Home / Articles  / Features  / The Nuclear Free Zone Challenge

The Nuclear Free Zone Challenge

Professor Sameh Aboul-Enein asks how we can establish a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction

SINCE 1974, there have been regular discussions and actions carried out at international and regional levels to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. During the process we have seen the emergence of best practice guidelines for the development of nuclear-free zones, principally through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In November 2011, the IAEA convened a forum in Vienna, in which attendees presented several constructive proposals, drawing on the appropriate lessons gathered from setting up and implementing the five NWFZs and other WMD-free zones, and discussing the Middle East region in this context.

The UN has established guidelines and principles that a NWFZ: should not prevent the use of nuclear science and technology for peaceful purposes; will strengthen the security of states in such zones and contribute to the overall objective of strengthening international peace and security; should reaffirm member states’ commitment to honour legal obligations to other international nonproliferation and disarmament instruments to which they are parties.

There are already a number of successful examples of NWFZs, such as the Pelindapa Treaty. Signed in Cairo in 1996 by 47 of the 53 African states, the treaty established an NWFZ in Africa. It prohibits the research, development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition, testing, possession, control or stationing of nuclear explosive devices in the territory of signatory parties. The treaty also prohibits any attacks against nuclear installations in the zone by treaty parties and requires them to maintain the highest standards of protection of nuclear material, facilities and equipment (to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.)

The African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE) serves as a compliance mechanism for the Treaty. AFCONE encourages African states to take responsibility for natural resources and, in particular, nuclear material, and protects against the dumping of toxic waste.

Important lessons for the Middle East can also be drawn from the experience of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Euratom was initially created to coordinate research programmes for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to pool knowledge, infrastructure and funding. It ensures the security of atomic energy supply within the framework of a centralised monitoring system and acts in several areas connected with atomic energy, including research, safety standards, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. This experience is worth investigating to see how it might be applied to the Middle East.

Two further examples of successful NWFZs should be mentioned to make my case.

South Africa was the first country to voluntarily abandon a fully developed nuclear weapons programme and should serve as a standard model for relevant disarmament and dismantling strategies. Despite taking 16 years to construct its six-weapon nuclear arsenal, South Africa terminated and fully dismantled its programme in less than 24 months. This involved:

l dismantling six completed gun-type devices at Armaments Corporation of South Africa Ltd. (ARMSCOR) under controlled and secure conditions;

l melting and recasting the highly-enriched uranium from six devices, and returning it to the Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC) for safe-keeping;

l fully decontaminating ARMSCOR facilities and returning severely contaminated equipment to the AEC;

l converting the ARMSCOR facilities to conventional  weapon and non-weapon commercial activities, and destroying all hardware components of the devices, technical design and manufacturing information;

l joining the NPT, and signing the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, and submitting a full and complete national initial inventory of nuclear material and facilities as required by the Safeguards Agreement.

Kazakhstan also renounced all nuclear weapons that it inherited from the USSR, and completed the dismantling of the nuclear-testing infrastructure at Semipalatinsk in 2000.

The Low-Enriched-Uranium Bank between Kazakhstan and the IAEA is an example of proactive diplomacy that works at encouraging states to pursue nuclear projects for peaceful purposes. It also allows Kazakhstan to make use of its abundant uranium deposits.


What can governments do to establish a Middle East Nuclear- Weapon-Free-Zone? In advance of any such zone being established in the Middle East, there is a need for substantial agreement between states on such issues as the geographic scope of the zone and the inclusion of items such as
verification and compliance. Key questions remain:

1. Which institutions will be entrusted with the responsibility of the zone?

2. What are the implications of non-compliance? (The Euratom treaty may be a useful example here as there is a process to deal with violations.)

3. How can security guarantees be given to reinforce the process of the zone’s establishment?

4. What role will the peaceful use of nuclear energy, as well as nuclear safety and security, play in future zone discussions?


Aside from these questions, a number of other issues need to be resolved and actions implemented:


1. Dismantling and destroying existing or remaining nuclear weapons capabilities, facilities and devices under international verification mechanisms.

2. Renouncing nuclear weapons through refraining from conducting indigenous development and activities related to nuclear weapons.

3. Prohibiting the transit or stationing of any nuclear explosive devices in the zone.

4. Prohibiting nuclear explosive testing in the zone and the role of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO).

5. Using nuclear materials and facilities for peaceful purposes only.

6. Placing all nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.

7. Establishing the necessary relevant institutions and mechanisms or entities to uphold a zone, free of nuclear and other WMDs.


In terms of the issue of verification, identifying the role of the IAEA and other relevant organisations such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and CTBTO is a key priority.

Addressing the scientific and technical dimensions of the WMDFZ proposal – including institutional and legal issues – can help break the current stalemate in diplomatic negotiations and make substantial progress toward the end-goal. To facilitate the process, all relevant international nonproliferation treaties and organisations should be called upon to begin a collective awareness and outreach programme for the relevant cadres from the region.

Given the need to create regional discussions on diplomatic, political and technical issues, we need to use the resources of academic experts and think tanks (regional and elsewhere) devoted to security and disarmament issues. Experts, academics and officials also have a role to play in inspiring responsible public coverage of the zone across the region that extends beyond pure politics.

At present, discussions on the zone are largely the preserve of diplomats, bureaucrats and politicians. This may be appropriate to navigating the political context, but limits the technical breadth and depth of discussions over frameworks and institutions. Therefore, layers of technical expertise will be required both to write and establish the zone, and to run, manage, maintain and protect it once it is in place.

In order to make progress towards such a zone in the Middle East, the UN should engage Israel, Iran and the Arab states in substantive and procedural preparations to launch a negotiating zonal cycle. Progress towards this goal requires the contribution of international organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the CTBTO or the OPCW. The proposal to build the zone is an initiative that has potential, but undoubtedly one with several challenges. However, the zone will definitely enhance international security, peace and stability, and promote regional security and cooperation. Moreover, it will facilitate regional cooperation on issues of common interest, including emerging security challenges.

Timeline of activities since 1974:

1974 The UN General Assembly (UNGA) approves resolution endorsing the goal of establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East following a proposal by Iran and Egypt.

1980 Israel joins international consensus allowing the General Assembly to pass a resolution supporting the goal of NWFZ without a vote.

1990 The Egyptian proposal to establish an expanded WMDFZ in the Middle East is submitted before the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

1991 The IAEA General Conference passes resolution on “the Application of IAEA safeguards in the Middle East.”

This resolution has since been passed annually without objections.

1995 The NPT Review Conference adopts a resolution on the Middle East calling on states to take practical steps to make progress in the establishment of WMDFZ in the region. Member agreement on resolution was seen as key to securing the indefinite extension of the NPT.

2000 The NPT Review conference reaffirms the goal of 1995 Middle East Resolution and says that the resolution remains “valid until its goals and objectives are achieved.”

2010 The NPT Review Conference endorses five practical steps towards establishing a WMDFZ in the Middle East. Action steps adopted include convening a regional conference to discuss the issue in 2012 and appointing a WMDFZ facilitator.

2012 The Convening States and the Facilitator declare the postponement of the 2012 Conference.

2013 During the 68th session of the UNGA, Egypt announces an initiative to free the Middle East from nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction.



Review overview

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


  • all
  • Countries and continent
  • articles

Countries and continent