A Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone
All we have learned of psychotherapy suggests that it is at the precise time when the individual feels as if his whole life is crashing down around him that he is most likely to achieve an inner reorganization constituting a quantum leap in his growth towards maturity. Our belief is that it is precisely when society’s future seems so beleaguered — when its problems seem almost staggering in complexity, when so many individuals seem alienated, and so many values seem to have deteriorated — that is most likely to achieve a metamorphosis in society’s growth toward maturity, toward more truly enhancing and fulfilling the human spirit than ever before. (Willis Harman)
The current conflicts in Syria and their impact on neighboring States have again drawn world attention to the dangerous situation in the wider Middle East and the possible role of nuclear and chemical weapons.
There has been a yearly resolution in the United Nations General Assembly, a resolution first proposed by Egypt and Iran in 1994, concerning the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. The issue has also been raised in each review conference of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. To date, there has been no visible progress on the issue, but concern over the nuclear-weapon capacity of the Islamic Republic of Iran has made a nuclear-weapon-free zone (or a broader weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone) an important policy issue.
Currently, nuclear weapons are held by the four “Great Powers”: The USA, Russia, China, and India, and by two units of an emerging Great Power, the European Union, in which two of its 27 members, France and the United Kingdom, have nuclear weapons. The Great Powers, by their land mass, large population, and a certain socio-economic dynamism, would be Great Powers with or without nuclear weapons.
In addition to the Great Powers, there are three States which I call the Existential Nuclear Powers. These States’ existence is relatively recent, the result of the Second World War, the end of European colonialism, and the end of the League of Nations Mandate system: North Korea, Pakistan, and Israel.
Pakistan and to a larger extent Israel are directly concerned by a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. Tensions between Israel and Iran, into which the United States has also been drawn, make concerted efforts to establish good faith negotiations an important policy issue. Non-governmental organizations have an important role to play to help create the atmosphere in which such negotiations can be carried out.
The situation of Israel among the three Existential Nuclear-weapon States — Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan — may be considered exceptional because the very existence of the State has been under constant threat since its foundation. Its small land mass, and relatively small population but with a high density, make nuclear-weapon deterrence a key element of Israeli military policy. However, the Middle East as an area is one prone to blundering into disaster, often helped by States outside the Middle East.
The hazards of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East has existed since Israel developed its “bomb in the basement” and was widely discussed in the early 1980s after the Israeli forces destroyed the French-built nuclear reactor near Baghdad in June 1981 (1). Nevertheless, during the 62 years since the creation of the State of Israel, there have been proposals for “common security” in the Middle East which would require real steps toward nuclear and conventional disarmament, economic and social development, and active conflict resolution, especially the future of the Palestinians. True security requires economic prosperity and justice, a vibrant social and cultural life, the affirmation of human rights, and ecological integrity.
The Middle East is far from these conditions, and negotiations even on small improvements seem unlikely. As Jeffrey Helsing points out:
Even with the end of the Cold War, many of the same problems have continued in the region or have actually gotten worse. Despite the turnover of a few leaders, little change has occurred politically within most Arab societies and their governmental systems. Religious fundamentalism remains strong within the region, often continuing its broad-based appeal to many disenfranchised or disaffected sectors of society. This reflects a growing divide between the haves and have-nots in society. In addition, the scarcity of natural resources such as water, arable land, and the pressures of high population growth increase the risks of conflict, both within countries and between them. Finally, on top of each of these issues, one must impose the fundamental conflict that still exists between Arab nationalism and Zionism as well as the competing claims for the same land among Palestinians and Israelis.
One possibility in developing “common security” in the Middle East would be the creation of a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone. Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), called on Iran and Israel to enter into serious negotiations to create a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, saying:
This is the last chance to build security in the Middle East based on trust and cooperation and not on the possession of nuclear weapons. A peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbours must be reached in parallel with a security agreement in the region based on ridding the area of all weapons of mass destruction.
The idea of nuclear-weapon-free zones has been an important concept in disarmament and regional conflict reduction efforts. A nuclear-weapon-free zone was first suggested by the Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki at the United Nations General Assembly in October 1957 — just a year after the crushing of the uprising in Hungary. The crushing of the Hungarian revolt by Soviet troops and the unrest among Polish workers at the same time showed that the East-West equilibrium in Central Europe was unstable with both the Soviet Union and the United States in possession of nuclear weapons, and perhaps a willingness to use them if the political situation became radically unstable. The Rapacki Plan, as it became known, called for the denuclearization of East and West Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
The plan went through several variants, which included its extension to cover the reduction of armed forces and armaments, and as a preliminary step, a freeze on nuclear weapons in the area. The Rapacki Plan was opposed by the NATO powers, in part because it recognized the legitimacy of the East German State. It was not until 1970, and the start of what became the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, that serious negotiations on troop levels and weapons in Europe began. While the Rapacki Plan never led to negotiations on nuclear-weapon policies in Europe, it had the merit of re-starting East-West discussions which were then at a dead point after the Hungarian uprising.
The first nuclear-weapon-free zone to be negotiated — the Treaty of Tlatelolco — was a direct aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. It is hard to know how close to a nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR was the Cuban missile crisis. It was close enough so that Latin American leaders were moved to action. While Latin America was not an area in which military confrontation was as stark as in Europe, the Cuban missile crisis was a warning that you did not need to have standing armies facing each other for there to be danger.
Mexico, under the leadership of Ambassador Alfonso Garcia-Robles at the United Nations, began immediately to call for a denuclearization of Latin America. There were a series of conferences, and in February 1967 the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America was signed at Tlatelolco, Mexico. For a major arms control treaty, the Tlatelolco was negotiated in a short time, due partly to the fear inspired by the Cuban missile crisis but especially to the energy and persistence of Garcia-Robles and the expert advice of William Epstein, then the U.N.’s Director of Disarmament Affairs. The Treaty established a permanent and effective system of control which contains a number of novel and pioneering elements as well as a body to supervise the Treaty.
On 8 September 2006, the five States of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — signed a treaty, the Treaty of Semipalatinsk, establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone. The treaty aims at reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation and nuclear-armed terrorism. The treaty bans the production, acquisition, deployment of nuclear weapons and their components as well as nuclear explosives. Importantly, the treaty bans the hosing or transport of nuclear weapons as both Russia and the USA have established military airbases in Central Asia where nuclear weapons could have been placed in times of crisis in Asia.
It is an unfortunate aspect of world politics that constructive, institution-building action is usually undertaken only because of a crisis. The growing pressure building in the Middle East could lead to concerted leadership for a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone. The IAEA has the technical knowledge for putting such a zone in place. (2) Now there needs to be leadership from within the Middle East States as well as broader international encouragement.
René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, is representative to the United Nations, Geneva, of the Association of World Citizens. He lives in Gravieres, France.
- Shai Feldman, Israeli Nuclear Deterrence: A Strategy for the 1980s (Columbia University Press, 1982); Louis Rene Beres (ed.), Security or Armageddon (Lexington Books, 1985); Roger Pajak, Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East (Washington, DC: The National Defense University, 1982).
- Michael Hamel-Green, Regional Initiatives on Nuclear-and WMD-Free Zones (Geneva: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, 2005); For a recent analysis, see Gawdat Bahgat, Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East (University Press of Florida, 2008, 212pp.)