WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East Encounters New Challenges:

A View from Tehran

This paper discusses the scope of the proposed WMD-free zone in the Middle East, reviewing the history of the initial nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ) proposed by Iran. It also examines the contrasting policies of Israel and Iran with respect to the zone before advocating the placement of a regional solution within the broader goal of global nuclear disarmament in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Scope of the Proposal

All countries in the Middle East, except Israel, welcomed the positive outcome of the 2010 NPT Review Conference to hold a conference in 2012 on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in their region. Helsinki was subsequently chosen as the site for the proposed conference. Israel made its rejection of the review conference’s final document clear from the outset.[1] Apparently, that was enough to spark the eventual cancellation of the Conference, a move that was perceived across the region as a U.S. initiative and a setback to the efforts for establishing a nuclear free zone in the very volatile area of the Middle East.

The decision to cancel the Helsinki Conference (HC) disappointed many countries. Iran, in a statement, declared that “The U.S. has taken hostage this Helsinki conference for the sake of Israel ... they want to support the Israelis’ nuclear weapon capability.”[2] The UN General Assembly on December 4, 2012 — in what seemed to be not unrelated to the cancelation of the WMD-free zone —overwhelmingly approved a resolution that called on Israel to join the NPT “without further delay.” The resolution also demanded that nuclear sites in Israel should be open to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, as before, Israel defiantly dismissed the resolution that was endorsed by the vote of 174 nations, calling it a “meaningless mechanical vote.”[3] Obviously, the postponement and vagueness about the fate of the HC may have profound implications for regional and global disarmament efforts, since it damages the foundations of trust that are necessary for any disarmament initiative. Furthermore, with the link that has been established between the HC and nuclear non-proliferation efforts in the framework of the NPT, the Conference now has greater significance than ever before.

Although the conceptual framework of the proposed plan for NWFZ in the Middle East remains valid, there are some geopolitical changes that need to be taken into consideration for the WMD-free zone. In the early 1970s, when the original plan took shape, a bipolar system prevailed in the international system. During that time, major strategic issues like nuclear weapons were under the strict control of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Their spheres of influence were also defined according to the geopolitical map of those days. However, after more than two decades since the end of the Cold War, there are still some ambiguities about the finite shape of the geopolitical landscape of the region. The question of where to draw the region’s borders on the new geopolitical map became more acute after the events of September 11, 2001, and following the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan that later stretched to Pakistan. In the aftermath of those events, it was even suggested that Afghanistan and Pakistan have to be included in map of the “New Middle East”.[4]


In the original proposed plan for the NWFZ in the Middle East, nuclear weapons were the only category of weapons of mass destruction that were targeted for elimination, while in the new plan for the WMD-free zone, chemical and biological weapons and their delivery systems are included in the free zone. Naturally, with this extension of scope, the process becomes more complicated and challenging. Apparently, the motive of Egypt and some other Arab countries at that time were to reach a compromise deal with Israel in the Middle East peace process. In that context, the Arab initiative was considered as part of a bargain and concession to Israel, who sought a linkage between its nuclear arsenal and the chemical weapons in Egypt and Syria. Ultimately this appeared to have the goal of evading pressures regarding its nuclear weapons. However, the inclusion of chemical and biological weapons in the proposed zone complicates an already difficult issue. It is better to prioritize goals and place nuclear weapons first, since there already exists two important international instruments—the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention—that cover those two categories of weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, the inclusion of delivery vehicles of weapons of mass destruction in the agenda of the zone might cause some hindrance in reaching a consensus, since these systems are diversified and include many varieties of weaponry, ranging from simple hand-held delivery systems to the most sophisticated types like the warplanes or submarines.

Israel’s Nuclear Policy

As a non-NPT member possessing some 60 to 400 nuclear weapons,[5] Israel has consistently taken the position that a comprehensive peace in the Middle East must precede any prohibition of nuclear weapons. To avert any blame for its nuclear policies, Israel has adopted a policy of ambiguity regarding its nuclear arsenal, which it obtained with the complicity of the West.[6] However, Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity is a farce, since the international community is well aware of the existence of its nuclear arsenal and its ability to deliver them by aircraft, ballistic missile, and submarine-launched cruise missiles against any country in the Middle East.

Ironically, nuclear weapons have not provided greater security for Israel in the past and they are not likely to do so in the future. While Israel has the most cordial relations with the United States, its insistence on having an independent nuclear force is questionable and could only be interpreted as a sign of arrogance, since it is common knowledge that it could not withstand any serious military confrontation without US help or intervention. The notion of having nuclear weapons to confront the overwhelming Arab forces is irrelevant too, because in all wars with the Arab countries in the past, Israel’s nuclear weapons had no role to play. Furthermore, if the reasoning of those who argue that nuclear weapons are effective as deterrence against a nuclear threat is accepted, Israel can easily rely on its closest ally and seek protection under the US nuclear umbrella, as countries such as Japan and South Korea do.

Presently, Israel’s nuclear policy is not only a major obstacle to the establishment of a NWFZ in the region but potentially can ignite a new war in the region. To maintain what it considers as its right to nuclear monopoly, Israel, with US backing, has been involved in a dirty covert war against Iran. It has targeted Iran’s nuclear program that is entirely under supervision and safeguards of the IAEA. Thus, Israel’s attempts to portray Iran as an existential threat can only be interpreted as a policy to avert international pressures regarding its systematic infringement of the rights of the Palestinians, as well as to divert attention from its nuclear arsenal.

Iran’s Nuclear Policy

As a founding member of the NPT and the first promoter of a NWFZ in the Middle East in 1974, Iran has been a faithful member of the NPT. Iran has consistently denied any ambition to acquire nuclear weapons,[7] but has insisted on “its inalienable right to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination” under Article IV of the NPT. Iran has declared that its current enrichment is at the level of 3.5% and some 20% for medical research and pharmaceutical isotopes – this is far less than the 95% required for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, with Israel practically under the US nuclear umbrella, the chances that Iran would attack Israel are zero.

Witnessing the mounting pressure against Iran’s peaceful nuclear program, while at the same time noticing that Israel, as a non-NPT party, enjoys a blank cheque to acquire and to increase the stockpiles of its nuclear weapons, leaves many experts puzzled as to why Iran would not exercise its option to withdraw from the NPT. Obviously, Iran and other states in the region have legal grounds under Article X of the Treaty for withdrawal from the NPT if they chose to do so, because, since the time they signed the NPT, Israel has acquired a large nuclear arsenal that are now targeted against them.[8]

Nuclear Disarmament

The first necessary step toward the establishment of a WMD-free zone is obviously elimination of existing weapons in the region. In what can be interpreted as a policy to appease Israel, most Western countries and their research institutions fail to address this critical issue, namely Israel’s nuclear weapons. Of course, the existing nuclear weapons in Turkey, as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing policy, are another contentious issue that needs to be addressed in its own place. A legitimate question frequently posed by the NPT’s non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) relates to the commitments of the NPT’s recognized nuclear weapons states (NWS) to comprehensive nuclear disarmament and their respect for the rights of NNWS to live peacefully without being threatened by nuclear weapons. In other words, are NWS willing to give NNWS the much advocated negative security assurances? Furthermore, any disarmament effort, including a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, could not be achieved in a vacuum and needs to be consistent with the general efforts toward comprehensive nuclear disarmament.

It is sad and disappointing to see that, while 23 years have elapsed since the end of the Cold War, the same rhetorics regarding nuclear weapons are prevalent. What is more puzzling for the people in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world is why NWS do not practice what they preach, or, why there is no serious thinking and planning for a Europe without weapons of mass destruction. If the NWS continue to drag their feet over the realization of comprehensive nuclear disarmament, as they have done during past decades, and worse still, if they insist on modernizing and using these weapons to threaten other nations, there is little or no hope for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Similarly, while there are Israeli nuclear weapons in the region and Israel refuses to join the NPT or to commit itself to nuclear disarmament, it is hard to imagine any breakthrough in the negotiations for a WMD-free zone.


With the geopolitical changes sweeping throughout the Middle East and North Africa, major shifts in policies and approaches are not unexpected. Presently, the vivid case is Egypt, which is the most influential player in the Arab world. Signs of an early change came in the 2010 NPT Review Conference, when Egypt took a leading role among other Arab countries to pressure the United States to accept the language in the resolution regarding Israel.[9] But a much tougher stance by Egypt was evident when, in a protest over the failure of the international community to implement a resolution for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, it walked out of the April 2013 meeting of the NPT preparatory committee for the 2015 Review Conference. Turkey also strives to have a greater role in the new Middle East and it is widely believed that it aspires to be a model for Arab countries that are experiencing revolutionary changes in the context of the Arab Awakening. However, Turkey is ambivalent and has yet to decide about the US nuclear weapons stationed on its territory, which would certainly hinder it becoming an active partner in the WMD-free zone project.

After many failed efforts during the past decades to establish a NWFZ in the Middle East, the Helsinki Conference now symbolizes the commitment of nuclear power states to the NPT. Thus, Iran and the Arab states in the region are earnestly looking forward to HC.[10] Furthermore, Tehran considers that a successful meeting on the WMD-free zone would provide a chance to eliminate all ambiguities raised by the Western powers regarding Iran’s nuclear program. At present, the project is also a policy priority for Iran since it is currently the chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The NAM, with 120 member countries, has in the past rendered its support for the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Indeed, the wide support that WMD-free zone enjoys in the international community encourages the early convening of the HC.

Refrence: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs:

[1]On the day after the final document of the 2010 NPT review conference was released, the Israeli prime minister stated: “As a non-signatory state of the NPT, Israel is not obligated by the decisions of this Conference, which has no authority over Israel,…Given the distorted nature of this resolution, Israel will not be able to take part in its implementation.” Reuters, “Israel rejects call to join anti-nuclear treaty” May 29, 2010, http://www.reuters.com/ article/2010/05/29/us-israel-nuclear-treaty-idUSTRE64S1ZN20100529

[2]http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/26/us-nuclear-mideast-iran-idUSBRE8AP0KY20121126 Reuters, Nov 26, 2012




[4]The term “New Middle East”, was first coined by former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006

[5] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East. In the Shadow of Iran, London, 2008, p. 132.

[6]Seymour Hersh, The Samson Option (Random House, 1991)19  

[7]Despite hysteria created by some media outlets, Iran has been cautious to avoid any action that would lead to production of nuclear weapons. Hans Blix former Director General of the IAEA (1981 to 1997) is quoted as saying: “So far Iran has not violated NPT and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.” See: http://antiwar.com/blog/2013/03/06/un-official-hans-blix-iran-nuke-threat-is-overhyped/  

[8]Article X of the NPT stipulates that: “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”

[9] The phrase in the resolution is: “The Conference recalls the reaffirmation by the 2000 Review Conference of the importance of Israel’s accession to the Treaty and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.”

[10] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his speech at the UN Conference on the revision of the NPT in 2010, once again emphasized on the importance of nuclear free zone in the Middle East. See: http://english.irib.ir/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=60482:text-of-president-ahmadinejads-address-to –the-un-review-conference&Itemid=182