treated as linear or sequential, but the two objectives need to be seen in dynamic parallel, requiring simultaneous efforts to make progress.

It is therefore important to move beyond the rhetoric to consider what would be the groundwork or conditions needed to facilitate establishing a NWFZ or WMD-free zone in the Middle East.[7]

Each country (or at least the key states) needs to come to the determination that such a zone would be in their security interests.

A principal reason why a Middle-East NWFZ has never got off the ground is that it was assumed not to be feasible, and so the concept was employed mostly as a political football, to accomplish other political and diplomatic purposes, such as attacking Israel. That is now beginning to change, offering new opportunities to make some progress. Here I sketch some of the considerations feeding into a change of perception regarding the actual security interests of significant states in the region. These are gleaned from recent conversations, discussions and visits to the key countries in the region, but are deliberately couched as general observations, not attached to any particular interlocutor. I offer the observations as analysis bullet-points without here evaluating how widely the perceptions are held and whether or not such perceptions are valid. It is hoped they may serve to provoke discussion and further analysis, not least in the countries concerned.

Arab States' Considerations

The Arab League has developed a framework for a draft NWFZ treaty, looking not only at issues such as monitoring, verification and inspection, but also trying to take into consideration the security concerns of all the states in the region including Israel and Iran. They want this to be the basis for moving ahead in discussions leading to negotiations.

They view the Western/US state-by-state approach to be biased, with little positive impact on regional security.

The WMD-rationale given by the US and UK administrations for launching war on Iraq in 2003 has weakened the credibility of international non-proliferation strategies (and accusations). The conduct of the war and Iraq's growing fragility has further undermined security and stability in the Middle East.

The Arab states would strongly reject formal overtures to get the D-3 non-members of the NPT to behave "as if" they were members[8] , as this would be seen as legitimizing Israel's nuclear weapons and rewarding those who refused to join the NPT. They would view such an approach as punishing, or at least diminishing the sacrifice and security value for, those who are NPT states parties in good standing.

Any tacit acceptance of a status quo of non-universality would undermine the NPT and make it 'impossible' for Arab states to have long-term confidence in the regime. It could result in pressure on Arab governments to withdraw from the Treaty, whether or not they have ambitions to develop nuclear programmes of their own.

Most, but not all, are interested in finding ways to engage with Israel as a partner in building Middle East peace and security rather than as an adversary, as traditionally viewed.

An Iranian nuclear option would threaten Middle East stability more than the current Israeli nuclear arsenal. This cannot be admitted openly because it is at variance with popular 'Islamic loyalties' and 'Street' public opinion.

Though they pay lip service to Iran's assurances that the uranium enrichment programme is solely for peaceful and energy purposes, Arab governments are deeply concerned at the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. They fear that it is an attempt to gain power projection and change the balance in the region to Iran's advantage.

At the same time, they do not discount Iran's security concerns and regard recent US policy towards Iran to be naive and counterproductive, as it plays into the ambitions of hard-liners and undermines moderates who seek to remain within the non-proliferation regime.

Although there are deep concerns about Iran's military ambitions, any Israeli, US or British air strikes against Iran, whether targeted solely at nuclear facilities or not, would cause massive protests in Arab countries, which the governments of the region want to avoid.

On a previous visit to Egypt, some senior figures canvassed 'what if?' speculations of their own, suggesting that rather than putting so much energy into denuclearizing Israel or Iran, more states in the region should acquire nuclear weapons, thereby providing mutual deterrence and stability. The argument, familiar from Kenneth Waltz's writings[9] , seems to have gained a new lease of life from the proposition that relations between India and Pakistan have actually stabilized since both went overtly nuclear after their tests in May 1998. Though posed as an intellectual speculation, the fact is that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and several other countries have recently expressed interest in developing their own nuclear energy programmes "for peaceful purposes".

Since it appears that proliferation-promoting "the more the merrier" arguments are gaining interest in some policy circles in the Middle East, they will be important to refute. Waltz is wrongly optimistic: as Scott Sagan and others have pointed out, the more nuclear weapon possessors - particularly within any volatile region - the more complex the multiple deterrent relationships and hence the more points of potential failure that may result in nuclear weapon use. Moreover, arguments about nuclear weapons bringing greater stability to relations between India and Pakistan are very premature and seem to ignore the fact that after the 1998 tests they clashed in a further war over Kashmir in which officials on both sides publicly threatened to "nuke" the other country. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and they pulled back. The two governments may now have instituted more effective controls and bilateral communication and confidence-building structures, but in other ways the region remains volatile.

Some interest has been expressed in the idea of a Gulf States NWFZ/WMDFZ, mooted as an interim step towards a NWFZ for the whole Middle East Region. Such an initiative may appear attractive to those who wish to apply a further layer of constraints on Iran, but as it would not address the Israeli nuclear programme it is thought unlikely to get off the ground.

Israeli considerations

Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity - or opacity, as Avner Cohen characterized it - has contributed to the relatively low level of domestic debate about nuclear weapons in Israel. The weapons are not paraded for status as in Pakistan and India, but it is believed that most Israelis regard nuclear weapons as an "indispensable" deterrent for what former Prime Minster (PM) Ehud Barak has called the "indefinite" future.

In 1996, then-PM Binyamin Netanyahu linked the retention of nuclear weapons not just with regional peace and security, but with the political transformation of Israel's neighbours: "Until the region becomes democratic, Israel is forced to retain its strategic deterrence."[10] However, the strategic environment in the Middle East is undergoing substantial change, and Israel's security calculus with regard to nuclear weapons and non-proliferation now needs to be reassessed.

The following developments are among the first that need to be taken into account:

  • The credibility of the NPT and multilateral non-proliferation is eroding, illustrated by the acrimonious failure of the 2005 NPT Review Conference, and the treaty's diminished authority. This is coupled with the loss of credibility of US coercive power, including its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and partial responsibility for provoking (or at least failing to prevent) North Korea's withdrawal and nuclear test, and its gathering impotence in the face of Iran's challenge.

  • There is now a declining political 'marginal utility' for the nuclear weapon possessors as more states acquire such capabilities - this applies for the declared NWS as well as Israel. Whether or not the military utility also declines as the number of possessors increases depends on one's view of deterrence.

  • Apologists for any WMD programmes and ambitions in the Middle East regularly evoke Israel's nuclear arsenal as their justification. Though not a cause, it is a potent excuse, which further weakens the WMD non-proliferation and disarmament regimes.

  • Iran's nuclear ambitions and uranium enrichment programme - whether or not the fuel cycle programme is directly weaponized - are causing other states in the region to hedge their bets and seek nuclear options.

  • Nuclear weapons are irrelevant for Israeli security where it matters in real terms, i.e. on the ground and in relation to Palestine. Its failures in the recent war with Hezbollah, as well as the failures of the US-Iraq war, have exposed the weaknesses of pitting a high tech war machine against a low tech but numerous adversary.

For several decades, Israel has benefited from its status of nuclear opacity. There was little incentive to discuss getting rid of its nuclear weapons while the non-proliferation regime was working fairly effectively. Indeed, Israelis tend to view their opaque and ambiguous policy as a form of restraint, and do not understand that it is more likely to be viewed as a provocation by others.

By staying outside the NPT, Israel benefited as a 'free rider' on the treaty-based regime, and was quite happy with that situation as long as it delivered - i.e. as long as its neighbours signed up to the Treaty and were monitored and constrained by it. Israel profited from the regime's restrictions on its neighbours while developing its own nuclear weapons and avoiding having to pay any price of constraints and obligations such as those undertaken by NPT parties.

The conflict in the Middle East pre-dates Israel's nuclear programme, but Israel's policy of nuclear opacity and the widespread assumption that it has a significant nuclear arsenal serves as an excuse and impediment to efforts to persuade other states in the region to adhere to and abide by non-proliferation regulations and commitments. An interesting question to consider is whether it would be better for Israel to abandon its policy of nuclear opacity and openly declare its nuclear capability as India and Pakistan have done.

The political impact of such a declaration would primarily depend on the reasons and motivations for going public with what is already widely 'known' and, most importantly, the response of the international community. If there were international - and especially Western - condemnation, that would play well in the region, whereas if the West and others appeared to accept or condone Israel's position as a nuclear weapon possessor that could exacerbate tensions in the region and so risk further destabilization.

Two very different scenarios might be envisaged. One, that a declaration by Israel would be welcomed if it were accompanied by greater transparency, for example information on the number and type of weapons in its arsenal, doctrine, command and control etc. Such information would be essential as part of the process of building towards a NWFZ (or WMDFZ) in the Middle East and would enable the international community to deal more openly with Israel and therefore to engage Israel in talks about reduction and elimination.

Alternatively, depending on the circumstances, an open declaration of its nuclear capability by Israel could be perceived by its neighbours as an act of aggression or threat, and might thus inflame public opinion in the region, potentially provoking neighbouring governments to take drastic action or make counterproductive gestures like withdrawing from the NPT.

If the cost-benefit calculation for Israel is changing (even if this may not yet be recognized except by a very few in policy circles), then Israelis may soon come to see an intrinsic value to a NWFZ/WMD-free zone in the Middle East as well, which could result in a more constructive approach to opening discussions in earnest, setting aside any preconditions.

Iranian considerations

Iran now appears to have a uranium enrichment programme with industrial capabilities. It claims to want full fuel cycle technology for peaceful purposes only, but there is a widespread assumption that it seeks a nuclear weapon option, if it has not yet decided to acquire a definite capability. This assumption is underpinned by reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the history and architecture of Iran's nuclear and missile programmes.

It is contradicted in public statements, such as the very strong and unequivocal statement made by Mr G. Ali Khoshroo, then Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs, in May 2003 at the Geneva Preparatory Committee meeting for the 2005 NPT Review Conference: "unlike some others, we consider the acquiring, development and use of nuclear weapons inhuman, immoral, illegal and against our basic principles. They have no place in Iran's defence doctrine. They do not add to our security, nor do they help us to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, which is in our supreme interests." Since Khoshroo's statement, Iran's highest leaders have declared nuclear weapons 'unIslamic'. This is good political theatre, but it is also very compelling and would haunt any Iranian government that sought to get nuclear weapons in the future, leaving it exposed to condemnation for religious hypocrisy as well as violation of its treaty obligations.

Iran is a volatile and divided country, where President Ahmadinejad's election is viewed as part of an ongoing domestic power struggle between "fundamentalists" and "moderates" (such terms are both loaded and relative). Such nuclear ambitions as there are appear to be fuelled more by perceptions of nuclear weapons as a currency of power, especially regional power, and the perceived value of nuclear deterrence in keeping US military threats at bay, than by immediate concerns about WMD threats from its neighbours, including Israel.

Even so, evoking Israel's nuclear weapons and reminding the world that Iran was the victim of Iraqi chemical weapons are important inflammatory and justificatory tools for the current leadership, which uses them to garner support for the nuclear programme and silence domestic critics.

Arab countries find it difficult to take a public stand, although they are also very concerned about Iran's nuclear programme and ambitions. Their apparent ambivalence is due to complicated regional relations and Islamist 'loyalties', particularly in the face of US and Israeli pressure on Iran.

In addition, many Arab states consider it "unfair" that Iran should be criticized for uranium enrichment that is not prohibited under the NPT and which several Western non-nuclear weapon states have pursued without criticism. So there is a perception that there is one rule for the developed states that are "friends of the US" and another rule for everyone else, especially developing countries and Muslims. There may be ways in which the European Union or other NPT states could engage more constructively with the Arab states and so draw them into more effective pressure on Iran to forego weapons options and ambitions.

If Iran were to renounce uranium enrichment and the nuclear weapons option, there would need to be many carrots on the table, incentives ranging from security assurances to World Trade Organization (WTO) membership.

Iran's presumed nuclear weapon ambitions pose a challenge to the NPT's wide and permissive encouragement of nuclear fuel cycle development and require the international institutions to rethink the relationship between civil and military nuclear technologies. One of the toughest challenges will be to find non-discriminatory ways to address the nuclear fuel-nuclear proliferation link. There are potential traps in both exceptionalist and universalist approaches. The exceptionalist approach would identify "states of concern" and impose special restrictions on them, while allowing "good guys" to carry on as usual. By contrast, universalist approaches would place restrictions equally on all, which could provoke resentment and opposition from those that consider themselves virtuous.

Approaches to get talks moving

Insistence on preconditions being met has bedevilled past attempts to get states to think seriously about making progress towards the mutually-declared objective of a WMDFZ. If these preconditions could be set aside, what might be the conditions and approaches that could get talks moving? Is there a role for Track 2 work, including technical experts to lay the groundwork, especially in working out the parameters for verification and enforcement?

Alternatively, do governments have to be engaged from the very beginning, because this issue fundamentally concerns national security? Is it better to base initial negotiations on a core group of governments - in which case, which are they? ('Core' and 'periphery' may be associated with definition of the region or of states with certain capabilities or regional influence or some other relevant characteristic.)

The Middle East has the additional complexity of security-relevant neighbours on all sides, some of whom have nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan) or bases (US/NATO nuclear bases in Turkey, for example, or nuclear armed submarines deployed in the area). What roles are required or desirable for external powers, allies, the UN Security Council and P-5, the European Union or other neighbours?

In addition to the IAEA's monitoring of those states that are parties to the NPT, is there a role for neutral states or players to mediate and facilitate discussions/negotiations, either as the UN Department (now Office) for Disarmament Affairs did for the Central Asian NWFZ, or a special representative on behalf of the NPT? If so, on what basis should such outside players be involved? Since some important regional players are already signed up to the African NWFZ, is there a confidence-building role related to the Pelindaba Treaty?

Considerations to be addressed

  • Problems of geographic scope: what is meant by the Middle East? For the purposes of any NWFZ it would have to include Iran and Israel, but how is the region affected by nuclear NATO having Turkey on one border, while nuclear Pakistan abuts Iran? Does a distinction need to be made that also takes into account the political geography of the EU's 'New Middle East' and NATO's 'Greater Middle East'?

  • Whether to include and if so, how to address missiles and delivery vehicles, especially ballistic missiles, widely recognized to be most directly associated with the delivery of nuclear, biological and chemical warheads. (Missile programmes, like WMD, are perceived as serving a 'power projection' role.)

  • Nuclear calculations cannot ignore conventional arms, though recent events show that even if an early driver for Israel was its fear of being conventionally out-gunned by its neighbours, its sophisticated modern non-nuclear forces are more than enough to fulfil any deterrence or other military mission assigned to its nuclear force - with the paradox that this still does not bring peace or security, as long as the outstanding occupation and political issues with the Palestinians remain unresolved.

  • What would be the role of security guarantees, who should provide them, and would anyone trust them? Arguably more vital in the case of the Middle East than for other NWFZ, it will be important to resolve concerns about the conditional security assurances from the NWS in UNSCR 255 (1968) and 984 (1995). Should India and Pakistan provide security assurances on the same basis as the NPT-recognized NWS? If so, will this entail a de facto recognition of their nuclear status?

  • Is Israel's nuclear status now so politically embedded that even if normalization and peace were achieved it would assert a rationalization for retaining nuclear weapons (à la France and Britain)? In other words, even if Israel's initial development of nuclear weapons had been provoked by security concerns and a calculation that a nuclear arsenal would deter neighbouring states from attacking, removal of those perceived threats would not necessarily result in Israel's denuclearization.

  • Similarly, if Iran's presumed nuclear weapons ambitions are primarily fuelled by its perception of nuclear weapons as a currency of power, especially regional power projection, then would it give these up for the sake of joining a regional WMD-free zone?

Ways Forward

It is clear that progress will only be made if there are simultaneous tracks (parallel or otherwise) dealing with a) the peace and security issues and b) the arms control and disarmament issues. A recent historical example worth looking at more closely may be the Helsinki process undertaken at the height of the Cold War to address conventional arms control, mutual security and a medley of economic, humanitarian and rights issues relating to East and West Europe.[11]

The 1975 Helsinki Accords helped pave the way to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreements and greater cooperation and openness on a range of sensitive issues. They were accomplished through a series of diplomatic meetings begun in 1973, which addressed three "baskets". The Middle East peace process's Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) talks were unable to fulfil this role, but in a changed political environment, consideration could be given to how to reframe and revive such interactions among some or all of the relevant countries in the Middle East.

Adapting Helsinki, then, to a WMD-free zone in the Middle East:

  • Basket 1 might include: declaration of principles guiding relations between the participating states, especially on mutual security, human rights, confidence-building measures, security assurances, cooperation on humanitarian issues; cross-border ethnic, family and refugee issues;

  • Basket 2 might include: consideration of arms control and disarmament measures, such as a regional agreement on no first use of WMD; accession to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); regional control agreements regarding fissile materials production, fuel cycle technologies, and/or missiles; development of a programme and time-table for putting Israel's nuclear facilities progressively under IAEA safeguards with a view to dismantling the weapons and preparing Israel to accede to the NPT.

  • Basket 3 might include agreements on economic, scientific, technological and environmental cooperation, emcompassing shared resources; and also cultural and educational exchanges.

While some of the negotiations on the baskets could yield results and interim agreements fairly quickly, the ultimate objectives relating to the dismantlement of military nuclear programmes and an overall peace settlement will require political timetables and step-by-step processes and measures.

An early confidence-building measure might be a binding regional agreement on no-first-use of WMD. This demand has been promoted internationally, with reservations that it would allow the declared NWS to use nuclear weapons in response to biological or chemical weapon threats. This would risk creating the appearance of "equivalence" and undermining the security assurances given to NPT states parties. However, these reservations are not applicable in the special circumstances of the Middle East, so there is no reason why the Middle East should not lead the way with a regional agreement on no-first- use of WMD.

Both timetables will need to be realistic and have sufficient flexibility and mechanisms for resolving conflicts or compliance challenges, in order for setbacks to be able to occur (as they likely will) without derailing the overall progress and agreement. Similarly, if the CBMs work, the programme would need to be flexible enough to capitalize on developments that could accelerate implementation on some or all of the plan of action, but that would be a very optimistic scenario!

In developing a plan for denuclearizing the region, the process for ensuring that NPT states parties are fully compliant will be different from the more complex plan that will need to be developed for Israel to dismantle its advanced nuclear programme. The only previous example is South Africa, with an arsenal smaller and less sophisticated than Israel's. While lessons can undoubtedly be drawn from the South African experience, it must be accepted that Israel will need time, security and confidence to dismantle its military nuclear facilities in ways that maintain the highest standards of safety, security and non-proliferation.

Because of the different standards of technology and the need to maintain non-proliferation restrictions and confidentiality, verification will need to be primarily bilateral with the IAEA, rather than regionalized. These are just some preliminary ideas moving forward effectively one the groundwork has been laid.

Untenable and Unpalatable Scenarios

Many fear that if Iran goes forward with any nuclear ambitions, it could face military strikes or worse. Many also fear that if Iran does pursue and develop a nuclear weapon capability, others will follow, with the consequence that it is only a matter of time before nuclear weapons are used, whether by a state or non-state terrorist. Any use of nuclear weapons would be devastating and could lead to a nuclear exchange that would be even more appalling, not just for the people and areas directly affected, but for the whole region and, indeed, the world.

But even if one were to dismiss such worst case scenarios, consider these two hypothetical 'best case' scenarios for 10 years in the future:

1) the current status quo, with Israel still possessing nuclear weapons, primarily perceiving them as a political instrument, and still holding to deterrence and restraint amounting to a practical taboo on military use; or

2) a situation where both Iran and Israel have nuclear weapons and use them for political purposes, but without overtly detonating or threatening to detonate them; other countries in this scenario would be hedging their bets and seeking to develop or further their nuclear fuel cycle capabilities to gain at least a technological option, even if no further decisions were taken to weaponize.

Israel has described a nuclear weapons capable Iran as "unacceptable" and currently appears to believe it can maintain stability with scenario one, but is this realistic? Unless there is a comprehensive change of policy and non-proliferation effectiveness, scenario two could well happen. If it does, what chances are there that such a scenario would be stable or security-enhancing over time?

If neither of the above scenarios inspires confidence, then the states of the region need to confront the following choice:

  • multiple nuclear programmes in the Middle East and a badly eroded (barely functional or collapsed) non-proliferation regime?


  • a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and a strengthened NPT?

This is the regional equivalent of the challenge posed by the Tokyo Forum in 1999: "choose between the assured dangers of proliferation and the challenges of disarmament."[12]


Recent, mostly negative (but some positive) developments mean that the calculations made by Israel and many Arab states need to change. Instead of being little more than a rhetorical device, a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is an idea whose time has now come.

For the first time a plausible argument can be made that it is in the direct security interests of all countries in the region, including Israel, to pursue this objective rather than trying to deal with the complexities, instability, risks and expense of multipolar proliferation in the Middle East. Once this new calculation comes to be more widely accepted, then one of the key strategic conditions will have been met, making it more possible to start real talks than at any time since Egypt and Iran first put forward this initiative. Even so, negotiations will be tough and politically demanding, and no-one should be surprised if they take a long time and include several setbacks before there is any chance of success.


[1] Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the IAEA, Statement on the "Fortieth Anniversary of the Adoption and Opening for Signature of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons In Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco)", Mexico City, February 14, 2007.

[2] Mohamed Kadry Said, "Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone: Regional Security and Non-Proliferation Issues", in UNIDIR and League of Arab States, Building a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East: Global Non-Proliferation Regimes and Regional Experiences, United Nations, Geneva, 2004, p 123.

[3] For a fuller account of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, see Rebecca Johnson, Indefinite Extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: Risks and Reckonings, ACRONYM Report No. 7, London, September 1995.

[4] See ibid, appendixes, for the texts of the decisions and resolution adopted by the 1995 NPT Review Conference, also available at

[5] See Jozef Goldblat, "Nuclear-weapon-free zone Treaties: Benefits and Deficiencies" in UNIDIR, op. cit. pp 55-56.

[6] Merav Datan, "Building Blocks for a WMD Disarmament Regime in the Middle East", Disarmament Diplomacy 86 (this issue), Autumn 2007.

[7] The concept of a WMD-free zone was intended to be pursued in parallel with the NWFZ. The broadening of the concept had an important political confidence-building role, recognizing: Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons during the 1980s; Israel's concerns about CBW programmes in various neighbouring states, and how this played into justifications for retaining its own nuclear weapon capabilities; the reluctance of several Mid-East states to accede to the BWC or CWC unless or until Israel gives up its nuclear weapons and puts its facilities under full scope safeguards. In practical terms, the prior existence of the BWC and CWC, both of which prohibit the production, testing, use etc of the weapons they govern, means that a regional WMD zone treaty could cut a few practical corners by requiring adherence to the multilateral treaties. The lack of agreed verification for the BWC could prove a stumbling block, so consideration needs to be given to how this can be addressed with regional mechanisms.

[8] For detail on the "as if" approaches being put forward by Sverre Lodgaard and others, see Jenny Nielsen, "Engaging India, Israel and Pakistan in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime", Disarmament Diplomacy 86 (this issue), Autumn 2007.

[9] Kenneth N. Waltz and Scott Sagan, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed, (2nd edition of the 1995 book, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, W.W. Norton, 1995).

[10] Quoted in Kadry Said, op. cit. p 126.

[11] This is an idea that Patricia Lewis, director of UNIDIR, has explored in various papers and presentations.

[12] Facing Nuclear Dangers: The Report of the Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (Japan Institute for International Affairs and Hiroshima Peace Institute, July 1999), Recommendation 2, p.57.

Dr Rebecca E. Johnson is Executive Director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy. This paper was first presented at an International Seminar on "Steps towards a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone", co-hosted by the Institute for Peace Studies and Greenpeace International, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, March 21, 2007.