Is a nuclear-free Middle East an achievable goal?

Cesar Jaramillo Nuclear Weapons

Cesar Jaramillo

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 33 Issue 4

For almost 40 years, a nuclear-weapons-free Mideast has been an aspiration of the international community

The decision to convene a conference “to be attended by all States of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction” (2010 NPT RevCon) was one of the key reasons that the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was hailed as a success, in contrast to the previous RevCon of 2005. But hopes for the conference to be held as planned are rapidly fading and, with them, confidence in the international community’s capacity to follow through on the commitments assumed at the 2010 RevCon and in the broader health of the international disarmament regime.

The establishment of a Middle East region free of nuclear weapons has been an aspiration of the international community for almost four decades. The United Nations General Assembly first adopted a resolution on this issue, sponsored by Iran and Egypt, in 1974 (UNGA 1974). The resolution, which was broadened in 1990 to include “other weapons of mass destruction,” has been adopted by the General Assembly every year since, most recently during  2012 First Committee sessions. Notably, the adoption of this resolution at the 1995 NPT Review Conference is widely understood to have been a key factor in having the Treaty extended indefinitely. However, until 2010, no concrete measures were put forward to advance this objective.

States parties at the 2010 RevCon agreed on a Final Document containing specific steps to achieve complete and irreversible nuclear disarmament. Featured prominently was the decision to convene a conference on a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

The endorsement of the Middle East conference by all NPT members and the designation of Finland as the official host country were met with widespread optimism. There was a general belief that this initiative would not flounder indefinitely, as had others related to nuclear disarmament. Rather than framing it as an ‘eventual’ objective—a common trapping of NPT decisions—the Mideast conference had a specific date of 2012.

But, with the end of the year fast approaching, all signs are that the conference will be postponed, if not scrapped altogether. As early as mid-November, several media reports had cited unnamed diplomats who declared the meeting dead.


Ensuring a full table

The requirement that the conference “be attended by all states of the Middle East” has turned out to be the most problematic. In May of this year Finnish Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava, the UN-appointed conference facilitator, stated, “Unfortunately, while much has de facto been already achieved in these consultations in terms of identifying common ground, I cannot yet report that the conference will be attended by all states of the region” (Dahl 2012).

The presence of two states—Israel and Iran—is particularly important. Israel harbours what is perhaps the worst kept secret in the nuclear disarmament regime: it is the only state in the region with a nuclear arsenal. Remarkably, the country eludes the label “nuclear weapons state” (NWS) under international law because of an anomaly of the nuclear disarmament regime. Since it is one of the very few states in the world not to have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the multilateral framework under which this designation is used, it is not considered to fall under the NWS category. Non-membership has also signified the lack of any international oversight over its nuclear program, since oversight is also a function of NPT membership.

Moreover, the United States and other powers that consistently call for disarmament and non-proliferation seem content with this lack of scrutiny. The Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton writes that, once the United States became certain that Israel possessed nuclear weapons, “[U.S. President Richard] Nixon and every president since has not pressed Israel to officially disclose its capabilities or to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Key unanswered questions about Iran’s nuclear program focus on Iran’s ability and intention to divert its nuclear energy program to the creation of a weapons capability. Although the Iranian regime has consistently held to the position that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, it has failed to effectively address those questions. Instead, it has relied on accusations that it is being unfairly targeted and demonized by the West and has repeatedly denounced “the current selective, discriminatory and non-balanced approach towards the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation] Treaty” (Iran 2009). Although the double standards underpinning the regime are well known, highlighting these shortcomings has done little to allay the legitimate concerns of the international community.

Iran has not fully embraced unfettered international oversight of its declared and undeclared nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It has also yet to adopt the IAEA Additional Protocol to existing safeguards agreements, which would afford the nuclear watchdog complementary inspection authority.

Iran has signaled that it is willing to attend the conference in Finland, but Israel said in September that it would not be present, arguing that “the realities in the Middle East are far from being conducive” to the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone (Al-Akhbar 2012). The renewal of conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in mid-November makes a reversal of this decision before year’s end unlikely. Even a postponement until 2013 seems problematic.


A matter of sequencing

Getting everyone to the table is and will continue to be a problem. But there are others. Two markedly different positions on sequencing permeate the debate from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum.

On the one hand, a view held primarily by Arab states holds that disarmament negotiations are a crucial step on the path to the long sought regional peace. These states have been advocating for the establishment of a nuclear- and WMD-free zone in the region. The conference itself could be seen as a transparency and confidence-building measure that might foster conditions necessary for an eventual peace.

However, Israel holds the view that regional peace is a necessary precondition for nuclear and WMD disarmament. “Nuclear demilitarization in the Middle East,” said Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission chief Shaul Horev in September, “will be possible only after the establishment of peace and trust among the states of the area” (Oren 2012). As the only nuclear-armed state in the region, Israel presumably does not feel compelled to pursue its own “nuclear demilitarization” until the peace that has eluded the region for decades is established.


A moribund disarmament regime

The optimism engendered by the ability of NPT states parties to produce a consensus outcome document in 2010 is giving way to a broad indictment of the international community’s capacity to live up to its commitments. NPT states parties came out of the 2010 RevCon stressing their willingness to conscientiously implement the specific actions outlined in the final document and to generally strengthen the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. Their track record, alas, has been less than stellar.


  • On September 15 The Washington Post reported that “the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the most powerful but indiscriminate class of weapons ever created, is set to undergo the costliest overhaul in its history” (Priest 2012). This modernization is estimated to cost over $350-billion.
  • Canada has just inked a nuclear cooperation agreement with India—a country that is neither a member of the NPT nor a signatory of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. Despite oft-heard rhetoric about the NPT’s aspirations to universality, “the deal signals that nuclear co-operation is acceptable with what remains effectively a rogue nuclear state” (Ditchburn 2012). Perhaps more troubling is the reality that, despite assurances that Canadian uranium will only be used for peaceful purposes, it will free up domestic holdings that India could allocate to military programs.
  • More than two dozen countries around the world that do not have their own nuclear weapons still rely on those of their NWS allies in their national security strategies. These states have failed to formulate security arrangements that do not rely on the notion of extended deterrence afforded by so-called ‘nuclear umbrellas’. Likewise, the acquiescence of several European countries to having nuclear weapons stationed in their territories as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing policy runs contrary to Article II under the NPT, which calls on non-NWS “not to receive, from any source, nuclear weapons, or other nuclear explosive devices.” This is also a violation of the non-transfer duty of NWS under Article I of the Treaty.
  • In the 2010 RevCon final document states parties reaffirmed their commitment to submit regular reports on their efforts related to nuclear disarmament. But at the NPT Preparatory Committee earlier this year—the first opportunity to submit reports since 2010—only five of 189 members complied.

The decision to convene a Mideast conference on the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone provided yet another chance for the international community to live up to its commitments, boost the credibility of the multilateral nuclear disarmament regime, and advance peace in the region. What will another failure say about the ability of the international community to effectively promote nuclear disarmament and global peace?



Al-Akhbar English. 2012. Israel snubs Middle East nuclear-free summit. September 20.
Dahl, Fredrik. 2012. Mideast nuclear talks thrown into doubt. Reuters, 8 May.

Ditchburn, Jennifer. 2012. Harper’s civilian nuclear trade deal ends Canada’s long freeze on armed India. The Winnipeg Free Press, November 6.

Islamic Republic of Iran. 2009. Report submitted by the Islamic Republic of Iran to the 2009 Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Oren, Amir. 2012. Israel rejects U.S.-backed Arab plan for conference on nuclear-free Mideast. Haaretz, September 20.

Pexton, Patrick B. 2012. What about Israel’s nuclear weapons? The Washington Post, August 31.

Priest, Dana. 2012. Aging U.S. nuclear arsenal slated for costly and long-delayed modernization. The Washington Post, September 15.

UN General Assembly. 1974. Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Region of the Middle East. Resolution 3263 (XXIX), December 9.

2010 NPT Review Conference, Final Document, NPT/CONF.2010/50 (Vol. I).

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