The 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) of April and May failed to produce a final document. The reason was that the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada did not accept a deadline for a conference on a “Nuclear Weapons Free Zone” (NWFZ) in the Middle East that should also include other weapons of mass destruction. Such a request would have singled out Israel, which is not party to the treaty and is supposed to possess up to 200 nuclear warheads. There are seven existing nuclear weapons free zones in the world today. They include Antarctica, Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, Central Asia, and Mongolia.
Of these zones, not one of them was established when a member already had nuclear weapons. The NWFZ of Pelindaba in Africa, which opened for signature in 1996 and entered into force 2009, was only possible after South Africa had abandoned its nuclear arsenal. Such a NWFZ in the Middle East was proposed for the first time by Iran and Egypt in the mid-seventies. Israel was not opposed to such an initiative and came up with its own proposal in 1980. The Review Conference to the NPT of 1995 requested to find ways to implement such a zone, and the NPT-Conference of 2010 called for the organization of a special conference on this issue by 2012. This initiative went nowhere, however. Many hoped that the 2015-Conference would give the idea new momentum; it did not.
Is the initiative dead? Are there other ways to proceed? One possibility would be to extend the Treaties of Africa in the South and Central Asia in the North to the Gulf and the Middle East. Already several North African states are parties to the treaty of Pelindaba (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauretania). Egypt has already signed but not ratified the treaty. Geographically, historically, and culturally Iran is closer to the countries of the Central Asian Treaty of Semipalatinsk (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). If the Arab states and Iran are serious about the creation of a NWFZ in the Middle East they should support this idea and try to join one of the NWFZs. In legal terms only an additional protocol to the treaties would be necessary. They could build a belt of NWFZs from Mongolia to Africa. Nobody should be forced to do so, however.
Israel, for sure, would not do so right away. If Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia were to become members of one of these zones, it would give Israel a greater feeling of security. At the same time, the rationale for Israel to possess nuclear weapons would also change over time. This stability might pave the way for Israel to join a zone later itself. This strategy could be more successful rather than an aggressive diplomatic offensive against Israel. As long as a NWFZ is being used as an instrument by Iran and some Arab states against Israel the United States and other Western Powers will never support its implementation. If, however, Israel were surrounded by NWFZs the international pressure for it to change its nuclear weapons policy would be difficult to ignore. It would support the argument of Egypt and other Arab states to end its exceptional status. They and Iran would not have to give up anything themselves if they joined such zones.
Members of NWFZs should not produce, possess or test nuclear weapons devices. There should be a clause in any such agreement stipulating that there would be no threat to use nuclear weapons against any state from within or from outside the zone. A NWFZ prevents a potential nuclear arms race within the zone. Also, nuclear weapon states should give their assurances that they would not use nuclear weapons against the members of the zone. Iran would benefit from such guarantees. Currently it is still under threat from potential nuclear hostilities even if it does not possess nuclear weapons. According to the US-Nuclear Posture Review Iran only has guarantees that such measures would not be used against it if or when it is “in compliance with … nuclear non-proliferation obligations” in general.
Iran could demonstrate its willingness to commit to peace and stability by abiding by the rules of this extended zone. This would create confidence that it would not develop a secret nuclear weapons program outside a negotiated comprehensive agreement with the EU3+3 in the years after it would enter into force. Verification by itself, which is the most important part of such an agreement, cannot guarantee that Iran would not hide facilities capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons. Inspectors can only examine whether there is evidence for a nuclear weapons program or not. Consequently, there will always be room for interpretation of Iran’s activities, for accusations of noncompliance, or even for provocations coming from hard-liners from within Iran's borders. In the end, any agreement must be based on trust.
Through membership of one of the two zones the Arab States and Iran would lose nothing except the option to develop their own nuclear weapons, an option that they preclude themselves from. Israel would gain security, but its potential nuclear weapons would become less important over time. Mistrust among all the states of the region would decrease and the principle of nuclear non-proliferation be strengthened.
These are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent those of BASIC.
Heinz Gärtner is a Professor at the University of Vienna, Academic Director of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (oiip) and an expert on arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. He is editor (together with Akbulut and Honig) of the book “Peace, Democracy, and Security” (Lexington: New York), 2015.