The Middle East needs to be a nuclear-weapons-free zone

People of the region should pressure their governments to publicly commit to a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

Israel''s Prime Minister Netanyahu walks with U.S. Secretary of State Clinton upon her arrival to their meeting in Jerusalem
Neither Netanyahu nor Hillary Clinton made mention of the "nuclear-weapon-free zone proposal, or the possibility for dialogue with Iran over its alleged nuclear programme" [EPA]

In April 1962, an informal grouping of Israeli intellectuals and scientists, self-proclaimed as the Committee for the Denuclearisation of the Middle East, acted in their private capacities in issuing a statement to the effect that nuclear weapons “constitute[d] a danger to Israel and to peace in the Middle East”.

Whilst the Committee’s raison d’être must be primarily viewed as an effort by concerned citizens to draw the public’s attention to Israel’s clandestine nuclear weaponisation programme, as well as – in the words of the Committee – to preserve what they termed the “Zionist experiment”, the grouping was notable for emphasising the dual-importance of non-state actors in achieving that vision, and the facilitating role that would be required of extra-regional actors, particularly the United Nations and related bodies.

Today, some 50 years later, I’m calling for a return to the underlying premise – the ethos – of those Israeli individuals, who saw not only the inaptitude of nuclear deterrence to the noble task of peace, but also the degree to which they believed even small groups of people could bring about regional and international change.

Nuclear-weapon-free zones              

The current modality being seriously proposed for the Middle East, however, is somewhat different to that which prompted those Israeli intellectuals in the 1960s.

Indeed, preceding their grassroots initiative by some five years, European diplomats and politicians were devising an altogether more ambitious, yet more readily implementable path to disarmament: the nuclear-weapon-free zone. In essence, such zones serve to simultaneously eradicate nuclear weapons from the territory of the specific region, as well as complement efforts to delegitimise and contain those nuclear weapons that are possessed by states outside of the zone’s defined limits. 

Targeting Iran

And yet, despite more than three decades of unanimous support by all regional states in the United Nations General Assembly, the state-level support for a nuclear-weapon-free zone is long-held, yet seemingly insufficient to effect change.

For instance, the recent performance by Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu and the United States’ Hillary Clinton gave no sign of encouragement. Neither leader made mention of the nuclear-weapon-free zone proposal, or the possibility for dialogue with Iran over its alleged nuclear programme.

Instead, the United States unilaterally moved to indefinitely postpone the 2012 Helsinki Conference, thereby overextending its mandate as co-convenor alongside the United Kingdom, Russia and, unusual for a resolution of this kind, the UN Secretary General.

However, the sort of comprehensive and absolute nuclear disarmament that is demanded from a nuclear-weapon-free zone will require precisely the sort of political will and leadership that is heretofore absent, as well as also the input of a highly skilled and coordinated range of stakeholders from civil society such as doctors, scientists, academics, former policymakers and community and religious leaders.

A review of the five existing land-based nuclear-weapon-free zones is further instructive in this regard. Civil society organisations, in particular epistemic communities, including scientists and scholars, were instrumental in both the pre-negotiation and negotiation phases of the formation of each of the zones.

For instance, in the case of the South American zone, the assurances provided by scientists for the mutual inspections of nuclear facilities is said to have created the conditions for the eventual establishment of a zone, despite an escalating conflict between Brazil and Argentina at the time.

In the South Pacific, peace activists in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia were instrumental in mobilising public opinion and placing the necessary political pressure on governments. Whereas in the South East Asia, legal scholars and practitioners, particularly in Indonesia, did much of the conceptual framing and advocacy the led to the successful negotiation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone there.

It is difficult to argue either how or why the process towards the establishment of a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone will be any different in this regard – should it ever occur.

The good and the bad of the Middle East case

An analysis of the way forward in the Middle East case must take account of five primary features.

First, the negotiation of a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone cannot be conceptually or practically decoupled from matters of regional trust and security.

The Israeli position steadfastly seeks to institutionalise this situation by demanding bilateral peace agreements with regional neighbours before the implementation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Whilst the activities of a number of scholars and specialists may be broadly viewed as operating programmes in support of the state-level process under the rubric of trust.

For instance, the University of Birmingham’s “Trust-building in Nuclear Worlds” project led by Nicholas Wheeler makes special emphasis of the role of trust in mitigating and eliminating “nuclear rivalries”, particularly between the United States and Iran. Whilst the Pugwash Conferences under Paolo Cotta-Ramusino has increasingly broadened the group’s previously niche activities into more inclusive workshops for developing confidence-building measures and direct engagement with Iranian and Israeli policymakers.

Second, there is a long-standing and wide-held view that the Middle East zone should encompass not only nuclear weapons, but also all weapons of mass destruction as well as their means of delivery. This notion goes back to the early 1990s and while has historically resulted in greater support for proposal, may result in overcomplicating the matter further.

Third, the degrees to which extra-regional states are legally and procedurally vested in the zone. For instance, the United States and Israel’s long-standing agreement on Israel’s nuclear ambiguity policy is arguably untenable. Additionally, there is also a raft of international legal obligations in relation to the establishment of a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone.

The United States and United Kingdom have a special responsibility as part of the United Nations Security Council’s sanctioning of the 1991 Gulf War, while there is a special resolution embedded within the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995, which similarly obligates all states-parties of that treaty to undertake efforts in that regard. 

“The negotiation of a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone cannot be conceptually or practically decoupled from matters of regional trust and security.”

Crucially then, despite the unwavering opposition of Israel to the Helsinki process for having being born out of the NPT, there are in fact a wider and more encompassing set of obligations on various states to pursue a Middle East zone.

Fourth, it is also the case that until recently civil society in much of the Middle East has been severely underdeveloped and underutilised – in short its capacity to bring pressure to bear on governments on the matter at hand has been almost entirely absent. This observation is true not only for the pre-revolution Arab world, but also arguably for Iran and Israel.

And fifth, many within the nuclear disarmament and peace movements in the West are either trying to deploy their strategies and expertise in support of Middle East efforts in a manner that appears at times (and no doubt unintentionally) rather colonial towards their Middle Eastern counterparts, or by side-stepping the Middle East issue entirely in order to pursue a perceived lacuna presented by humanitarian approaches to nuclear disarmament advocacy.

In both instances there appears a lack of appreciation for, and commitment to, the central role that the people and states of the Middle East must take if we are ever to see the successful negotiation and implementation of a Middle East zone.

It’s up to the people of the region

In my view, no regional government has thus far shown the required sincerity and leadership to advance the Middle East zone in the way described. More worrying still, the Finnish government and the four co-convenors of the Helsinki process – for whatever the reasons – undeniably failed to convene the conference within the two-year timeframe agreed to in 2010.

The time is ripe for the people of the region to pressure their respective governments to publicly commit to a Middle East free of biological, nuclear and chemical weapons – whatever the situations of the other states of the region, such as Syria and Israel.

The question now is, what do the people of the region need to make such a mass mobilise achievable?

NAJ Taylor is a research associate at La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue, and a doctoral researcher in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland.

Follow NAJ Taylor on Twitter: @najtaylor