Earlier this summer, well before Hamas launched its raids against Israel, Pierre Goldschmidt, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) former Deputy Director for Safeguards, sent me an analysis of how to approach creating a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. I agreed to publish it along with a commentary by Ariel Levite, the former Deputy Director of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission. The result is the attached occasional paper, “A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Utopia?”
The greater Middle East is at a critical juncture. Either the number of states in the region having nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons options will grow or the number will be frozen and decline. Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Turkey, Egypt, and Algeria will either become Israel’s nuclear equal (or come within weeks of doing so) or they will forgo the option. In any case, creating a nuclear weapons free zone in the region has been promoted for nearly a half-century and is sure to be an issue in the upcoming Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference and Preparatory Committee meetings scheduled through 2026.
Yet, many analysts have dismissed going to zero nuclear weapons in the region as being unrealistic. Certainly, with Israel so embattled, any movement toward creating a zone now will take even longer. On the other hand, current developments suggest time may not be on our side.
Less than a month after Hamas’ first incursions, not one, but two elected Israeli parliamentarians, including a junior member of Israel’s cabinet, publicly recommended Israel use its nuclear weapons against Hamas in Gaza. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has fielded growing concerns that Iran might quickly get nuclear weapons by repeating his earlier public threat to acquire nuclear weapons if Tehran does.
In an effort to deflect this threat and to “stabilize” the region, the Biden Administration wants the Saudis to join the Abraham Accords. As a part of any such deal, the Crown Prince, though, has demanded that the United States green-light Saudi efforts to pursue a “peaceful” uranium enrichment program. This would effectively give the Kingdom a nuclear weapons option and would catalyze nuclear hedging throughout the greater Middle East.
It’s unclear if such racing can be curbed. Pierre Goldschmidt lays out an alternative incremental approach toward creating a weapons free zone in the region. Ariel Levite clarifies many of the serious reservations about proceeding now that most Israelis would likely have. Each makes points worth our attention. The hurdles are real but so are the risks of not trying to surmount them.
“Progress is the realization of utopias.”
Next year, it will be 50 years since the “Establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East” was first placed on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly, at the request of Iran (under the Shah), later joined by Egypt (under President Anwar Sadat).
In 1995, as part of a package of decisions that resulted in the indefinite extension of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the NPT Review Conference called “upon all States in the Middle East to take practical steps in appropriate forums aimed at making progress towards, inter alia, the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems.”
At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, state parties agreed to work together with the UN Secretary General to convene a regional conference to discuss the issue in 2012.
The regional conference was set to be held in Finland in December 2012, and Finnish Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava was named as the facilitator. Although he worked tirelessly to convene this Conference in Helsinki, it never took place.
The failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference to produce a final document, although disappointing, was not a surprise. As formulated by Andrey Baklitskiy, “the issue of the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East was the straw that broke the camel’s back in 2015.”
As for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, postponed until August 2022 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it failed to make any headway.
Although no guarantee of success can be given, it is obvious that the talks must continue.
After defining what constitutes a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) free zone, this study analyzes what would be included in a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) Treaty and how it would be verified.
The first issue considered is to determine which states should initially be included in the WMD free zone.
The next question is to find out under which conditions could Israel possibly join such a zone and give up its alleged weapons of ultimate deterrence, something that none of the NWSs have agreed to do so far notwithstanding their NPT commitment.
This will lead to considering what kind of IAEA safeguards-related measures would be applicable in the NWFZ, and which other commitments, unrelated to IAEA safeguards, would be included in the zone Treaty.
Finally, we will consider the very delicate question of the sequence of events leading to the IAEA verification of Israel’s disarmament and to the entry into force of the NWFZ Treaty.
This study demonstrates that achieving a WMDFZ in the Middle East will be a long and difficult process. It also indicates that there is an indispensable need to move from grand visions and rhetorical declarations to concrete discussion about what would be included in the zone treaty, how it would be verified, and how enforcement and disarmament would take place. It identifies a number of practical win-win confidence-building measures that could be taken on the road towards a WMD free zone in the Middle East.
. Former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Head of its Department of Safeguards.
. Resolution on the Middle East. NPT/CONF.1995/32 (Part I)
. The 2015 NPT Review Conference and the Future of the Non-proliferation Regime. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2015-07/features/2015-npt-review-conference-future-nonproliferation-regime#bio
To read the full occasional paper, click here.