Towards a nuclear spring in the Middle East

It is potentially one of the most far-reaching recent nuclear disarmament developments – in 2010 the NPT Review Conference renewed the international commitment to pursue “a Middle East zone free of nuclear
weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.” Of course, it will turn out to be one of the biggest impediments to broader disarmament progress if that commitment is once again ignored.

In 1995, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was converted into a permanent Treaty (banning nuclear weapons for all states except the nuclear five – Britain, China, France, Russia, US – and committing the latter to disarmament), the Middle East was a central point of contention. Arab States were reluctant to permanently disavow nuclear weapons via the NPT when one State in their midst, Israel, was not party to the same Treaty, would not make the same commitment to disavow nuclear weapons, 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).

In the end, all states in the region except Israel did make a commitment to permanently abjure nuclear weapons after the US, UK, and Russia promised to bridge that commitment gap in a resolution, agreed to by all Parties to the Treaty, that promised active support for a nuclear weapons free zone in the region – in other words, a plan by which Israel would also come to reject nuclear weapons. It was an old idea, but it came with new impetus to
treat it seriously.

Except that it wasn’t treated seriously, which is why, in 2010, the NPT States came up with a brand new initiative, that is, they agreed to make the same promise again. This time they did give it two core (and concrete) elements.[i]

First, they promised to convene a conference in 2012, “to be attended by all States of the Middle East,” to begin to chart a path toward implementation of the Middle East as a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction (chemical and biological). The conference is to be convened by the UN Secretary-General and the co-sponsors of the 1995 resolution. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 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 a mandate to support implementation of the 1995 resolution, to support preparations for the 2012 conference, to carry out post-conference follow-on activities, and then to report to the 2015 Review Conference.

The Global Security Newswire (GSN), in a report by Elaine M. Grossman, concludes and confirms what was already clear – that to date there has been little action to make good
on the 2010 promise at the NPT Review Conference.[ii]

Prospects for a breakthrough are modest. Israel, though itself not a party to the NPT, focuses on the suspicions that Iran and Syria are not in full compliance with it. Egypt, a driving force for action on a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction, has yet to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria has also not signed, while Israel has signed but not ratified it.[iii] Israel has not signed the Biological Weapons Convention, while Egypt, Syria and the United Arab Emirates have signed but not ratified it.[iv]

At one point there was speculation that Canada might offer to host the 2012 conference, but that is unlikely – the Harper Government’s dogged support of all current Israeli policy and action probably disqualifies it for any honest broker role in the region. Speculation now focuses on that role being played by one of the Nordic states.

Canada nevertheless certainly supports the pursuit of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East and in April signed on to a “group of 10” statement to that effect – the Berlin Statement[v] endorsed by a cross-regional group of 10 foreign ministers.[vi] The Ministers promised to promote regional nuclear-weapon-free-zones in general on grounds that “such zones strengthen global as well as regional peace and security, reinforce the nuclear non-proliferation regime and contribute to the achievement of nuclear disarmament.” They then went on to “underline the crucial need to promote the creation of a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, in line with pending requirements for the organization in 2012 of the special conference agreed at
the 2010 NPT Review Conference.”

That is welcome moral support, but without concrete action on the promised 2012 conference and the special facilitator, it amounts to only more rhetorical support.

The initiative for a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East grows out of the region. With early leadership coming from Egypt, it was also an Egyptian working paper[vii] that
provided the basis for the 2010 NPT action. The Arab spring revolutions and challenges reinforce the need for action, and as the editor of the Jerusalem-based Palestine-Israel Journal has recently put it, “the apparent end of the status quo [in the region] only serves to reinforce the need to move forward towards a Middle Eastern regime for security
and cooperation.”[viii] That obviously promises to be a long process, but the pursuit of a nuclear weapons free zone will not be the final step on the path to durable peace in the Middle East – a nuclear weapon free zone will have to be a relatively early stepping stone toward that end.

Sooner rather than later Israel will have to come to the recognition that its security will be enhanced by the removal of nuclear weapons from the regional equation, a development that will also require all states in the region, not only Israel, to insist publicly and tenaciously that Iran and Syria submit fully to international inspection and disclosure requirements.

The dangers of failure are real. Inaction will impede nuclear disarmament efforts far beyond the Middle East. The US political climate for nuclear disarmament, for example, will turn very sour very quickly if the international community once again proves to be impotent in the face of the challenges of Israel’s undeclared weapons and Iran’s opaque nuclear programs.

As windows of opportunity go, the one that is currently open to action on Middle East nuclear issues is a rather narrow one, but if it is allowed to close, the consequences will be broad and dangerous.


[i] The final document as approved (NPT/Conf.2010/L.2) is available from Reaching Critical Will at:

[ii] Elaine M. Grossman, “After a Year, Scant Progress Toward Conference on Mideast
WMD-Free Zone,” Global Security Newswire, 20 May 2011.

[iii] The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

[iv] Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) website.

[v] Berlin Statement by Foreign Ministers on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, Berlin, 30 April 2011.

[vi] Foreign Ministers of Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the
Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

[vii] Implementation of the 1995 resolution and 2000 outcome on the Middle East,
Working Paper by Egypt (NPT/CONF.2010/WP.14) submitted to the 2010 Review
Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear
Weapons, 25 March 2010.

[viii] Thalif Deen, “Amid Turmoil, a Nuke-Free Middle East May Be in Jeopardy,” Inter
Press Service, 28 April 2011.

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