The Continued Unlikelihood of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone in the Middle East

There are currently five NWFZs, which have been bound by international treaties signed by all states in those respective regions. The idea of a Middle East NWFZ has been around for nearly forty years, when Iran first proposed it in 1974.

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In September the 58th annual session of the IAEA General Conference concluded in Vienna. Delegates and representatives from around the world met to strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency of the Agency’s safeguards, provide new states with IAEA membership, and improve activities involving nuclear security and technical cooperation. Although the conference was productive, it once again demonstrated the difficulty of getting universal commitment from those in the Middle East to establish a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) in the region.

There are currently five NWFZs, which have been bound by international treaties signed by all states in those respective regions. According to the General Assembly resolution 3472 B (1975), a Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone is any zone that has established a treaty or convention agreeing to “the statute of total absence of nuclear weapons to which the zone shall be subject” and where an “international system of verification and control is established to guarantee compliance with the obligations deriving from that statute.”

The idea of a Middle East NWFZ (MENWFZ) has been around for nearly forty years, when Iran first proposed it in 1974. Paragraph 6 of the UNGA resolution 3263, which called for the creation of a MENWFZ for the first time that year, reads: “the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones…is one of the measures…promoting progress towards nuclear disarmament, with the goal of total destruction of all nuclear weapons and their means of delivery.” During the NPT Review Conference in 1995, which takes place every five years, a resolution on the Middle East called for the establishment of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, which was an expansion of the 1974 resolution.

September’s IAEA General Conference reiterated the importance of excluding nuclear weapons from the Middle East. Several votes were passed that called on all states in the region to take action towards a NWFZ and to accede to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. However, not all proposed resolutions on the subject were passed by the IAEA member states. A resolution that is regularly put forth, but always rejected, is one proposed by Arab states expressing concerns about Israeli nuclear capabilities and urging Israel to join the NPT and place all its nuclear facilities under IAEA supervision.

Those who vote against this proposal, like the United States and its allies, view this as counterproductive. Although Israel is a member of the IAEA, it has never signed the NPT, meaning that it is not required to abide by the same nuclear safeguards commitments as most of its neighbors in the Middle East. Israel’s history of conflict with its neighbors and goal of maintaining military superiority in the Middle East make it improbable that they would ever reveal and give up their “bombs in the basement.” It can be anticipated that Israel’s fear of insecurity and posture of nuclear opacity will block any chance of a MENWFZ from being established.

Of course, Iran’s nuclear program and its suspected military dimensions are another obstacle that a MENWFZ faces. It was a breakthrough when the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany) agreed upon an interim nuclear deal in November 2013 known as the Joint Plan of Action. After an extension of the agreement this past July, the world is waiting to see if a comprehensive deal can be reached by November 24. According to an IAEA report on September 5, Iran has missed deadlines on providing information to the Agency, which is essential for any nuclear deal. The report stated the Agency is unable to provide “credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran” and therefore cannot verify “that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

Even during the recent nuclear talks in New York, as well as those following, there are still several important disagreements that will need to be overcome for a deal to be concluded. The outcome of the Iranian nuclear dispute will likely affect the defense postures of not only Israel, but also of our Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE. It is probable that Israel will always see Iran as an existential threat, but some Arab states may feel the need to provide further for their own security if Iran maintains its capability to develop nuclear weapons. If Iran and the P5+1 fail to reach a deal, with or without another extension, this will only weaken future discussions for nuclear disarmament in the Middle East.

In the months ahead of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, compelling events will need to take place in order to provide hope for this initiative. Not only does the Iranian nuclear issue need to progress significantly, which may affect Israel’s future nuclear posture towards disarmament, but there must be a regional conference on a Middle East NWFZ. At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the United States, Russia, and United Kingdom – all three depository powers and sponsors of the 1995 resolution mentioned earlier – agreed to work with the UN General Secretary to convene a regional conference in 2012 attended by all states in the Middle East. That conference was canceled with no timetable for a new one due to unstable conditions in the region and the fact that states involved did not reach agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference. Israel and Arab states have met five times in the past year to prepare for a summit on a MENWFZ, but the Arab states have shown no interest in further discussions.

It is unknown if a regional conference will take place or if the major powers and Iran can close a nuclear deal next month. What can be said is that failing in one or both will hurt the chances of a constructive NPT Review Conference next year. Iran and Israel will both be important factors in whether or not a MENWFZ proposal can be established. It is in the interest of all states, not just those in the Middle East, that this initiative be discussed and implemented. However, Israel relies heavily on its opaque nuclear arsenal for its security and an Iranian nuclear program incapable of being used for military means seems to be the only one Israel will accept. These obstacles, which remain for the time being, make a MENWFZ unlikely in today’s security environment. However, the talks and efforts to pursue such an enormous challenge should continue. Ongoing discussion on the idea of a MENWFZ helps maintain nonproliferation norms, while making it politically more difficult for other nations in the Gulf to seek nuclear weapons. It is essential for those in the region, aided by leadership of world powers, to come together and initiate discussion to further regional stability and prevent nuclear proliferation.

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