A Nuclear Free Zone in the Middle East

Across the globe headlines pronounced that a “breakthrough agreement” had been reached in Geneva. Iran’s atomic ambitions had been curbed in exchange for limited sanctions relief, thus deflating the longstanding military standoff. The deal hammered out between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia stipulates that Tehran will halt progress on enrichment capacity, stop developing its heavy water reactor at Arak, and open access to international weapons inspection. While this deal paves the way for Iran’s reintegration into the family of western nations, and is therefore can be conceived as a real milestone, in terms of the Middle East nuclear problem any robust agreement will have to include Israel.

Within Israel, speaking about the nuclear program in Dimona is taboo. Mysteriously, however, there is also a broad-based agreement to keep silent about it in DC and in most European capitals. This despite claims made by independent analysts who have estimated that Israel likely has around 80 warheads today and is believed to be the only state in the region that has produced separated plutonium, and possibly highly enriched uranium, the key ingredients in nuclear weapons. Indeed, it may now have enough plutonium, including the plutonium already in weapons, for up to 200 nuclear warheads.

So why are politicians and mainstream media outlets concentrating on Iran and its decision to embark on a nuclear program instead of adopting a more ambitious framework that considers the steps needed to make the Middle East a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction? To be sure, I am against Iran developing a nuclear weapon, but I am also opposed to Israel having a nuclear arsenal, which at 200 warheads would be larger than the arsenal of Britain. There is, after all, a connection between the two and this connection needs to be spelled out if a broader framework is to be adopted.

A Framework for a Nuclear Free Zone

Creating a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East is actually not a new idea. Ironically, it was first proposed in the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 by no other than the major “culprit” in the recent fray – Iran.  Together with Egypt, these two countries attempted to roll back Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and to restrain further proliferation in the region by having all states join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty‫ ‬(NPT‫(‬.  In 1990, Egypt broadened the proposal to include a ban on chemical and biological weapons; namely, to create a Weapon of Mass Destruction free zone in the region.

Yet, as everyone knows, nothing came of these initiatives, even though nuclear weapon free zones have been established in five regions: Latin America and the Caribbean (in force since 2002), the South Pacific (1986), South-East Asia (1997), Africa (2009) and Central Asia (2009). Today, nuclear weapon free zones cover the Southern hemisphere and have a combined membership of 97 states, more than half the states in the international community.

Why, one might ask, should the Middle East be any different?

A Middle East Free Zone

The problem, of course, is that the Middle East has emerged as a nuclear proliferation hotbed. Israel has held on to its nuclear weapons, refused to join the NPT, significantly expanded its stockpile of fissile material for weapons, and developed advanced delivery systems. Clandestine nuclear-weapon programs were revealed in Iraq in 1991, in Libya in 2003, and in Syria in 2007 – all while these countries were signatories to the NPT. In 2003, Iran was discovered to have an undeclared uranium enrichment research and development program as well as a reactor under construction that could potentially be used for plutonium production for weapons.

Targeting one country will not solve this regional problem. In a bold report, put out by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) based at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University a group of nuclear experts suggest introducing measures of collective restraint regarding fissile material production and use in order to foster confidence that all nuclear activities in the region are indeed peaceful in intent and not being pursued as a camouflage for developing nuclear-weapon options.

The IPFM experts emphasize that Israel must take initiatives to demonstrate that it is seriously interested in a regional zone free of weapons of mass destruction. The experts propose a series of steps: Israel should begin by ending any further production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, declaring the size of its stocks of these materials and placing portions of its fissile material stocks under IAEA safeguards for elimination. By the time a Middle East zone came into force, Israel would need to have eliminated all of its nuclear weapons and placed all of its fissile materials under international safeguards – as South Africa did when it gave up its nuclear weapons in the early 1990s.

Simultaneously, the experts from Princeton suggest that Iran, as the only country in the Middle East with a national civilian enrichment program, could play a pioneering role precisely by advancing a global shift away from national enrichment plants. Countries in the region with plans to construct nuclear power plants (so far, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt) could join in the management of Iran’s enrichment plants and help set the goals for the program and fund any expansion. This would create a major barrier to Iran using its enrichment plants for making nuclear weapon material.

Regional Inspections

To keep everyone honest, the IPFM proposes that discussions be launched among the members of a possible Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction on the design of regional verification arrangements strong enough so that all countries in the region can have confidence in the absence of secret nuclear weapon programs and that countries are complying with the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions. This regional inspection system would be in parallel to the international verification systems associated respectively with the NPT and the Chemical Weapons Convention. There is currently no international system to verify the Biological Weapons Convention.

Obviously, transforming the region into a free zone of weapons of mass destruction is in the interests of all of the people living in the Middle East. Consider the current fear that different groups in Syria will get their hands on chemical weapons and use them for chemical terrorism in the region and elsewhere. All those involved seemed to agree that the best and indeed the only guarantee that this will not happen is by destroying the weapons. The destruction of these weapons should neither be seen as a solution relevant for Syria alone—as it currently is—or as being limited to chemical weapons.  Rather the call for the end of all weapons of mass destruction should be an inclusive regional demand.

The experience of creating nuclear free zones following the end of the Cold War suggests that progress can be made in the absence of a larger or more comprehensive settlement of political conflicts and disputes. Indeed, progress on such issues can contribute to confidence building and improved relations among states and may even serve as the impetus for wider regional rapprochement.

Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation. He can be reached through his website.

First published in Al Jazeera


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Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.

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