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A nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East--a pipe dream?

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). This will be followed by a close examination of other regions' experiments with NWFZ. Specifically, I discuss the already-established five NWFZs. Then the analysis focuses on the efforts to reach a consensus on creating a similar zone in the Middle East and the opposing Arab-Iranian and Israeli approaches. I also discuss the potential impact of the growing interest in peaceful nuclear power in Iran and several Arab countries on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the concluding section I summarize the main findings of the study and explore the potential of ridding the Middle East of nuclear weapons. I argue that the efforts to create a NWFZME should be part of a broader strategy to slow the conventional arms race and reach a genuine and comprehensive peace agreement. The intense unrest in several Arab countries since early 2011 adds more urgency to reaching a consensus on a regional security system.

Nuclear Weapons Free Zone--Definition

A NWFZ is a regional arrangement that prohibits the "development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition, possession, control, along with assistance in research on the development, manufacture, stockpiling or acquisition, or possession of any nuclear explosive device within the zone of application by any contracting party." (1) By creating geographical areas that are completely free of nuclear weapons, these zones contribute to world peace and to making the entire world free of this weapon system. Indeed, NWFZs and the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) pursue similar goals. While the NPT takes a global approach to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, NWFZs complement this approach on a regional basis. They further strengthen the nonproliferation and disarmament norm, and reduce the geographic area in which nuclear weapons can be deployed or used. The NPT recognizes this role of NWFZs. Article VII of the NPT states that "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." (2)

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 3472 (1975) states that as a general rule, a NWFZ "be deemed to be any zone recognized as such by the United Nations General Assembly, which any groups of states, in the free exercise of their sovereignty, have established by virtue of a treaty or convention." (3) According to the Resolution the treaties that establish NWFZs have to meet two conditions: A) A total absence of nuclear weapons, including the procedure for the delimitation of the zone; B) An international system of verification and control to guarantee compliance with the stated obligations.

The state-parties to the NWRZ treaties usually receive legally binding security assurances from the five NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States), who, by signing and ratifying the relevant protocols to the treaties, pledge to respect the status of NWFZs and not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against parties to these treaties. Such declarations of nonuse of nuclear weapons are referred to as negative security assurances. However, the five nuclear-armed countries have at times signed and ratified a NWFZ protocol and declared conditions reserving the right to use nuclear weapons in certain scenarios against parties to a NWFZ. For instance, the United States signed the protocol for the African NWFZ in 1996 with a declaration that it would reserve the right to respond with all options implying possible use of nuclear weapons, to a chemical or biological weapons attack by a member of the zone. Similarly, none of the nuclear-weapon states have signed the relevant protocol for the treaty creating a zone in Southeast Asia because of concerns that it conflicts with the right of their ships and aircraft to have freedom of movement in international waters and airspace.

In addition to contributing to regional and global disarmament, NWFZs facilitate confidence building among regional powers and improve the chances of cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Other potential areas of cooperation include the prohibiting of dumping of radioactive waste in the oceans and the establishment of safety standards against the theft of nuclear materials.

The concept of NWFZ has its roots in the Cold War and the fear of a nuclear confrontation between the superpowers. In 1956 the Soviet Union introduced the idea of a NWFZ in Central Europe at the UN General Assembly. Two years later, 1958, the Polish government proposed a NWFZ covering Poland, Czechoslovakia, both German states, and other European countries. The Polish government was mainly concerned about Americans deploying nuclear weapons in West Germany and the Soviets deploying nuclear weapons in Poland. In addition to banning the manufacture, possession, stationing, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons and equipment, the proposal called for the prohibition of nuclear attacks against state members in the zone. Finally, the plan included the establishment of an international verification mechanism. (4) Neither the Soviet suggestion nor the Polish proposal (named Rapacki Plan after the Polish foreign minister, Adam Rapacki) made any progress due to the mutual suspicion and hostility that characterized the Cold War era, and the fear that the Polish proposal (Poland was a Soviet satellite when it made this proposal) strongly favored the Soviet bloc by removing the ability of the US to use nuclear weapons if the then vastly superior Red Army swept into western Europe. In the ensuing years other countries including Sweden, Finland, and Romania made similar proposals. These initiatives often stemmed from the desire to prevent a nuclear holocaust. It is no wonder that the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (the closest the world had ever come to a nuclear confrontation) served as a catalyst to the creation of NWFZs in Latin America and elsewhere.

The Experience in Other Regions:

There are five NWFZs in the world that had been created by five regional agreements: The Latin and Caribbean NWFZ (the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco), the South Pacific NWFZ (the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga), the Southeast Asian NWFZ (the 1995 Treaty of Bangkok), the African NWFZ (the 1995 Treaty of Pelindaba), and the Central Asian NWFZ (the 1997 Treaty of Semipalatinsk). One hundred and eleven countries with approximately two billion people are state parties to these NWFZs. (5) In addition, there are treaties banning the deployment of nuclear weapons in Antarctica, Mongolia, on the seabed, and in outer space. Thus, NWFZs are "part and parcel of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime." (6)

Different dynamics created the appropriate conditions for establishing each NWFZ. As Muhammad El-Baradei, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), explains, "Because the causes of insecurity vary from region to region, security solutions do not come in a 'one-size-fits-all' package. It is for this reason that regional dialogues and NWFZs are so beneficial." (7)

African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba): In 1961 the United Nations Generally Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution calling on Member States to consider and respect the continent of Africa as a de-nuclearized zone. In 1964 the Organization of African Unity issued the Declaration on the denuclearization of Africa which was subsequently endorsed by the UNGA. (8) The Treaty prohibits the research, development, testing, possession, control or stationing of nuclear explosive devices in the territory of parties to the Treaty and the dumping of radioactive wastes. The Treaty also prohibits any attack against nuclear installations in the zone by Treaty parties and requires them to maintain the highest standards of peaceful purposes. The Treaty requires all parties to apply full-scope IAEA safeguards to all their peaceful nuclear activities. The Treaty established the African Commission on Nuclear Energy to serve as the mechanism to verify compliance. (9) The treaty was signed in 1996 and came into effect with the 28th ratification on July 15, 2009.

South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga): The Treaty was signed by the South Pacific nations of Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Western Samoa on the island of Rarotonga on August 6, 1985, and has since been ratified by all of those states. Several islands in the Indian Ocean also belong to Australia and are therefore part of the zone. (10) The Treaty bans the manufacture, possession, stationing, and testing of any nuclear explosive device. It also bans the dumping of radioactive waste at sea. (11)

Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty (Bangkok Treaty): The notion of SEANWFZ dates back to November 1971, when the original five members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kuala Lumpur signed a Declaration on a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality. However, due to the unfavorable political environment in the region, the formal proposal for the establishment of such a zone was tabled in the mid-1980s. After a decade of negotiations the Treaty was signed by ten Asian countries under the auspices of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN): Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. It entered into force on March 28, 1997. (12) It obliges its members not to develop, manufacture, acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons. It also obliges them not to provide a source of special fissionable materials or equipment to any non-nuclear weapon state unless subject to safeguard agreements with the IAEA. (13)

Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (Treaty of Semipalatinsk): The idea of a Central Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (CANWFZ) dates back to the 1992 initiative by Mongolia declaring itself a NWFZ and calling for regional NWFZ. The first formal CANWFZ proposal was made by Uzbek President Islam Karimov at the 48th session of the UNGA in 1993. Additional proposals followed in 1994-96 but none made any headway due to a lack of regional consensus. The crucial step was taken in February 1997 when the five presidents of the Central Asian States (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) issued the Almaty Declaration endorsing the creation of a CANWFZ. Experts from the five Central Asian States agreed on the text of a treaty at a meeting held in Samarkand in Uzbekistan in September 2002. In February 2005 they adopted a final draft of the treaty in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The Treaty opened for signature in September 2006 and entered into force in March 2009. (14)

The five signatories agreed not to research, develop, manufacture, stockpile, acquire, or possess nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. The Treaty bans the receipt, storage, installation or other form of possession of any nuclear weapon on the territory of the member states. Each party pledges not to carry out nuclear weapons tests and to prevent nuclear explosions at any place under its control. Finally the Treaty does not affect rights and obligations of the parties under other international treaties concluded prior to the entry into force of the CANWFZ. (15)

Treaty of Tlatelolco: Costa Rica was the first regional state to propose a Latin American nuclear arms control arrangement at the Organization of American States (OAS) council meeting in 1958. Other proposals were unsuccessfully floated within the OAS context during 1958-60. Still, the regional consensus was building and by 1963 Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico called for the establishment of a NWFZ in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Treaty was drafted five years after the Cuban Missiles Crisis and opened for signature in February 1967 and entered into force in April 1969. Cuba was the last country to sign (1995) and ratify (2002) the Treaty, completing signature and ratification by all 33 nations of Latin American and the Caribbean. (16)

The Treaty aims to prohibit the testing, use, manufacture, production, or acquisition of nuclear weapons directly or indirectly. Member parties pledged to refrain from engaging, authorizing, or participating in the testing, use, production, or possession of nuclear weapons. This was the first time such a ban of nuclear weapons was imposed in a densely populated area. Praising the Treaty, the IAEA former Director-General Mohamed El-Baradei stated, "The Treaty sets an important precedent in devaluing the role of nuclear weapons in its zone of application, thereby contributing to regional peace and security by ensuring that Latin America and the Caribbean remained free from nuclear weapons." (17)

These five NWFZs suggest that two crucial criteria are necessary for successfully establishing a NWFZ: a common historical understanding among regional states and a manageable relationship with the five recognized nuclear weapons states. Stated differently, deep-rooted hostilities among regional states and intense tension with one or more of the nuclear weapons states are factors that are likely to complicate the creation of a NWFZ. This largely explains the failure to establish a NWFZ in the Middle East. The decades-long animosity between Israel on one side and Iran and some of the Arab states and non-states actors on the other side needs to be addressed. At the same time, the deep-rooted hostility between Iran and the United States needs to be resolved. The challenge, as the analysis below suggests, is which comes first, taking steps to build confidence between regional and international rivals that might lead to the establishment of a MENWFZ or starting with establishing such a zone as a major step to pursue regional peace. For about four decades regional powers have failed to reach an agreement on how to address this challenge.

Attempts to Establish a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East

The efforts to establish a MENWFZ have been pursued at national, regional, and international levels for almost four decades. Since Israel was thought to have acquired nuclear weapons capability in the late 1960s/early 1970s, its Arab and Iranian neighbors have sought to restore the balance of power by exerting diplomatic pressure on the Jewish state to give up these presumed weapons. As early as 1974, Iran under the Shah and Egypt under Sadat proposed a MENWFZ to the United Nations General Assembly. Both Tehran and Cairo did not and still do not possess nuclear weapons. Their mutual aim was to compel Israel to dismantle its nuclear weapons. Six years later (1980), Jerusalem produced its own proposal and called for direct negotiations between regional powers instead of installing a zone by the international community. Arab, Iranian, and Israeli diplomatic maneuvers failed to achieve any success. Meanwhile, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) underscored the security challenges the entire Middle East had encountered.

This eight-year war between the two Gulf powers gave momentum to the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons as well as short and medium range missiles. This new security environment represented a new threat not only to the Persian Gulf nations, but also to Israel. In order to address this threat, Egypt, the United States, and the United Nations pursued different strategies.

In April 1990 the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak proposed the establishment of a weapon of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East (WMDFZME). His proposal comprised three components: First, all WMD--nuclear, chemical, biological, or otherwise--should be prohibited. Second, all regional powers should make equal and reciprocal commitments. Third, verification measures and modalities should be established to ascertain full compliance. (18)

Following the liberation of Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation (1990-91), the United States made good on its promise to the Arab partners to re-activate its efforts towards a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. A peace conference was held in Madrid, Spain, in which Israel and most of its Arab neighbors participated. The United States, European Union, and Soviet Union also were represented. The participants created five multilateral working groups. Thirteen Arab states, Israel, a Palestinian delegation, and a number of extra-regional entities participated in these working groups. The focus was on confidence-building. The Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) negotiated issues related to disarmament.

The participants sought to follow the East-West experience. (19) These unprecedented talks, however, failed due to the large and deep differences between the parties, notably Egypt and Israel. The two sides could not agree on the connection between nuclear disarmament, conventional weapons, and peace. (20)

Similar efforts were made at the United Nations to promote the idea of a MENWFZ. Article #14 of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 687, which terminated the Persian Gulf War in 1991, states, "Actions to be taken by Iraq represent steps towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons." (21) In 1998 the UN Secretary General commissioned a study on the effective and verifiable measures that would facilitate the establishment of a MENWFZ. The report did not propose explicit language for a treaty, but did suggest a catalogue of measures to serve as confidence-building measures and as steps to prepare for a regime that would finally become a NWFZ. (22)

The NPT review conferences echoed similar sentiments. The 1995 the participants issued a resolution on the Middle East calling on establishing a MENWFZ and recommending states not parties to the NPT to accede to it and, thereby, accepting an international legally binding commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons. (23) The 2010 NPT Review Conference went one step further by calling for a conference on the creation of a WMDFZ for the Middle East by 2012. Finally, the leaders of 43 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa participating in the first Mediterranean summit in July 2008 adopted a declaration calling for the creation of a verifiable MEWMDFZ.

These calls by several international forums have not succeeded in bridging the huge gap between regional powers. The lack of any progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process and the Iranian leaders' rhetoric regarding Israel have made reaching a common stand on a MENWFZ much harder.

The Israeli Perception

Israel has always adopted a skeptical view of global arms control and disarmament treaties, (24) and Israeli leaders have always stressed that the proliferation of WMD in the Middle East will have to be handled within a regional framework. (25) Several aspects of the Israeli perception can be identified in the Israeli stand on a MENWFZ. First, the creation of the state of Israel followed the extraordinary experience in World War II, when the Nazis killed millions of Jews. This dramatic experience shaped the Israeli collective psyche, particularly in the first decades after the formation of Israel. Israeli leaders have always believed that nuclear weapons will shield them from a future Holocaust and see nuclear weapons as a last line of defense--an "insurance policy" to guarantee their survival. Refusal to recognize Israel and rhetoric calling for its destruction only feed this belief in the necessity of the nuclear option.

Second, Israeli leaders present their country's supposed nuclear capability as a deterrent helping to stabilize the Middle East. They argue that Israel's presumed nuclear capability has forced its adversaries to accept that Israel is here to stay. Israel's conventional weapon superiority and its nuclear arsenal make it an indispensable part of the Middle Eastern landscape. Israeli conventional and unconventional might, the argument goes, has forced Arabs to negotiate and reduced incentives for all-out war.

Third, Israel has aimed to monopolize the nuclear option, always seeking to deny its adversaries such capability. To achieve this end, Israel has employed diplomatic and military pressure against potential nuclear proliferators. The 1981 successful raid on Iraq's nuclear facilities made Israel the first nation to launch a preemptive strike against an adversary's nuclear reactor. The successful 2007 attack on Syria's nuclear plant was in line with this doctrine.

Fourth, Israel has hesitated to fully endorse the global nonproliferation regime. It has never placed its Dimona nuclear facility under the IAEA safeguards, nor has it since 1970 allowed any other type of inspection visits to that site. Israel has not signed the NPT or the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC); it has signed but not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Israeli analysts argue nevertheless that Israel abides by the global norms and rules of the global nonproliferation regime. Gerald M. Steinberg claims that unlike Pakistan, whose chief nuclear scientist Abdel Qadir Khan provided nuclear technology to several potential proliferators, Israel has refused to share its nuclear expertise with other regimes (except the South African apartheid regime). (26)

Fifth, Israeli leaders have repeatedly made a comprehensive peace between Israel and all Arab states and Iran a prerequisite to joining a MENWFZ. Israel, they insist, would only cede its nuclear option if all its neighbors recognized and engaged in diplomatic and commercial ties with it. In other words, peace treaties would not be sufficient. Israelis require complete normalization of relations to ensure full acceptance from their neighbors.

These five characteristics of the Israeli perception suggest three conclusions. Israel is highly unlikely to endorse a MENWFZ. The few statements Israeli leaders have made regarding such a zone indicate that they link their national survival to their nuclear weapons capability. Moreover, the refusal by Israel, India, and Pakistan to join the NPT has prompted some analysts to suggest special arrangements to accommodate these three non-signatory states. Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham, for example, propose a form of NPT associate membership. (27) Others have called on Israel to follow the path taken by South Africa and relinquish its nuclear weapons. (28) Israel is unlikely to accept either proposal. Finally, presumed Israeli nuclear capability and Arab and Iranian lack thereof, is considered a major reason for the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons in the region. Unable to achieve nuclear capability, Israel's adversaries have sought other WMD as second-best deterrents.

The Arab-Iranian Perception

Although there is no single united Arab-Iranian approach to a MENWFZ, Iran and most Arab states share similar sentiments. They do not see the Israeli nuclear arsenal as a "weapon of last resort" or "insurance policy" ensuring Israel's survival. Military asymmetry, and particularly Jerusalem's nuclear capability, is seen in Tehran and most Arab capitals as enforcing the occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories and a "primary threat to regional security and a factor of instability." (29) The fact that Israel is the region's only presumed nuclear power underscores and feeds a sense of Arab and Iranian technological and military inferiority. Arab countries vowed to drop out of the NPT if Israel ever officially acknowledges it has nuclear weapons. (30)

Iranian and Arab governments accuse Western powers of applying a double standard regarding Middle Eastern nuclear proliferation. From the Arab and Iranian prospective, the United States and major European powers have allowed--even assisted Israel in acquiring nuclear weapons but have strongly resisted Arab and Iranian attempts to develop similar capability. Many Arab officials have argued that so long as Israel maintains its nuclear option, Iran and other regional powers will have incentives to seek a similar capability. Accordingly, the most effective way to deal with Iran's nuclear ambition, some Arabs argue, is to pressure Israel to dismantle its nuclear weapons and join the NPT.

Arab states in the Gulf region took a number of initiatives to pave the way for the establishment of a MENWFZ. In 2004 analysts at the Gulf Research Center, based in Dubai, explored the possibility of establishing a NWFZ covering the nine states of the Gulf region Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Representatives from several Gulf States discussed this concept of a sub-regional zone. The proposal was presented as a tactical step towards a broader MENWFZ. (31) In 2008, the Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khald bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa called for the establishment of a regional organization that includes Israel, Iran, Turkey, and Arab states to discuss the issue of nuclear weapons. (32)

Egypt, with strong historical justification, has long considered itself the leader of the Arab world. Cairo led the Arab side in four wars against Israel. Thus, at least in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s Egypt had incentives to engage in a nuclear arms race with Israel. However, the country's leaders never allocated the necessary resources to build such capabilities. Instead, they chose to utilize diplomacy to convince or compel their adversaries to abide by the norms of the nonproliferation regime. These efforts have largely failed with regard to Israel. The intense confrontation over Iran's nuclear program since the early 2000s further fueled the Egyptian efforts to address the proliferation issue in the Middle East.

For a long time Egypt adopted a clear two-fold position on the nonproliferation regime. First, for almost four decades Cairo called for making the entire Middle East a nuclear weapons free zone and later expanded this call to include all weapons of mass destruction. Second, although Egypt signed and ratified the NPT, it refrained from fully accepting commitments in other major agreements such as the CWC, the BTWC, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Fossil Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), and the Additional Protocol. According to Ezzedine Ramzy, then Egypt's Deputy Foreign Minister, Cairo has conditioned its acceptance of additional commitments on Israel's joining the NPT. (33)

The controversy over Iran's nuclear program is important to Egypt in an indirect way. The Islamic Republic of Iran does not pose a national security threat to Egypt. Unlike Israel, Cairo and Tehran have never gone to war against each other and Iran has never occupied any part of Egyptian territory. Rather, Egypt has a two-fold concern about Iran's nuclear program. First, a nuclear Iran might become more assertive in pursuing its regional agenda. Former President Mubarak, along with other Arab leaders, was very suspicious of the Iranian policy. The post-Mubarak government in Cairo has expressed a willingness to open a new page with Iran and seems willing to re-normalize relations with Tehran. Second, Iran's nuclear program underscores Egypt's inferior status regarding nuclear arms and nuclear technology in general. Egypt has never comfortably accepted that Israel has a nuclear monopoly over nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Iran with a nuclear weapons capability would further highlight Egypt's lagging behind in this race and nuclear technology in general.

Against this background, Egyptian officials have struggled to articulate a coherent stance. Former President Mubarak rejected a potential expansion of a U.S. nuclear umbrella to include the Gulf States and Egypt. Mubarak stressed that such an umbrella "would imply accepting foreign troops and experts on our land and an implicit acceptance of regional nuclear powers. We do not accept that." (34) Answering a question on whether Egypt would go nuclear if Iran does, Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's former ambassador to the United States (1999-2008) argued that it is not the only option. Egypt, Fahmy stressed, can pursue its national security interests by "taking political measures, balancing with other weapon systems, by limiting commitments to agreements and by trying to have a symmetrical response." (35)

Since Iran does not have a nuclear weapons capability, these Egyptian options are speculative. Rather, three concrete characteristics can be identified in Cairo's past stance on Iran's nuclear program. First, Egyptian officials have repeatedly confirmed that like other signatories of the NPT, Iran has the right to benefit from the peaceful use of nuclear energy, provided that it proves that its program is for peaceful uses. Second, Iran's nuclear dossier needs to be dealt with politically, not through military actions. Cairo believes that a military action against Iran would further destabilize the region. Third, in order to avoid an accusation of applying a double standard, a comprehensive approach should be adopted that includes both Iran and Israel and leads to the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the entire Middle East. It is not clear whether Egypt, either previously or under any new regime, has the diplomatic and political leverage to convince/pressure other players to adopt its stance. Meanwhile, like other Middle Eastern states, Egypt has embarked on an ambitious program to expand its civilian nuclear power infrastructure.

Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons

Since the early 2000s a large number of Arab countries, and many others all over the world, have expressed interest in establishing and developing nuclear programs to generate electricity, among other civilian uses. Like other regions, environmental, financial, and strategic concerns are driving nuclear interest in the Arab world. Due to heavy oil subsidies, many Arab cities are among the most polluted in the world. Replacing oil by nuclear power in generating electricity and for water desalinization would release more oil for export and increase national revenues. Finally, Arabs' interest in nuclear power can be seen as a potential hedging strategy against Iran's nuclear program. The relative weight of each drive varies from one Arab country to another. In addition, how they will address the uncertainties surrounding nuclear power is yet to be spelled out. What is certain is that the growing interest in nuclear power in the Arab world has the potential to drastically alter the security and strategic landscape in the entire Middle East with significant implications worldwide.

The link between civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons has been a serious unresolved worry throughout the nuclear age. The expansion of civilian nuclear power is likely to contribute to the dissemination of expertise, technology, and material that would be useful in launching nuclear weapons programs. Stated differently, the connection between civilian and military applications of nuclear power seems inevitable. The technologies--uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing--provide the foundation for both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. This is dubbed the dual-use dilemma. Specifically, the challenge is that a potential spread of nuclear fuel cycle technologies, especially technologies for uranium enrichment and for reprocessing spent fuel to separate plutonium, poses a serious concern to the nuclear proliferation regime because enrichment and reprocessing capabilities give states the capability to produce fissile materials for weapons. (36) A commercial enrichment plant producing low-enrichment uranium (LEU) could be reconfigured to produce high-enriched uranium (HEU).

The growing global interest in nuclear power has focused new attention on nuclear fuel production. The uranium enrichment market is currently dominated by a small number of large global companies. This concentration has underscored the vulnerability of states with no national enrichment facilities and fueled their suspicion that external supplies of enriched uranium may become associated with political pressure. The Iran-EURODIF affair is a case in point. In the 1970s the Shah of Iran loaned more than $1 billion to support the construction of the EURODIF diffusion enrichment plant in France. This gave Iran a 10% share in the consortium and made it entitled to 10% of the uranium enriched by EURODIF. With the 1979 revolution in Iran, EURODIF refused to deliver the LEU to the Islamic Republic.

This uncertainty regarding the supply of nuclear fuel has contributed to the controversy over the adequacy of the global regime to find the "appropriate" balance between full utilization of nuclear power for peaceful applications and preventing nuclear weapons proliferation. In 1957 the international community established the IAEA with the mandate to pursue such balance--reassuring the international community that civil nuclear programs are not contributing to weapons acquisition. In the intervening decades, the role of the Agency has grown, evolving in response to Member States' needs. After the uncovering of Iraq's clandestine nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, the IAEA's mandate was further strengthened by introducing the "Additional Protocol" which gave the Agency more inspecting power.

The NPT is the key foundation of the global nonproliferation order. The Treaty is based on a balance among three pillars nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. These three pillars are integrally linked and the achievements in each area are likely to require progress in the others. The non-nuclear states insist on the priority of the second and third pillars, while the nuclear states emphasize the importance of nonproliferation.

The nuclear weapons states emphasize the objective of preventing the further spread of sensitive nuclear technologies and material. They argue that the more states that acquire their own national enrichment of reprocessing capability, the more worrisome the nuclear future will be. On the other side, the non-nuclear weapons states insist that the NPT incorporated the principle that states have an "inalienable right" to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Article IV states: "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the parties to the Treaty to develop research, produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes." (37) They further argue that it is a diversion to contend that the solution to nonproliferation rests in limiting technological rights for states that are in compliance with their treaty obligations. (Iranian officials often refer to this Article to defend their nuclear program).

This on-going controversy raises two largely unanswered questions. First, will the nonproliferation regime be adequate in a world where there is more nuclear knowledge and technology spread across more states? (38) And second, does every country need its own nuclear fuel cycle? Or would it be more economical, with minimal risks of proliferation and an effective verification system, to rely on multilateral fuel banks? (39)

In order to solve this nonproliferation conundrum, several proposals have been considered since the dawn of the nuclear age. Their common goal is to prevent an increase in the number of states that would be capable of producing weapons-usable nuclear material. Most of them have sought to reach this goal by proposing that international entities take charge of uranium enrichment or platinum reprocessing instead of national authorities. In other words, the internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle is their underlying theme. Most of these proposals are generally considered technically feasible, but lack political consensus and commitment, particularly among nuclear power aspiring states. Bluntly, these aspiring nuclear power states are concerned that the process of supplying them with nuclear fuel cycle can be manipulated for political purposes.

In late 2000s the UAE and the U.S signed an agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation under which the UAE made a commitment not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel. This is the first time that a cooperating partner of the U.S. has made a legal commitment in a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement to forgo enrichment and reprocessing. Washington seeks to establish the USUAE agreement as the model for other states in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is unlikely that other Arab countries will follow this model, particularly if Iran is allowed to keep enriching uranium. In short, the evolution of Iran's nuclear program and the international community's response are likely to influence the development of nuclear programs in the Arab states on the Gulf and the broader Middle East. Finally, Israel is certain to be concerned about the growing interest in nuclear power in the Arab world and Iran. How Israel would react to the construction and operation of nuclear reactors in the Middle East is yet to be seen.

To sum up, given the strong connection between peaceful and military uses of nuclear power, the growing interest in this source of energy (despite Japan's nuclear disaster in early 2011) has raised security alarms and added more uncertainty to the strategic landscape in the Middle East.

Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East--the Way Forward

Several conclusions can be drawn from the discussion of the five established NWFZ and the unsuccessful efforts to create one in the Middle East. First, the experience all over the world suggests that a certain level of peace and accommodation is essential to reach a consensus on NWFZ. Peace and nonproliferation go hand in hand and reinforce one another. Given the deep-rooted conflicts in the Middle East, an NWFZ would require considerable changes in the strategic landscape, including a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, stability in the Persian Gulf, and a rapprochement between Israel and major Gulf states. Second, settling these conflicts and creating the right environment for a comprehensive and durable peace will take a long time. In the short and medium terms, if peace is the objective, Middle Eastern states need to implement confidence-building and arms-control measures that would reduce the underlying causes of violence and war. They need to engage in mutually beneficial economic and cultural relations. A slowdown or containment of conventional arm-races would enhance prospects for regional peace. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Middle Eastern states accounted for 17% of international transfers of major conventional weapons in the period 2006-10, down from 21 percent in 2001-05. In the second half of the decade 23% of all major arms transfers to the ME went to the UAE, 14% to Israel and 13% to Egypt. (40)

Third, foreign powers play a significant role in establishing and maintaining NWFZs. Part of their role is providing the so-called negative security assurance and positive security assurance. The former is a declaration by a nuclear-weapon state not to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state. The latter is a pledge to aid a non-nuclear weapon state if it is the victim of a nuclear attack. Occasionally, some global powers have maintained a level of ambiguity regarding these commitments. The more than three decades deep hostility between Washington and Tehran poses a major hurdle to the prospects of establishing a MENWFZ.

Finally, many Israelis argue that their nuclear arsenal is their last line of defense and they should not give up such capability unless Iran and all Arab states completely accept them. On the other side, many Arabs and Iranians insist that they cannot negotiate peace with Israel without prior nuclear disarmament. The lack of any real progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process, Iran's nuclear program and the recent uprisings in several Arab countries add more uncertainties. The need to establish a MENWFZ has never been greater. The question is: Will the concerned parties be able to rise to face this challenge?

Gawdat Bahgat *

Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies

National Defense University, Washington, D.C.

(1) Center for Nonproliferation Studies, NWFZ Clearinghouse, available on line at Accessed May 14, 2008.

(2) United Nations, Non-Proliferation Treaty, available at Accessed April 5, 2011.

(3) United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 3472 (1975) available at Accessed April 5, 2011.

(4) Nuclear Threat Initiative, Nuclear Weapons Free Zones, available at Accessed April 5, 2011.

(5) Wakana Mukai, "The Importance of Nuclear Weapons Free Zones," Journal of Science and World Affairs, Vol.1, No.2, June 2005, pp.79-86, p.81.

(6) Jozef Goldblat, "Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones: A History and Assessment," Nonproliferation Review, Vol.4, No.3, Spring-Summer 1997, pp.18-32, p.19.

(7) Muhammad ElBaradei, "Nuclear Weapons Free Zone: Pursuing Security, Region by Region," Statements of the Director General, Conference of States Parties and Signatories of Treaties that Establish Nuclear Weapons Free Zones, Tlatelolco, Mexico, April 26, 2005, available at Accessed January 24, 2006.

(8) Nuclear Threat Initiative, African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty, available at Accessed April 16, 2011.

(9) Federation of American Scientists, African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty, available at Accessed April 16, 2011.

(10) Nuclear Threat Initiative, South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, Treaty of Rarotonga, available at Accessed April 16, 2011.

(11) Federation of American Scientists, South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, Treaty of Rarotonga, available at Accessed April 16, 2011.

(12) Nuclear Threat Initiative, Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, Bangkok Treaty, available at Accessed April 17, 2011.

(13) Federation of American Scientists, Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, Bangkok Treaty, available at Accessed April 17, 2011.

(14) Nuclear Threat Initiative, Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, available at Accessed April 17, 2011.

(15) Federation of American Scientists, Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, available at Accessed April 17, 2011.

(16) Nuclear Threat Initiative, Treaty of Tlatelolco, available at Accessed April 18, 2011.

(17) International Atomic Energy Agency, "Tlatelolco Treaty A Trailblazer for Non-Proliferation," available at Accessed April 18, 2011.

(18) Mohamed I. Shaker, The Middle East Issue: Possibilities of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, available at Accessed April 6, 2006.

(19) Claudia Baumgart and Harald Muller, "A Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East: A Pie in the Sky?" Washington Quarterly, Vol.28, No.1, Winter 2004/05, p.47.

(20) Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East, available at Accessed April 18, 2011.

(21) United Nations Security Council, Resolution 687 (1991), available at Accessed April 18, 2011.

(22) Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East.

(23) Federation of American Scientists, Resolution on the Middle East, available at Accessed April 7, 2006.

(24) Gerald M. Steinberg, "Middle East Arms Control and Regional Security," Survival, No.36, No.1, January 1994, pp.126-41.

(25) mily Landau and Tamar Malz, "Israel's Arms Control Agenda," Strategic Assessment, Vol.2, No.4, March 2000, available at Accessed March 15, 2000.

(26) Gerald M. Steinberg, "The International Atomic Energy Agency and Israel: A Realistic Agenda," Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol.3, No.27, July 2004, available at Accessed August 10, 2004.

(27) Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham, Jr., "An NPT for Non-Members," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.60, No.3, July 2004, pp.40-44.

(28) Yossi Melman, "El-Baradei Calls on Israel to Give up Nukes," Haaretz, December 12, 2003.

(29) Sami G. Hajjar, "Regional Perspectives on the Causes of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East," Comparative Strategy, Vol.19, No.1, January 2000, p.40.

(30) Associated Press, "Arab League Vows to Drop out of NPT if Israel Admits it Has Nuclear Weapons," available at = 961275. Accessed March 5, 2008.

(31) Mustafa Alani, "The Gulf NW and WMD Free Zone: A Track II Initiative," International Relations, Vol.22, No.3, September 2008, pp.358-62.

(32) Yoav Stern, "Bahraini FM Calls for Mideast Forum that Includes Israel, Iran," Haaretz, October 1, 2008.

(33) WMD Insights, Algeria, Emirates Plan Nonproliferation-Friendly Nuclear Programs; Egypt Keeps Fuel Cycle Options Open, Rejects Expanded IAEA Monitoring, available at Accessed June 13, 2008.

(34) Fareed Mahdy, "Egypt Rejects U.S. Nuclear Umbrella," International Press Service, available at Accessed August 25, 2010.

(35) Peter Crail and Miles A. Pomper, the Middle East and Nonproliferation: An Interview with Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's Ambassador to the United States, Arms Control Association, available at Accessed September 3, 2008.

(36) Anatoly S. Diyakov, "The Nuclear Renaissance and Preventing the Spread of Enrichment and Reprocessing Technologies: A Russian View," Daedalus, Vol.139, No.1, Winter 2010, p.119.

(37) The text of the Treaty is available at Accessed December 24, 2010.

(38) Steven E. Miller and Scott D. Dagan, "Nuclear Power without Nuclear Proliferation?" Daedalus, Vol.138, No.4, Fall 2009, p.14.

(39) Mohamed I. Shaker, "Nuclear Power in the Arab World and the Regionalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: An Egyptian Perspective," Daedalus, Vol.139, No.1, Winter 2010, p.93.

(40) Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India World's Largest Arms Importer According to New SIPRI Data on International Arms Transfers, available at Accessed March 14, 2011.

* Address for correspondence: Gawdat.Bahgat@NDU.EDU
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Author:Bahgat, Gawdat
Publication:The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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