A Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East (NWFZME) is one of the key issues being debated in the region, which also was in controversy during the recently concluded NPT Review Conferences. Earlier, the 2005 review conference had failed due to its inability to build a consensus on this question, particularly over Israel’s refusal to accede to the Non Proliferation Treaty. It was feared the same fate awaited the outcome of the 2010 conference till the final resolution was passed. However, the question remains: Is a Nuclear Weapons Free Middle East possible?
The final agreement in the 2010 Review Conference endorses a plan whereby a Conference would be convened in 2012 by the United Nations Secretary-General and the co-sponsors of its Resolution (Russia, US and UK) to be attended by all the States in the Middle East on the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the region. This is a significant breakthrough especially since countries like the United States have long stonewalled the proposal for a NWFZME in deference to the security interests of Israel. A possible factor in the breakthrough might have been the renewed fears of nuclear proliferation in the region as exemplified by the illegal nuclear activities of Iran and suspected nuclear indiscretions by Syria.
Article VII of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) envisages the rights of countries to establish specified zones free of nuclear weapons. The first NWFZ was created in Latin America with the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco. The question of a NWFZME was first broached by the Shah of Iran, with ready Egyptian support, in 1974. Egypt, which suffered serious losses in its 1973 war with Israel, was concerned about Israel’s unconventional capability. It has since been at the forefront of demands that Israel declares its nuclear capabilities, sign the NPT and accept international safeguards.
Israel countered these arguments in 1980 with its own proposal asking for direct negotiations between countries rather than imposing a nuclear free zone. This proposal was an alternative to Israel signing the NPT, and required a degree of recognition and peaceful relations between all the countries of the Middle East as a prerequisite. This was anathema for the Arab states which have refused to recognize Israel, and have not agreed to provide security assurances. Hopes for a NWFZME were then revived in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, when UNSC Resolution 687 noted in its 14th operational paragraph that Iraq’s disarmament represented one step toward a zone that would be free of ‘missiles for their [nuclear weapons] delivery’.
However, it should be noted that Israel seems to have been singled out due to its suspected nuclear program, while the nuclear programs of its neighboring states, which are signatories of the NPT, are glossed over. For example, IAEA Director General Yukiyo Amano has called on member states to support the implementation of a 2009 resolution that called on Israel to join the NPT, before the body’s general meeting in September. Israel, along with India and Pakistan, is a de-facto nuclear power, and the mention of Israel, it is reported, was the result of stepped up efforts to censure it made by an 18-country bloc led by Arab nations. Furthermore, in the last ten years, NPT signatories Iran, Iraq, and Syria have repeatedly deceived the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and developed nuclear weapons programs contravening their obligations under the NPT; yet Israel was consistently singled out.
Iran’s nuclear program, which was condemned by the UN Security Council, found mere mention in the 2010 NPT Review Conference, while the conference discussed at length the question of Israel (a non-signatory to the NPT) even mentioning it by name in the final document, Iran was not mentioned. The only reference to Iran in the final document is an oblique statement which calls on states to fully comply with the NPT and uphold its integrity and the authority of its safeguards system.
Israel’s official reaction to the final document reflects its frustration over the way the ground realities in the Middle East have been handled. According to the Israelis, “Given the distorted nature of this resolution, Israel will not be able to take part in its implementation.” Significantly, however, Iran which has consistently advocated the NWFZME, might not join the proposed meeting; conditioning it to Israel joining the NPT as a Non-Nuclear Weapons State.
The United States garnered support for a final consensus call for the NWFZME; however, the ground realities dictated a hypocritical final resolution that does not ensure any commitment to participation in the 2012 meet by these states. Contradictory statements from the United States administration in hailing and then denouncing the resolution reflect the precarious nature of the text. In the light of the growing tensions, other states in the region like Saudi Arabia (which view both Iran and Israel as a threat) may be compelled to revise their own nuclear posture. It is therefore dubious whether a NWFZME could be achieved in the near term future.