09.08.2013 Author: Stanislav Ivanov

On prospects for establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East


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This year marked the 45th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which consolidated the nuclear power status for five states (Great Britain, the USA, China, the USSR and France) and was designed to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons. Thus, the arsenals of the five nuclear powers were sort of made legitimate whilst all the other countries, by signing this document, were losing the right to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. The member states of the nuclear club also undertook not to transfer the nuclear weapons technology and to strive for the total elimination of nuclear arsenals. The great powers saw this as the basis for strategic stability, where the main instruments were their mutual nuclear deterrence and the system of nuclear non-proliferation. Currently, the NPT has already been joined by 190 states, with the exception of India, Pakistan and Israel. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea announced its withdrawal from the Treaty in January 2003, but formally it retained its membership. India and Pakistan consider the possibility of their accession to the NPT only as nuclear-weapon states, and Israel would join the NPT on the condition of an overall settlement of the crisis in the Middle East.

As early as 1974, Iran and Egypt proposed to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. Since then, the General Assembly of the United Nations has annually adopted resolutions supporting this idea. In spring 1995, there was an International Conference on the Extension of the NPT. The outcome resolution of the Conference called for the states which had not yet signed the NPT to join the Treaty and for all Middle East states to take part in establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. Russia’s attitude to this idea was clearly set out in the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of 7 May 2012: “With a view to the consistent implementation of the foreign policy course of the Russian Federation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation jointly with the other federal executive authorities shall support establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and means of delivery in the Middle East.”

Given the strategic importance of the region, the subsequent international conferences and forums under the auspices of the United Nations (IAEA) tried to develop this idea and to add practicality to it. However, it can be stated today that there is still no agreement between Middle East states and the members of the UN Security Council regarding the content and mechanisms of the implementation of the agreement on establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East and, hence, some difficulties have arisen at this stage in the preparation of standard documents and the organisation of specific negotiations.  

One of the main bottlenecks in establishing a NWFZ in the region is the special stance of Israel, which as an IAEA member has been doing everything possible to avoid the accession to the NPT. Tel Aviv signed but did not ratify the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. Israel is not a party to international agreements on nuclear export control. Israel’s leaders neither confirm nor reject the information regarding the presence of nuclear weapons in the country’s territory. According to estimates by independent experts, Israel is already in possession of between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads with means of delivery. The country’s high scientific and technical potential allows it to continue R&D in terms of improving the nuclear weapons design, in particular, in creating modifications of warheads with increased radiation and accelerated nuclear reaction. Tel Aviv’s interest in the development of thermonuclear weapons cannot be ruled out either. 

Given the continued tension in the relationship of Israel with Arab countries, their leaders demand Israel’s accession to the NPT and the elimination of its nuclear weapons as a prerequisite for establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East. Russia’s position on this matter has been expressed by member of the IAEA Board of Governors Grigory Berdennikov: “Israel’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency would help to strengthen the regime of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.” 

The promotion of the idea of establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East is also hindered by the overall unstable situation in the region. The so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011 and the tragic events that followed in a number of Arab countries froze the negotiation process on nuclear security in the Middle East for a long time. In the context of ongoing violent changes of ruling regimes (elites), civil wars and major terrorist acts, it does not appear to be possible to continue the consolidated efforts on establishing a NWFZ in the region. The “Arab street” is still in turmoil, massive unrest and protests continue to occur in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the situation is not calm in the Palestinian territories, the bloodshed continues in Syria, the fighting is already spreading from there to Lebanon and other neighbouring states, Iraq is almost daily subjected to new major terrorist acts, the situation is also unstable in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and in the Gulf monarchies. It is obvious that it will require a considerable amount of time to achieve at least relative stability in the Arab East. The settlement of all internal and regional conflicts in the Middle East in the foreseeable future is not currently in the picture.

There is a third, equally important factor which has the most negative impact on the efforts of the international community to initiate the establishment of a NWFZ in the region – it is Iran’s nuclear programme, to be more exact, the myth of its military aspect. The capitals of the Arab states, first of all of the Gulf monarchies, monitor carefully all information on the achievements of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the field of nuclear research. And although Iran’s leadership is a consistent member of the NPT, it continues to claim that its nuclear programme has a peaceful nature and the IAEA is not in possession of data confirming any serious attempts on the part of Tehran to violate its international obligations in this field, Riyadh and a number of other Arab capitals firmly believe in the opposite. It seems that Washington has managed to convince of the nuclear threat on the part of Iran not only its NATO partners but also the members of the UN Security Council and most of the Arab countries. Skilfully capitalising on the region’s contradictions of the ethnic and confessional nature and stirring up the alleged threat of Shia expansion from Tehran to the Arab world (Shia crescent, Shia arc etc), the US administration also brandishes the scarecrow of the Iranian nuclear bomb in front of the Arab rulers. The situation in this case is very similar to the CIA’s allegedly “irrefutable information” that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which served as an excuse for the invasion of Iraq by the armed forces of the United States and their allies. And though the Arab monarchs do not yet declare their countries’ intentions to withdraw from the NPT and to create their own nuclear weapons (they won’t be allowed to do so by the Israeli lobby in Washington, Brussels and other Western capitals), however, they are already allocating hundreds of billions of petrodollars for the programmes, implemented jointly with the USA and NATO, for regional air defence and missile defence, the construction of research nuclear reactors and nuclear power plants.

It is difficult to understand the logic of thinking and algorithm of actions of Washington and its Western allies regarding the idea of establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. It is obvious that it is one of the key regions in the international security system. Hundreds of millions of people live in this region. It has hydrocarbon reserves of a global importance, its economy is developing rapidly as well as its trade and infrastructure. Strategic sea, air and land communications are located here along with priceless monuments of world culture and architecture, religious shrines etc. Any new wars and armed conflicts in the region can exacerbate the global financial and economic crisis whilst the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East can cause irreparable damage to our civilization. Washington’s further unilateral encouragement of Israel’s nuclear ambitions and instigation of the Gulf monarchies against Iran and Syria add to the rising tensions in such an explosive region. It is high time for the White House to make its imperial ambitions modest and shift from the policy of double standards with respect of Israel, Iran and Arab countries. It is only through common efforts, with the participation of all countries of the region, without exception, that a solid collective system of regional security can be created, and its foundation could be a Zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and means of delivery.

Stanislav Ivanov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.