Most people in the policy making process and foreign policy establishment understand that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon poses one of the most serious threats to global stability. There are a plethora of policy options people have advocated, including diplomacy, sanctions, and kinetic action. However, if people are truly interested in global security and peace, they should advocate what is known as a “nuclear free zone.” In the case of the Middle East, though, people should call for a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ). The international community currently advocates for this position and the United States needs to support them. It will take a serious treaty that allows for regional and international verification and severely punishes those who do not hold to it. Only in this way can the global community take seriously the possibility of a WMDFZ in the Middle East and the end of regional conflict.
Nuclear Free Zone in the Middle East
According to the UN, a nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) is:
“any zone recognized as such by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which any group of States, in the free exercises of their sovereignty, has established by virtue of a treaty or convention whereby: (a) The statute of total absence of nuclear weapons to which the zone shall be subject, including the procedure for the delimitation of the zone, is defined; (b) An international system of verification and control is established to guarantee compliance with the obligations deriving from that statute.”
Having this operating definition is important for proper analysis. People started calling for a NWFZ in the Middle East during the 1970’s. The Shah of Iran originally called for one in 1974 and the Egyptians supported his cause. Since the passage of the resolution, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly passed other resolutions calling for the same NWFZ. Although there have been other NWFZs in the world, including Latin America and Africa, the call for a specific one in the Middle East happened in 1991 during Gulf War I when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. UN Security Council Resolution 687, which terminated the war in 1991, called for a Middle East NWFZ. The 14th Operational Paragraph read that the Council “[t]akes note that the actions to be taken by Iraq…of the present resolution represent steps towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency has also called for a Middle East NWFZ in the last few years. In a September 2010 resolution the IAEA “call[ed]” upon all States in the region to accede to and implement all relevant disarmament and non-proliferation conventions” and “[a]ffirms the urgent need for all States in the Middle East to forthwith accept the application of full-scope Agency safeguards…as a step in enhancing peace and security in the context of establishment of a NWFZ.” In the same year, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Review Conference called for a 2012 conference on the issue for involved states. At the end of 2011, several countries met in Jordan to lay the foundation for the conference, and Finland has already said the country will host the conference in the coming months. Although there are several problems ahead of the conference, this is an important first step in bringing the NWFZ to a reality.
Important and Problematic Countries
If people are going to have an honest discussion on how to eliminate nuclear weapons in the Middle East, then they are going to need to be honest about the two problematic and critical countries of Israel and Iran. This is not to castigate either one or appear anti-Israel or anti-Iran. Both have become difficult in the process to tackle the issue of nuclear weapons because both have been obtuse, surreptitious, and duplicitous. Israel is the first country to consider because it is pure conjecture whether Israel has nuclear weapons or not. The Jewish state allows its enemies, and friends, to assume and presume that it possesses nuclear weapons and will use them. This started in the 1970’s during the Yom Kippur War when Henry Kissinger finally intervened in the conflict because he thought Israel might use nuclear weapons against the Arab invaders. Israel is known to have at least a few nuclear reactors, and most analysts believe that Israel has 75-200 nuclear missiles. The country poses a problem because it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and refuses to adhere to international standards of safeguards for all of its nuclear facilities. In addition, it refuses to give accurate information to any country, even the United States, on the extent of its nuclear program.
Iran also poses a significant problem, and people need to be honest about the Shi’ite nation. The Ahmadinejad regime is most likely seeking nuclear weapons capabilities. It is clear to see that Iran wants to acquire nuclear weapons capability. Furthermore, they are getting increasing closer to that ability. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an organization known for its cautious language, finally acknowledged last November that Iran is trying to gain weapons capability. This was the twelfth report during the Obama administration; it took several years for them to acknowledge this fact, which demonstrates its higher reliability. The IAEA reached its conclusion because of the obstinacy of the Ahmadinejad regime and their refusal to comply with international treaties.
Another important part is that because the West failed to reach an agreement about enriching Iran’s uranium for medical purposes, the country has decided to do this on its own. Here is a quick science lesson on nuclear weapons. To build a bomb, one needs to enrich uranium to 92%. This means that the Uranium needs to be 92% U235 which can happen through the use of centrifuges, like the Iranians are doing. Uranium found in the ground is less than 1% U235. The important part though is that if Iran is enriching their uranium to 20%, the amount necessary for medical reactors to treat cancer, the process is 90% done to reach bomb making levels. Iran is clearly going after a nuclear weapon, and soon they will have the capability, which is an obvious problem for the peace process.
How NWFZ Would Work
The most practical way to begin the process appears to be to convene a regional conference between the nations involved to assess and create a governmental treaty that establishes the verification process, punishments involved, and any other treaty obligations the nations want. This should be done by the governments in the region rather than an international organization so it does not appear that Western powers are forcing their views and influence into the region. Also, it will help with the extreme distrust of the UN by some of the countries involved. All of the relevant countries would need to open up their borders and nuclear sites to inspectors from both the IAEA and regional inspectors who could come in at any time. The important part of the process, though, would be choosing the proper punishment for those who “cheat.” The appropriate actions would be immediate sanctions by the international community and possible kinetic action if the “cheater” continues to break the rules.
To bring about the NWFZ and WMDFZ, the countries will need to tie in several other issues involved, especially concerning Israel and Iran. Israel will need to openly state how many nuclear weapons they have and how prolific their nuclear program is. In addition, Israel must sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and open its sites for inspections. Furthermore, Israel must be willing to make concessions and work harder for peace with the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state. These are the concessions that Israel has to make. In return, all of the Arab and Islamic countries in the region must sign peace treaties with Israel that recognize its right to exist. Iran must also open its nuclear sites and stop obstructing international inspectors. These are all heavily contentious issues, but it is unlikely that a NWFZ will move forward unless they are part of the treaty.
Finally, another complicated and delicate issue with which the international community will need to deal is the anti-Semitism that comes along with the process of working with Israel. There are two ways to stop anti-Semitism in the process. The first is to stop singling out Israel any time the NWFZ is discussed. At the latest NPT review conference, the countries only called out Israel for its nuclear program and said nothing of Iran. This is inexcusable and an obvious slight at the Jewish state. The second is not to focus exclusively on nuclear weapons. There are other weapons of mass destruction in the Levant; both Egypt and Syria have possible chemical and biological weapons and there are issues surrounding the treaties banning those. The discussions should not just focus on issues about Israel and instead bring in issues from the whole Middle East.
The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction poses a serious threat to international peace and international security. America has had a long history of trying to stop rogue regimes and terrorists from acquiring nuclear, chemical, and biological capabilities, but now the US needs to advocate for the elimination of these kinds of weapons in Middle Eastern nations if they are serious about non-proliferation. However, this issue cannot exist in a vacuum; America must connect nonproliferation and NWFZ to other contentious issues of peace in the region or nothing will be achieved. Nonproliferation is necessarily connected to the Palestinian issue and Arab-Israeli relations. The United States has a chance to really promote peace in the Middle East, and they need to take the chance.
 Resolution 3472 B of 11 December 1975, http://www.un.org/disarmament/WMD/Nuclear/NWFZ.shtml
 Resolution 687 (1991), http://www.fas.org/news/un/iraq/sres/sres0687.htm
 GC(54)/RES/13, September 2010, http://www.iaea.org/About/Policy/GC/GC54/GC54Resolutions/English/gc54res-13_en.pdf
 GOV/2011/65, November 2011, http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2011/gov2011-65.pdf
 Olli Heinonen, NPR, Iran’s 20 Percent Solution, January 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/01/12/145094806/foreign-policy-irans-20-percent-solution