A Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East - A Pipe Dream?

Article excerpt

The Middle East is one of the most unstable regions in the world. Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, and its neighbors (Iran and Arab countries) have never accepted this strategic imbalance. Since the mid-1970s they have called for making the entire Middle East a nuclear weapons free zone. The participants at the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference agreed to hold a conference on making the Middle East a nuclear weapons free zone in 2012, but as of the present time few preparations have been made. This study examines the experience of nuclear weapons free zones in the rest of the world, and highlights the huge gap between the Israeli, Arab and Iranian perspectives. The changing security landscape in the Middle East due to the unrest in several Arab countries has added more urgency toward pursuing this objective.

The founding of Israel in 1948 drastically altered the Middle East landscape, particularly the security dynamics. Initially, Arab countries rejected the existence of a Jewish state at the heart of the Middle East. The 1948, '56, '67, and '73 wars, as well as several other skirmishes, can be seen as clear signs and demonstrations of this deeply rooted hostility between the two sides. The Arab-Israeli conflict took a turning-point with the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979. More than ten years later, Jordan signed a similar treaty and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Agreement. Meanwhile, other Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, engaged in commercial relations with Israel without explicitly awarding diplomatic recognition. These developments have reflected a growing realization by both Arab governments and the "Arab Street" that Israel is there to stay and has become an undisputed part of the region's landscape. In short, it can be argued, in recent decades the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict is less about the mere existence and legitimacy of Israel and more about recovering territories occupied in the 1967 war, the return of Palestinian refugees, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

This mutual-acceptance, however, has been challenged by the lack of consensus on how to address the nuclear weapons issue. Since the late 1960s/early 1970s Israel has been widely believed to possess nuclear weapons. As the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israeli governments have strictly adhered to a policy, known as the Begin Doctrine, under which Jerusalem has vowed not to allow its neighbors to develop nuclear weapons. Guided by this policy, the Israeli air force carried out two successful strikes against the Iraqi nuclear reactors (1981) and Syrian nuclear plant (2007). In addition, Israel is closely watching the development of Iran's nuclear program and has repeatedly threatened to take military action to destroy Tehran's nuclear capabilities.

On the other side, Israel's nuclear monopoly has left the Arabs and Iranians with a sense of vulnerability and inferiority. It is little wonder that some of Israel's neighbors have sought to acquire nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The goal is to reach a state of balance of power between the two sides. Arab and Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear capabilities have not succeeded and Israel remains the only nuclear power in the Middle East. Another approach to counter Israel's nuclear arsenal is to pressure Jerusalem to give up its nuclear weapons and establish a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East (NWFZME). Under such a scheme all regional powers would not have access to nuclear weapons and the nuclear military balance between Israel and its neighbors would be restored.

This study seeks to examine the prospects of establishing a NWFZME. The next section provides a definition of the concept "nuclear weapons free zone" and the roots of this concept and how it is related to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). …