Dr. Bahgat is a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University in Washington, DC.
In recent months, several developments have heightened regional and global concerns over the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. First, the on-going confrontation over Iran's nuclear program has raised a number of strategic uncertainties. The question whether Iran intends to build nuclear weapons or acquire the capability without crossing the threshold is better answered by intelligence services. Still, it is clear that Iran has made substantial progress in enriching uranium and developing technological infrastructure. Severe economic sanctions, cyber attacks and assassinations of nuclear scientists (among other measures) have been employed to stop or slow Tehran's nuclear progress. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director-general, Yukiya Amano, has repeatedly stated that his agency monitors do not see any effect from the sanctions and that Iran is still producing enriched uranium at "a quite constant pace."1 An Israeli or American military strike has not been ruled out. Furthermore, some analysts have argued that a nuclear-armed Iran would promote proliferation in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey being the most likely potential examples. Other analysts conclude that even if Iran is indeed seeking nuclear-weapons capability, Riyadh, Cairo and Ankara are not likely to follow suit.2
Second, the continued fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and the rebels raises serious concerns about stability in the entire region. Particularly relevant is what will happen to the country's large chemical-weapons arsenal. Will American/Israeli special forces be able to secure these weapons and prevent them from being stolen or falling into the "wrong hands"? The experience in countries such as Iraq and Libya does not leave much room for optimism.
Third, in recent years Iran, Turkey and several Arab countries (notably the United Arab Emirates) have expressed interest in developing civilian nuclear power. The projected proliferation of nuclear reactors underscores the so-called "dual-use" dilemma of nuclear power. With some adjustments, the same materials that can be used to produce civilian nuclear power can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Given these evolving uncertainties, regional and global efforts to rid the Middle East of all kinds of WMD have intensified in recent years. Several track-two diplomacy meetings have been held, in which Iranian, Arab and Israeli academics and other influential people from outside government debate nonproliferation issues. IAEA sponsored a conference in Vienna in November 2011 to discuss similar topics. The EU Non-Proliferation Consortium held two seminars (July and November) in 2012 to promote confidence building in support of making the Middle East a WMD-free zone (WMDFZ). In October 2011, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon nominated Finish Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava as a facilitator for a Middle East Conference (MEC), to be hosted by Finland. The ambitious goal has been to get all Middle Eastern states to agree on a plan to make the entire region free of WMD and their delivery vehicles. The convening of the MEC is mandated by the Action Plan adopted at the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May 2010. Despite the Arab countries' insistence on holding the conference, the large gap between their perspective (and Iran's) and that of Israel made it hard to make any progress. Given these opposing perspectives, the U.S. government announced in November 2012 that the conference will not be convened. This news has not closed the door on holding the conference in a later date.
This essay examines the evolving process of making the Middle East a WMDFZ. In the first section, I discuss the historical and global context. This will be followed by a close examination of the Arab/Iranian and Israeli approaches, particularly in light of recent political upheavals in the Arab world (the so-called Arab Spring). The third section analyzes the U.S. stance. In the concluding section, I focus on the main challenges and obstacles that need to be addressed to promote WMD disarmament and chart the way forward.
Nuclear weapons have never been used in the Middle East. However, the presumed Israeli nuclear arsenal and monopoly have prompted other regional powers to pursue a similar capability. Unable to acquire nuclear weapons, countries such as Syria have stockpiled chemical weapons. Progress in Iran's nuclear program and uncertainty regarding Tehran's intentions have added further pressure on the regional security landscape. In short, there is an urgent need for a regional strategy on nonconventional-weapons disarmament. The prospects, however, are dim.
Since the dawn of the nuclear era, efforts have been made to restrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union introduced the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in Central Europe at the UN General Assembly in 1956. Two years later, Poland made a similar proposal, known as the Rapacki Plan after its foreign minister, Adam Rapacki. The Polish government was mainly concerned about Americans deploying nuclear weapons in West Germany and the Soviets deploying them 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 Rapacki Plan included the establishment of an international verification mechanism. The plan was rejected due to the strategic rivalry between the United States and the USSR. Nevertheless, several of its principles have since served as guidelines in NWFZ negotiations.
Efforts to establish NWFZs in the Mediterranean region and Northern Europe in the 1960s failed for similar reasons. The breakthrough came in February 1967, when the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America (also known as the Treaty of Tlatelolco) was signed. The treaty came into force in April 1969, and all 33 nations of Latin America and the Caribbean have since signed and ratified it. In the following decades, similar treaties were signed in the South Pacific region, Southeast Asia, Africa and, most recently, Central Asia. The establishment of these NWFZs is in line with the NPT. Article VII of the NPT states, "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."3
The experience in these five NWFZs suggests 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 (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States). Stated differently, deep-rooted hostilities among regional states and severe tensions with one or more of the nuclear-weapons states are factors likely to complicate the creation of a NWFZ. This largely explains the failure to establish one in the Middle East.
In the 1960s, Israel is believed to have built nuclear weapons and has since been the only nuclear power in the Middle East. In order to overcome this military asymmetry, Arab countries have pursued a threefold strategy. First, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria (among others) have sought, unsuccessfully, to acquire nuclear weapons. Second, unable to acquire the "ultimate equalizer," some Arab countries settled on stockpiling chemical and biological weapons. Third, these efforts to restore a military balance have been accompanied by diplomatic pressure on Israel to give up its nuclear arsenal.
One of the first official attempts to pursue this last piece of the strategy took place in 1974, when Egypt and Iran sponsored a joint UN General Assembly Resolution (3263) calling for the establishment a NWFZ in the Middle East. This resolution and similar ones exhorted Middle Eastern countries not to develop, produce, test, acquire or station nuclear weapons. They also invited regional powers to adhere to the NPT and place all their nuclear activities under IAEA safeguards. On the ground, however, nothing changed. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak thought to expand the call from an NWFZ to a WMDFZ. In other words, instead of calling for banning nuclear weapons, Mubarak called for banning all kinds of weapons of mass destruction.
Despite the growing concern over the proliferation and use of chemical and biological weapons during and in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, Israel did not endorse Mubarak's initiative. Instead, some Arab countries and Israel engaged in Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) talks, which eventually collapsed in 1995. The picture, however, was not completely bleak. In the same year, the NPT Review and Extension Conference was held. In order to ensure Arab consensus on the indefinite extension of the NPT, the state parties adopted a resolution co-sponsored by Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The resolution called on states not party to the NPT to accede to it and place their nuclear facilities under full-scope IAEA safeguards. It also endorsed efforts to establish a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other WMD and their delivery systems and the establishment of an effectively verifiable measures. Finally, the resolution urged the nuclear-weapon states to fully cooperate with regional efforts to create a WMDFZ in the Middle East.4
Despite this clear and strong language, no progress was made. This lack of progress prompted Arab countries, led by Egypt, to intensify their diplomatic pressure in the ensuing NPT review conferences. Under this mounting pressure, the call for a conference on the establishment of a zone free of all WMD and their delivery systems was made in 2010. The underlying differences remain between Israel, on the one side, and its Arab neighbors and Iran, on the other, blocking progress for the last several decades. Political and security upheavals in some Arab countries since early 2011 have added more uncertainties.
THE ISRAELI STANCE
Israel has always held a skeptical view of international organizations, in general, and global arms control and disarmament treaties, in particular.5 Israeli leaders continue to stress that the proliferation of WMD in the Middle East will have to be handled within a regional framework, without any solution imposed by external power. Generally, five characteristics of the Israeli stance on a NWFZ can be identified.
First, the creation of the state of Israel followed the extraordinary experience of the Holocaust, the Nazi slaughter of millions of Jews. This 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. The refusal to recognize Israel and the use of 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 that helps 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-weapons superiority and its nuclear arsenal make it an indispensable part of the Middle East 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 (the so-called Begin doctrine). To achieve this end, Israel has employed diplomatic and military pressure against potential nuclear proliferators, culminating in the 1981 attack that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor and the 2007 bombing of Syria's. Israel is also believed to be behind the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and cyber attacks on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
Fourth, Israel has hesitated to fully endorse the global nonproliferation regime. It has never placed its Dimona nuclear facility under IAEA safeguards, nor has it since 1970 allowed any other type of inspection visits to that site.6 Israel has not signed the NPT or the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention; it has signed but not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. Nevertheless, Israeli analysts argue that their country abides by the international norms and rules of the global nonproliferation regime.
Fifth, Israeli leaders have repeatedly made a comprehensive peace between Israel and all Arab states and Iran a prerequisite to joining a NWFZ. 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; rather, Israelis require complete normalization of relations to ensure full acceptance from their neighbors.
Recent regional developments have presented Israel with a combination of risks and opportunities. Political upheavals in several Arab countries since early 2011 have made them more concerned about their survival than about Israeli nuclear disarmament. However, the fall of authoritarian regimes and the rise of populist ones suggest that any agreement with Israel will be intensely scrutinized. Similarly, developments in Syria and Sinai (Egypt) have substantially raised Israel's security concerns. It is too early to provide an assessment of the fighting between Hamas and Israel last November, but the fighting underscored the changing strategic landscape in the Middle East. In addition to military support from Iran, Hamas receives political backing from Egypt, Qatar and other Arab countries. Furthermore, though the Iron Dome performed well and destroyed a large number of the rockets launched from Gaza, the system is not designed to intercept long-range missiles. At least two other missile-defense systems are being developed — David's Sling and the Arrow. In recent years, Iran has developed a variety of missile systems that are much more sophisticated than the ones Hamas used. Shaul Chorev, head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, has argued recently that any initiative to promote the 2012 conference on making the Middle East WMDFZ is futile, given the political and security uncertainties.7 Finally, the progress Iran has made on its nuclear program has heightened the fears of its Arab neighbors. It can be argued that some of these Arab states are more worried about Iran's nuclear program than Israel's. Statements made by some top Saudi officials indicate that, while the kingdom has been able to live with a nuclear Israel without attempting to acquire nuclear weapons, it would take a different course if Iran succeeds in making the bomb.
THE ARAB/IRANIAN STANCE
There is no united Arab-Iranian approach to a Middle East NWFZ. Historically, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Syria (among others) have taken the lead in trying to articulate and implement a strategy to restore a regional military balance. As discussed above, in recent years some Gulf states seem more concerned about Iran's nuclear research than about Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal. In 2004, the Gulf Research Center proposed the establishment of a WMDFZ covering the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Iran, Iraq and Yemen. This subregional WMD-free zone was supposed to be a first step toward a broader one that would cover the entire Middle East.8
Despite these differences among the Arabs and between them and the Iranians, the two sides share certain concerns. Military asymmetry and Tel Aviv's nuclear capability are seen in Tehran and most Arab capitals as enforcing the occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories. In an international conference held in May 2012 in Vienna, senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry official Ahmed Fathalla argued that Israel's nuclear capabilities constitute "a threat to international peace and security."9 He warned that Arab countries might reconsider their opposition to having nuclear weapons if the planned Middle East Conference failed to materialize.
The Iranian and many Arab governments accuse Western powers of applying a double standard to Middle East nuclear proliferation. In Arab and Iranian eyes, the United States and major European powers have allowed — even assisted — Israel to acquire nuclear weapons but have strongly resisted Arab and Iranian attempts to develop a 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.
Some Arab countries — such as Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria — have unsuccessfully sought to buy or build nuclear weapons. In order to maximize international pressure on Tel Aviv, all Arab states and Iran signed and ratified the NPT, leaving Israel as the only nonsignatory in the region. Egypt has traditionally championed Arab efforts to break Israel's nuclear monopoly. For several years, Egyptian leaders called on Arab states not to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention until Israel joins the NPT. These efforts largely failed. Most Arab states, along with Iran, signed and ratified both the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention.
Finally, most Arab states and Iran see the creation of a NWFZ as a necessary first step toward a comprehensive and lasting peace. The denuclearization of the Middle East would eliminate what Arabs and Iranians see as nuclear intimidation by Israel and regional military asymmetry. It would lead to broad regional arms-control measures and lay the foundation for a new order. The declaration issued by the Arab Summit in Baghdad in March 2012 emphasized that the international community and involved parties "should bear their responsibility to hold the 2012 Conference and come up with practical results that clearly lead to the establishment of the free zone." The failure to achieve the goals of the 2012 conference, the declaration warned, "will push Arab states in the direction of searching for decisive steps to insure their safety."10
Finally, in addition to sharing these sentiments with its Arab neighbors, Iran categorically denies that it is pursuing a nuclear-weapons capability and insists that its nuclear program solely aims at meeting its growing civilian energy needs. The phrase "nuclear technology for all and nuclear weapons for none" sums up the Islamic Republic's stance. Tehran has taken a low-profile approach toward the MEC, neither endorsing nor rejecting it. When asked if Iran would attend the MEC, President Ahmadinejad said, "If Israel gives up its nuclear weapons, there will not be need for a conference."11 In early November 2012, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, announced that his country planned to attend the conference.
Unlike Egypt and Iran in 1974, Turkey did not play a leading role in calling for making the Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone. At least two reasons explain this Turkish stance. First, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Ankara enjoys the alliance's protection. Indeed, some of the U.S. nuclear weapons were deployed there. Second, Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel (1949) and has traditionally maintained warm relations and close military cooperation with the Jewish state. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Arab-Iranian efforts to create the Middle East NWFZ have meant to pressure Israel to give up its nuclear monopoly. The Turkish-Israeli partnership left Ankara with few incentives to join these Arab-Iranian efforts.
In the last few years, Ankara's relations with both Tel Aviv and Tehran have drastically changed, with significant implications for the nuclear issue. The rising status of Turkey, and particularly Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a regional leader, has brought Ankara closer to the Arab world and the Palestinian issue. Prime Minister Erdogan has been a strong opponent of Israeli policy in Gaza. During the last round of fighting between Hamas and Israel in November 2012, Erdogan called Israel "a terrorist state."12 Meanwhile, Iran has emerged as a major energy supplier to Turkey. The volume of trade between the two nations has increased substantially in recent years. However, Ankara and Tehran have adopted opposite stances on Syria. These strategic differences aside, Turkey supports Iran's right to civilian nuclear power and opposes military attacks against the Islamic Republic. Turkey is increasingly concerned about the deterioration in the regional security environment. In order to lower the risks, Ankara has joined the calls and efforts to make the Middle East a WMDFZ.
THE UNITED STATES
Given the heavy U.S. economic, military and strategic involvement in the Middle East, Washington has been enmeshed in the regional-security efforts and ongoing attempts to make the entire region a WMDFZ. In the May 2012 Vienna conference, Assistant Secretary Thomas Countryman of the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation summarized the U.S. stance on the MEC and the broader negotiations to make the Middle East a zone free of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction:
Washington supports the MEC and views its goals as achievable, but they should be seen as long-term ones. Certain conditions have to be met in order to establish a WMDFZ, most notably a comprehensive and durable peace and full compliance by all countries in the region with their nonproliferation obligations. The United States accuses Iran and Syria of violating their nonproliferation obligations and opposes any attempt to single out Israel. It also would like to see all countries represented in the MEC and start with confidence building to address the underlying security and proliferation issues, including all categories of WMD and their delivery systems. Finally, the United States believes the negotiators in the conference should operate by consensus and resist any attempt to impose a solution by outside powers. They should have realistic expectations and approach the conference as a process that is likely to take a long time.13
Gary Samore, President Obama's WMD coordinator, summarized Washington's stance, "We are absolutely committed to the conference, but there's a lot of uncertainty because of the unrest in the Middle East."14
THE WAY FORWARD
The lack of any progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process, the uncertainties surrounding Iran's nuclear program and Syria's chemical weapons underscore the urgent need to reach agreement on making the Middle East a WMDFZ. Furthermore, the growing interest in nuclear power will make enriched uranium more available and provide nuclear technology, expertise and training to a growing number of indigenous populations. The decades-long negotiations to establish such a zone have gained momentum by the nomination of Finnish Undersecretary Jaakko Laajava as the facilitator for the Middle East Conference. It is important to have realistic expectations and see the MEC as a process that is likely to take a long time before producing concrete results. The failure to convene the conference and to make some progress might threaten the upcoming NPT Review Conference in 2015, and indeed the entire nonproliferation regime.
In order to resume efforts to reconstruct the regional-security landscape, several challenges need to be addressed. First, the deep religious, sectarian and ethnic divisions are the underlying reasons for insecurity and the need for both conventional and nonconventional weapons. The asymmetry in the balance of power among regional adversaries contributes to the trust deficit. As Fareed Zakaria argues, "Israel's astonishing economic growth, its technological prowess, its military preparedness and its tight relationship with the United States have set it a league apart from its Arab adversaries."15 The two sides, along with the Iranians and Turks, need to identify common interests and cultivate and develop mutual trust and understanding.
Second, as discussed above, the disagreement over which should come first, peace or disarmament, is a major hurdle to creating a WMDFZ. The Israelis insist that a comprehensive and genuine peace with all their neighbors is a prerequisite for any negotiations on denuclearization. The Arabs and Iranians argue that there will be no peace so long as Israel maintains a nuclear monopoly. One way to cross this bridge is to perceive peace and disarmament as two processes that reinforce each other.
Third, the lack of any meaningful progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process and the rising tension over Iran's nuclear program weaken the prospects of successful disarmament negotiations. It is hard to speculate on the impact of a potential military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, but such an attack, if it happens, is likely to deal a heavy blow to the prospects of creating a WMDFZ. Tehran might choose to withdraw from the NPT. Similarly, reducing tension between Washington and Tehran is likely to enhance prospects for fruitful negotiations. Potential bilateral negotiations between the two nations might create new security and strategic dynamics. After his re-election, President Obama stated that he will launch a new diplomatic initiative to engage Iran. On the other side, Iranian media and some officials have not ruled out potential bilateral and multilateral talks with the United States.
The experience in establishing other NWFZs suggests that involving civil society and nongovernmental organizations did help the negotiations. Equally important, public campaigns to educate and engage as many citizens about the dangers of WMD and the need to eliminate them are likely to build public support to creating WMDFZ. The informal dialogues between Arab, Iranian and Israeli intellectuals and former officials need to continue and expand.
In recent months, the Middle East security landscape has witnessed fundamental changes. The availability and proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons can make an already bad situation far worse. There is urgent need to engage in serious and sincere negotiations to create a WMDFZ. The deep millennia-long rivalries in the region mean there is very little trust to engage in joint efforts to promote regional security. But they also mean there is no other option but to start the journey toward a Middle East free of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction.
1 Associated Press, "IAEA Chief: International Sanctions Hobbling Iran's Economy Haven't Affected Nuclear Program," available at http://www.washingtonpost.com, November 20, 2012.
2 See Kenneth N. Waltz, "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb," Foreign Affairs 91, no.4 (July/August 2012): 4-12; and Gawdat Bahgat, "A Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: Myth or Realty?," Mediterranean Quarterly 22, no.1 (Winter 2011): 27-40.
3 The full text of the treaty is available at http://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt.shtml, August 11, 2012.
4 The full text of the resolution on the Middle East is available at http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/npt/text/resoluti.htm, August 11, 2012.
5 Gerald M. Steinberg, "Middle East Arms Control and Regional Security," Survival 36, no. 1 (January 1994): 140.
6 Avner Cohen, "The Nuclear Issue in the Middle East in a New World Order," Contemporary Security Issues 16, no. 1 (January 1995): 66.
7 Emile Landau and Shimon Stein, "Israel and the WMD-free Zone: Has Israel closed the door?," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 28, 2012, http://www.thebulletin.org.
8 Dina Esfandiary, Elham Fakhro and Becca Wasser, "Obstacles for the Gulf States," Arms Control Association, September 16, 2011, http://www.armscontrol.org/print/5014.
9 George Jahn, "Mideast Nuclear Conference in Jeopardy," Associated Press, May 9, 2012, http://www.rutlandherald.com/article/20120509/news04/705099888/0/search.
10 Arab Summit, "Declaration of Baghdad," August 12, 2012, http://www.iraqiembassy.us/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/declaration-of-ba….
11 The author participated in a roundtable discussion with the Iranian president in New York, 2010.
12 Emre Peker, "Turkey Labels Israel a Terrorist State," Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2012.
13 Remarks by Thomas Countryman, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, Department of State, http://www.translations.state.gov/st/English/texttrans/2012/05/20120510….
14 Anne Penketh, "Unrest Complicates 2012 Middle East Meeting," October 25, 2012, http://www.armscontrol.org.
15 Fareed Zakaria, "Why Israel Reigns Supreme," Washington Post, November 22, 2012.