Prospects for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East

By Bahgat, Gawdat | World Affairs, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Prospects for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East


Bahgat, Gawdat, World Affairs


At the March 2006 Arab summit in Khartoum, Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Moussa called on Arabs to "enter into the nuclear club and make use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes." (1) This call comes in the midst of global concern over the proliferation, particularly in the Middle East, of nuclear material and technology. In the last several years, significant developments have heightened this global concern. In 2003, the United States led an international coalition to destroy Iraq's chemical, biological, and nuclear capabilities. Almost simultaneously, Libya, another Middle Eastern state, was holding secret negotiations with the United Kingdom and the United States to dismantle its nonconventional capabilities. These negotiations reached a successful conclusion in December 2003, with announcements in London, Tripoli, and Washington confirming Libya's intentions to fully cooperate with the international nonproliferation regime. Since then, Mummar al-Qadhafi has made good on this pledge, and gradually Libya has been reintegrated in the international community.

Iran, on the other hand, has continued to pursue its nuclear ambition for the last two decades. Since the early 2000s, Iran's nuclear program has been under intense international scrutiny. The United States and several European countries accuse Tehran of seeking to build nuclear weapons, whereas Iranian leaders categorically deny these accusations and claim that their nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. International efforts to end the dispute have gained momentum since early 2006, when the United Nations Security Council started debating the issue. Israel, meanwhile, is recognized by almost all intelligence services as the only nuclear power in the Middle East, although the Jewish state has never admitted such capability.

Regional and international dynamics complicate the Middle East's nuclear uncertainty. Several Middle Eastern countries have accumulated an extensive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and means of delivery (e.g., ballistic missiles). India and Pakistan, two large nations on the Middle East's periphery, have developed nuclear capabilities but have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

To end this nuclear uncertainty, several diplomatic, economic, and military options have been considered, and some have already been implemented. The list includes prolonged negotiations, economic sanctions, and military strikes. Meanwhile, proposals to establish a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East have been under consideration for more than three decades. An NWFZ is a specified region whose countries forswear the manufacture, acquisition, testing, and possession of nuclear weapons. Each treaty establishing an NWFZ includes a legally binding protocol with the five nuclear weapons states recognized under the NPT (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The protocols call on these five powers not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against treaty parties. (2) These declarations are referred to as negative security assurances. Thus, proposals to create an NWFZ in the Middle East would achieve two fundamental goals--abolition of nuclear weapons throughout the region and provision of guarantees against attack from existing nuclear weapons states. Article VII of the NPT endorses the NWFZ concept by stating, "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." (3) In 1975, the United Nations General Assembly reaffirmed that right. (4)

The current strategic environment in the Middle East might make proposals to establish an NWFZ seem a utopian dream. The ongoing fighting in Iraq, the diplomatic confrontation between Western powers and Iran, and the lack of any meaningful peace between Israel and the Palestinians indicate grave instability and mutual suspicion. …

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