Towards action on the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone

The just concluded 2010 NPT Review Conference not only avoided the disaster of the 2005 Conference, it managed a major achievement – agreement to finally act on a 1995 promise to pursue the establishment of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

Much of the disarmament language in the agreed final document of the 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is familiar and aspirational – pledging to “achieve the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons – but on at least one topic the States Parties to the Treaty got down to some specifics.

The action plan for “the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction” is the signal achievement of the 2010 Review Conference. And that is good news for those with a primary focus on disarmament by nuclear weapon states.

In 1995, when the NPT was transformed into a permanent Treaty, the Middle East was a central point of contention. Arab States were unprepared to commit to permanently disavowing nuclear weapons  when one State in their midst, Israel, was not Party to the Treaty, would not make the same commitment, would not deny that it was in possession of nuclear weapons, and would not open all its nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). To bridge that commitment gap, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation put forward a resolution, agreed to by all Parties to the Treaty, in support of a nuclear weapons free zone in the region.

Article VII of the Treaty provides for the establishment of regional nuclear weapon free zones, and in 1995 it was clear that the Treaty would not become permanent without the promise of action on such a zone in the Middle East. And the promise states made was pretty straightforward. The States Parties “noted with concern the continued existence in the Middle East of unsafeguarded nuclear facilities,” by which they meant Israel (which has pursued unsafeguarded nuclear programs since the 1950s), and called on all states in the region “to accept full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.” The nuclear weapon states promised to “exert their utmost efforts with a view to ensuring the early establishment by regional parties of a Middle East zone free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.”[i]

The actions taken since then to fulfill those promises have also been straightforward – that is to say, straightforward avoidance of action.

So now, in 2010, the NPT States made another set of promises – with two core elements:[ii]

First, they promise to convene a conference in 2012, “to be attended by all States of the Middle East.” As of now, Israel says it will not attend.[iii] The conference is to be convened by the UN Secretary-General and the co-sponsors of the 1995 NPT resolution on the Middle East (the US, the UK, and the Russian Federation). In addition, the IAEA and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and other relevant international organizations are tasked to prepare appropriate background documentation.

Second, the UN Secretary-General and the 1995 co-sponsors, in consultation with the States of the region, are to appoint a “Facilitator” with the general mandate to support implementation of the 1995 resolution, to support the preparations for the 2012 conference, to carry out post-conference follow-on activities, and then to report to the 2015 Review Conference.

This time the consequences of inaction will go beyond a simple delay. Even another five years of broken promises will end credible hope of effective nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament in the Middle East. Iran’s determined pursuit of technologies with weapons applications could by then have made the leap to the weapons themselves, and that, along with Israel’s undeclared arsenal, would trigger a potential proliferation stampede in the region – initially focused on civilian programs, but ones that privilege weapons related technologies and create the capacity to move to the weapons themselves on relatively short notice.

And the consequences would extend far beyond that region, effectively halting action, and much of the rhetoric, in support of zero nuclear weapons in the rest of the nuclear-armed world.

So, the action proposed for the Middle East must be understood as a core disarmament action. The failure to act on the new promise would persuasively add to the suspicion that the nuclear non-proliferation system is simply not up to the challenge of dealing with deep-seated proliferation threats. In other words, if Iran, Israel, and North Korea are not dealt with effectively, and if the other two states with nuclear weapon that are outside the Treaty, India and Pakistan, are not drawn into the disarmament and non-proliferation system, then much of the political constituency in support of disarmament in the acknowledged nuclear weapon states, particularly the US and Russia, can be expected to steadily abandon its support for major cuts and progress toward the agreed goal of zero.

There is obviously no short route to a Middle East that is free of all weapons of mass destruction, but the pursuit of that goal is integral to pursuing disarmament in all its dimensions. The decision of NPT States to give it some serious attention is an important development.

eregehr@ploughshares.ca

Notes

[i] The full resolution is available on the Reaching Critical Will website, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/npt/1995dec.html.

[ii] The final document as approved ( NPT/Conf.2010/L.2) is available from Reaching Critical Will at:http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/npt/revcon2010/DraftFinalDocument.pdf.

[iii] Amy Teibel, “Israel rejects UN call to come clean on nuclear program,” The Globe and Mail, 30 May 2010.http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/israel-rejects-un-call-to-come-clean-on-nuclear-program/article1585886/.

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