In his June 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama stated that ‘no nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons.’ States in the Middle East should be no exception in this ‘nuclear zero’ campaign. The continued application of double standards regarding nuclear haves and have-nots has significantly contributed to instability in the non-proliferation regime and has encouraged those who seek to challenge the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
By agreeing to a coherent Middle East plan of action, the 2010 NPT Review Conference has taken a significant step toward addressing the long-overdue implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution, which aimed at the eventual establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, it became evident at the 2010 Review Conference that its successful conclusion depended on such an agreement. The stakes have now risen. Future agreements on non-proliferation initiatives will depend in turn on a demonstration of good faith in implementing this plan of action.
The conference on a Middle East zone of nuclear weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems provides such a framework for constructive engagement between all the states of the region, including all members of the League of Arab States, Iran and Israel. Viewed strategically, the 2012 Conference could advance the broader cause of peace and security in the region. The process of establishing a WMD-Free zone in the Middle East can become a new tool for peace. The sequencing in this process is delicate, requiring states to both deepen and strengthen efforts towards moving the peace process forward.
But despite these unique challenges, the Middle East will need to follow a similar pattern to other regions that have established nuclear-weapon-free zones. The Treaties of Tlatelolco, Rarotonga, Bangkok and Pelindaba have all involved negotiation of a treaty text, agreement on verification models with the IAEA and an institution-building process. And like all these zone regimes, a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone should encourage the use of nuclear science and technology for peaceful purposes, and enable states to pursue bilateral, regional and international cooperation on nuclear energy to support their economic, medical and technological development.
There are, of course, major security and disarmament challenges that are unique to the Middle East. Serious engagement by Israel, for example, will be crucial. It is widely believed that Israel continues to operate the unsafeguarded Dimona plutonium-production reactor for the production of weapons grade fissile material, and that its capabilities may extend to tritium production (used to boost the fission primary explosion of a thermonuclear weapon) — activities that cannot be overlooked. Israel will need at some point to take significant steps in the denuclearisation process, such as dismantling the facilities at Dimona, disclosing information on stocks of special fissionable material and placing the facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) comprehensive safeguards.
However, the international community remains focused only on the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme. While Iran cooperates with the IAEA to the extent it believes is necessary to fulfill its safeguards responsibilities and to demonstrate non-diversion of declared materials under safeguards, IAEA reports continually refer to resistance on the part of Iran to address outstanding questions regarding its nuclear programme. To resolve this situation, it is vital that the door of dialogue and diplomacy with Iran remain open.
The IAEA would likely bear most of the verification burden to ensure that no nuclear materials are diverted to prohibited weapons programmes. Its expertise will also be vital in verifying the complete dismantlement of any weapons stockpiles in the region, and in ensuring that all facilities producing weapons-grade fissile material in the region are decommissioned or converted to civilian use under standard international safeguards. It may also undertake technical studies to examine the modalities necessary to establish the zone. The agency would need a budget increase to enable it to carry out such crucial tasks effectively.
In all these efforts, the example of South Africa – the first country to voluntarily abandon a fully developed nuclear-weapons programme – should serve as a model. It took five years to build the country’s first nuclear device and a total of 16 years to construct its six-weapon arsenal. Ending and fully dismantling the program and all its facilities, however, took less than 24 months. South Africa’s decision to become a non-nuclear-weapon state shows that it is possible in principle to roll back a nuclear capability. Subsequently, South Africa implemented integrated IAEA safeguards and joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group and is implementing its guidelines. In addition to South Africa, past successes in reversing the nuclear tide include decisions by Brazil and Argentina to roll back their nuclear programmes and to create a bilateral verification agency; and the decisions by Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to transfer nuclear weapons to Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Middle East needs a similarly bold vision to rid the region of nuclear weapons and solidly put the region on a non-nuclear course.
The NPT is critical to regional and global security. States remaining outside the Treaty fundamentally weaken it by undermining the benefits of membership and by maintaining nuclear programmes that constitute a continuing nuclear danger to neighbours. If an NPT Universality Adherence Support Unit were to be established it could directly address the mechanisms that would bring outside states into the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states. The NPT remains a vital tool for weapons reduction and disarmament, as demonstrated by its success in securing a commitment to establish a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone, an initiative long championed by Egypt.
A lot of work and determination will be required during the next five years to kick-start this process, and the first concrete steps – appointing a facilitator and a host country to convene the 2012 conference for establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East –need to be taken soon. While it may not be easy, establishing a Middle East WMD free zone is vital not only for the region but for the survival and development of the international non-proliferation regime as a whole.
Success at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, while limited, was only possible because commitments were entered into in good faith that require a significant shift towards disarmament by the nuclear weapon states, and the establishment of a process leading to complete WMD disarmament in the Middle East. If key states were to renege on these commitments, or fail to invest sufficiently in realising them, this would undermine the constructive spirit of the 2010 NPT Review Conference and could compromise the success of the next NPT review cycle.
A more genuine and candid conversation about nuclear disarmament, dismantlement, nuclear roll-back, transparency and verification is needed. There has not been such an exchange for many years, and all opportunities that exist to make this happen should be utilised. Representatives of civil society and academic institutes who can inject valuable information and perspectives, as well as build bridges between disparate communities, should be invited to help foster trust and better understanding. The recent developments in the Middle East should provide additional impetus for all to be more focused and to move forward to achieve genuine stability and security for the region.