As the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon) comes to a close in New York, the call for a ban on nuclear weapons and other WMD in the Middle East has come back into the fore as a top issue. Nuclear Weapons Free Zones (NWFZs), which exist in Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central Asia, are zones in which countries commit themselves to not acquire, manufacture, test, or possess nuclear weapons. Article VII of the NPT affirms the rights of countries to establish such zones. A NWFZ in the Middle East has been on the NPT agenda since the treaty’s entry into force in 1970. Since the 1995 NPT RevCon, the goal has been more adamantly pursued by Egypt, but still to no visible avail.
Nevertheless, the start of this year’s NPT RevCon saw the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China all voice unequivocal support for the initiative— with ample support from states in the region too. The Arab Group has stated that failing to achieve it would be a failure of the NPT as a whole. While some view a NWFZ in the Middle East as a lofty, far-off, or even impossible goal, there is no denying the worth it would have.
The implications of the initiative are clear. Israel, not just Iran, would have to foreswear nuclear weapons.
Israel’s program is controversial for numerous reasons. First, Israel is deliberately ambiguous about its nuclear weapons capability, officially maintaining that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the region. Second, as one of the only countries in the world to have ever carried out preemptive attacks on nascent nuclear programs (for example in Iraq and Syria), Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is often viewed as particularly hypocritical. Finally, in defiance of numerous requests and resolutions issued by the General Assembly of the UN which call on Israel to join the NPT, Israel nevertheless continues to refuse. This places it in the not so select company of Pakistan, North Korea, and India.
The situation is further complicated by instability in the region and the ongoing peace process- the progress of which will be consequential in determining the success of disarmament efforts (a belief supported by the current U.S. administration). Many Arab states and Iran view Israel’s nuclear arsenal as a threat to their security and the stability of the region. Moreover, they view the removal of Israel’s arsenal as a precondition to lasting peace in the region. Israel, however, tends to view peace as a precondition to any disarmament or reduction in force levels, claiming it needs a strong defense to defend against “hostile” neighbors. Iran’s nascent nuclear program, coupled with Iran’s anti-Israeli rhetoric, lend credence to Israel’s argument.
This deadlock implies neither the situation for disarmament nor the situation for peace exists; and yet, it is evident that the current situation is not sustainable.
It is thus encouraging that on the eve of the close of the NPT RevCon, leaders are hustling to reach a compromise on how to establish the NWFZ. Egypt has submitted working papers that outline tangible steps towards the implementation of the 1995 Resolution, and is leading a movement—now seconded by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon- to create a conference to specifically address the establishment of a Mideast NWFZ. Meanwhile, U.S. and Egyptian senior officials are attempting to secure Israel’s attendance at this conference. Tomorrow evening will reveal if they succeed.
If a final document is agreed to, it will likely call for Israel’s accession to the treaty and the placement of all of its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards. Important as these steps are, there are other challenging steps that must be taken if these goals are to be achieved.
For example, Israel will have to make dialogue and diplomacy a more important part of their foreign policy, as opposed to military threats, and will have to withdraw from the occupied territories. Meanwhile, the Arab states and Iran must acknowledge Israel’s existence as a state, and respect its sovereignty accordingly. This involves, for example, the cessation of rockets fired from Southern Lebanon by Iranian sponsored Shi’a Hezbollah militants.
Achieving the goal of a NWFZ in the Middle East will be taxing and perplexing at each level of the process – but it will be well worth the effort. It is encouraging to hear that representatives at the NPT RevCon appear up for the task. We can only hope they will begin to make progress.