Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East

Savita Pande,Research fellow,IDSA



The first proposal for regional denuclearisation of the Middle East was advanced in Israel as early as 1962. In 1957, six members of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission had resigned following Israel's decision to develop nuclear weapons, and two of them had formed the Committee for Denuclearisation of the Arab-Israel conflict. It was this committee that in April 1962 first publicly called for the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.1 Following intense internal debate on the issue, the Israeli government rejected the nuclear-free proposal and opted for the formula of deliberate ambiguity that it maintains till today. It maintains that Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region but neither would it be the second.2

The nuclear option was sought as an existential deterrent--a hedge primarily against the Arab threat to the survival of Israel either through the employment of the preponderant conventional capability or by obtaining the nuclear weapon first. Israel's reasons for amassing nuclear weaponry is what Robert Harkavy calls the "withdrawal scenario"--that Israeli nuclear weapons could deter a massacre of the Israeli population, when its evacuation from the region might be feasible if there was enough time. The threat to use nuclear weapons might buy this time.3 The nuclear weapons became an important part of Ben Gurion's concept of "cumulative deterrence": that an evolving Israeli track record of defeating the Arabs' effort to destroy the Jewish state would eventually lead them to understand that Israel cannot be defeated militarily and must be accommodated politically.4

For the Arabs, Israel's nuclear monopoly presents an insurmountable challenge. The destructive capacity of these weapons, uncertainty regarding the circumstances that might lead Israel to use these weapons and the consequent nuclear blackmail that the Arab states were exposed to constituted the threat. The different nuclear policies pursued by the Arab states are basically the reflections of their particular political, social and economic circumstances. Iraq was perhaps the only state that was developing the deterrent, including against Israel. Egypt was perhaps the only other regional state that considered developing nuclear weapons in response albeit for a brief period in the 1960s. Its decision to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1980 closed the option forever. Iran may have thought of the deterrent against Israel, but Gulf War realities could not but have turned its attention to Iraq also. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria refrained from joining the nuclear club.

Israel, however, did not become a party to the NPT. Its continuing grounds for not signing the treaty are based on lack of confidence in the NPT's capacity to provide adequate security guarantees, concerns about its provisions to withdraw after only three months' notice and concerns regarding inspection and verification procedures.5

Proposal Before the UN

The regional denuclearisation initiative took concrete shape in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Aware of how close Israel had come to using the nuclear weapons in the war, and the demonstration of how close the then two superpowers could be drawn to the region, Egypt and Iran, who had close relations at that time, proposed in the United Nations that a nuclear weapon-free zone be established in the Middle East.

In the twenty-ninth session of the General Assembly, "Establishment of a Nuclear-Free Zone in the Region of the Middle East" was included mainly at the behest of Iran and was then joined by Egypt. Intense negotiations between Egypt and Iran resulted in bilateral understanding between both the countries to change the title of the item from "Establishment of a Nuclear-free Zone" to "Establishment of a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone."6 Both countries had agreed that the thrust of the initiative should be directed against the dangers of nuclear weapons and should not hamper the quest for the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

In 1974, a draft resolution was presented to the First Committee of the UN General Assembly by Egypt and Iran. The issue was subsequently opened for debate. Egypt laid stress on three points: (1) the states of the region should refrain from producing, acquiring, or processing nuclear weapons; (2) the nuclear weapon states should refrain from introducing nuclear weapons into the area or using nuclear weapons against any state of the region; and (3) an effective international safeguards system affecting both the nuclear weapon states and states of the region should be established. Most states of the region also supported the initiative. All nuclear weapon states had voted in favour of the resolution. The United States supported the resolution, stating that the zone "could make a considerable contribution to stability and non-proliferation." It, however, cautioned that requesting states to undertake commitments with regard to establishment of the zone a priori of actual negotiations and an agreement was a dubious procedure.7

Most of the reservations were made regarding that part of the resolution which called on concerned parties to accede to the NPT and recalled Resolution 2373 of June 12, 1968, which requested the widest possible adherence to the NPT. Numerous non-NPT members were not ready to support the resolution. However, upon Egypt's initiative, an agreement was reached whereby these countries voted in favour of the resolution, but expressed their reservations in an explanation of their votes.8

Israel abstained on the resolution. The Israeli stand was rooted in the domestic policy and the nature of its nuclear deterrent. Domestic opposition to the nuclear option and support for the nuclear weapon-free zone could be seen in the early 1960s when the Committee for Denuclearisation of the Israel-Arab Conflict was formed. The committee argued that "adoption of a nuclear option was a fundamental mistake." Additionally, the Mapam Party started a debate in the Knesset and is on record calling for a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East. According to Pajak, "These objectives met with considerable sympathy from among the public and some leading members of the major political parties."9

The second factor was political, tied to the nature of the Israeli deterrent. A vote against the resolution would have directed the world attention to its unsafeguarded facilities. A vote in favour would have dissipated Arab fears, thus affecting the psychological fears. The Israeli abstention was explained in terms of holding direct consultations between the states in the Middle East and ultimately convening a regional conference. Thus, there was a convergence on the issue between the US and Israel. An attempt by Egypt to introduce a provision to initiate preliminary consultations between the Secretary General and states of the region met with resistance from the US and Israel, and led to dropping of the Egyptian amendment.

On December 4, 1974, the General Assembly adopted the draft resolution by 128 votes to none, with only two abstentions (Israel and Burma). The resolution "commended the idea of establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, considered that it was indispensable that all parties concerned in the area proclaim solemnly and immediately their intention to refrain, on a reciprocal basis, from producing, testing, obtaining, acquiring or in any other way possessing nuclear weapons." Additionally, the General Assembly called upon the parties concerned in the area "to accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and requested the Secretary General to ascertain the views of the parties concerned with respect to implementation of the resolution, and to inform the Security Council at an early date and the General Assembly at its thirtieth session."

In 1975, the Secretary General, implementing the operative Paragraph 5, invited several countries in the Middle East to convey to him their views on the implementation of the resolution, particularly with reference to Paragraphs 2 and 3. These related to two ideas: a proclamation by the countries concerned to refrain, on a reciprocal basis, from producing, testing, obtaining and acquiring nuclear weapons: and a call to all parties in the region to accede to the NPT. Seven governments responded to the Secretary General. All countries stated their readiness to proclaim their intention to refrain from producing, testing, and acquiring nuclear weapons, provided that Israel undertook a similar commitment. With regard to the NPT, some governments stressed that they had already joined, while others indicated that they had signed and would ratify once Israel had joined the NPT.10

In its reply to the Secretary General, Israel said that the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the region was a desirable first step, and expressed its readiness to participate in a regional conference of all states for the purpose, linking the proclamation called for in Paragraph 2 of the resolution with the successful outcome of the negotiations for the establishment of such a nuclear weapon-free zone. No promises were made concerning the NPT.11

The resolution on a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East became a regular feature with minor changes in nuances.12 The First UN Special Session on Disarmament in 1978 approved a final document by consensus. In Part 3 of that document, entitled "Programme for Action," Paras 60-64 dealt with nuclear weapon-free zones; Para 63 (d) dealt with establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East. There was no reference to the NPT in it. From 1979, after the Iranian revolution and a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the latter decided to sponsor the resolution alone. On December 11, 1979, the UN General Assembly also adopted a resolution--Resolution 34/89--put forward by Iraq, which sought preparation of a study on Israeli nuclear armament.

Consensus and After

In October 1980, Israel put foward its own draft, but dropped it after persuasion. The Arabs approved the resolution which deleted the phrase "to create an atmosphere of confidence in the Middle East." The resolution was adopted by consensus. The Israeli acceptance, it is argued, could be aimed at concealing its intention to destroy the Iraqi reactor the next year.13 On June 7, 1981, Israel attacked the non-military nuclear facility in Iraq, which resulted in total destruction. Three days after the attack, Israel presented a letter to the UN Secretary General seeking establishment of the nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East.14 The letter called for convening at a later date a conference to negotiate the proposed zone.

Two resolutions were passed in the General Assembly condemning the raids. On both resolutions, Israel and the US voted against, the US plea being the Security Council had already done that. In this background, Egypt moved a more procedural resolution whereby the Secretary General would merely transmit the previous year's resolution in the General Assembly at the Second Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament. In subsequent years, Egypt presented substantive resolutions that were similar in spirit and substance to the one approved by consensus in 1980.

In 1991, Egypt suggested that the UN Secretary General distribute to members of the Arab League, Israel, and Iran, a questionnaire to solicit their views regarding the modalities for a Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone, including its geographical extent; its basic prohibitions; the means of verifying compliance with these prohibitions; the commitments to this zone to be made by the states outside the region; the duration of the arrangement; provision regarding adjacent areas; the zone's relationship to similar zones; its relationship to other international agreements; and various technical clauses, such as verification and withdrawal provisions.

The Two Approaches

The main difference between the Israeli and Egyptian texts, says Feldman, " the mechanism by which an NWFZ should be established in the Middle East. The Egyptian draft resolutions do not elaborate a mechanism for such establishment or even suggest that a formal agreement to create such an NWFZ should be negotiated and signed by the region's states. Rather, they implied that the Middle East should simply comply with the stipulations of the announced zone."15 The Egyptian proposal also did not define the obligations that these states would be taking towards each other: instead, it referred to their commitment towards the zone. Egypt did recognise that "efforts aimed at redressing the threats posed by the nuclear dimensions of the arms race would, without doubt, be facilitated by the resolution of the political problems in the region and vice-versa."16 But it rejected the linkage between the two, arguing that arms control cannot wait for peace.

In contrast to Egypt's nuclear weapon-free zone proposal, the Israeli proposal emphasised the need to negotiate the terms of such a zone. Israel's focus on the negotiation mechanism may have resulted from the conviction that Israel should not surrender the deterrent effect of its nuclear potential unless Arab acceptance of Israel's existence in the region is manifested in a willingness to negotiate with the Jewish state. Such willingness was regarded as a test of Arab states' intentions, and the negotiation process was seen as an essential part of the efforts to build mutual confidence among the region's states without which a nuclear weapon-free zone could not be established.17

It is possible that some Israelis may also have regarded its (Israel's) proposal to establish a nuclear weapon-free zone as a bargaining chip designed to obtain Arab recognition of, and willingness to negotiate with, Israel. That is, the Arab states' participation in direct negotiations with Israel would be the price they would have to pay for Israel to constrain its nuclear potential through the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone. But it is more probable that the Israelis, who supported initiation of a nuclear weapon-free zone, insisted on the linkage because they assumed that the Arab states would never participate in such negotiations. Thus, the proposal may have been seen as a way for Israel to seem favourably disposed towards the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone with very little danger that the dilemmas involved in the establishment of such a zone would have to be confronted.18

A second distinction between the two proposals is their approach to the NPT and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The Egyptian proposal suggested that pending the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, the region's states should adhere to the stipulations of the NPT and should subject all facilities to the IAEA safeguards. Nabil Fahmy, a member of Egypt's delegation, said that nuclear weapon states would have to be verified by intrusive measures. "Verification will, of course, have to be commensurate with the requirements for making the zone truly nuclear-weapons free. Consequently, they would necessarily have to involve measures more intrusive than those of the NPT regime, given the widely recognised Israeli nuclear capability as well as other extra-NPT prohibitions similar to those in other NWFZs."19 It is for similar reasons that Israel has shown a preference for the nuclear weapon-free zone over the NPT and a mutually agreed verification system rather than the IAEA system of safeguards.

Mubarak's Initiative

On April 8, 1990, President Mubarak expanded Egypt's nuclear weapon-free zone proposal by calling for the transformation of the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction--WMDFZ--thus adding the ban on biological and chemical weapons.20 Egypt submitted this proposal to the United Nations on April 16, 1990.21

According to Feldman, the Mubarak Initiative did not elaborate a mechanism for implementing a WMDFZ, but did emphasise certain points:

1. All weapons of mass destruction without exception should be prohibited in the Middle East i.e. nuclear, chemical, biological, etc.

2. All states of the region, without exception, should make equal and reciprocal commitments in this regard.

3. Verification measures and modalities should be established to ascertain full compliance of all states of the region with the full scope of the prohibitions without exceptions.22

Mubarak's April plan was expanded in a paper submitted by Foreign Minister Amru Musa to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. It called upon regional states to endorse the zone in declarations to the UN Security Council and to state their intention to refrain from actions which would impede the establishment of the zone. Regional states were asked to declare their readiness not to: use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons; produce or acquire nuclear weapons; produce or acquire nuclear weapons material. Regional states were also asked to support a future role for the UN or another international organisation in verification of Middle East arms agreements.23

These again showed that Egypt did not consider that the establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle East must result from a process of negotiations by the region's states. Similarly, transformation of political relations among the region's states--which would allow such negotiations to take place--is not a prerequisite for implementing the Egyptian proposal for a WMDFZ.

The Mubarak Initiative did not receive universal enthusiasm in the Arab world. When Egypt presented the Initiative at the June 1990 Baghdad Arab Summit meeting, Saddam Hussein objected to the proposal. Concern was expressed that the Initiative might damage Arab interests by allowing Israel to shift attention from nuclear weapons to other weapons of mass destruction, and that establishment of the WMDFZ might limit the access of the region's states to civilian technology.24

Nevertheless, by the end of 1994, Egypt obtained support from Syria and Saudi Arabia for its position favouring the creation of the WMDFZ as an integral part of the peace process. At their meeting in Washington on the issue in December 1994, the three called on the international community, especially the co-sponsors of the peace process, to work diligently towards removing obstacles created by Israel. In this context, the three sides affirmed their demand to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, above all nuclear weapons.25

During the months preceding the April 1995 NPT and Review Extension Conference, the Arab League instructed a group of Arab arms control experts to draft a WMDFZ treaty text. Anticipating Israeli apprehensions on the geographical extent of the zone, the draft treaty said that a WMDFZ zone must incorporate Israel, Iran and all 22 members of the Arab League. At the March 23, 1995, meeting, the draft treaty was discussed but no decisions were made regarding its implementation.

As for Israel's approach to the Mubarak Initiative, following complex negotiations, it adopted the central elements of the Initiative. This was done in a draft document defining Israel's approach to the goals of arms control in the Middle East. The essence of the approach was made public by the then Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, in a speech at the international conference organised in Paris to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. While it adopted the essence of the Mubarak Initiative, Israel indicated that establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle East required prior establishment of peace and the application of mutual verification measures.26 This was reiterated in the text of the agreed Israeli-Jordanian negotiations agenda concluded in Washington in September 1993 and in the Israel-Jordan Peace Agreement of October 1994. The two agreed to work towards a Middle East free from weapons of mass destruction--conventional and unconventional.

An attempt to meet the Israeli regional approach was at the core of the multilateral Working Group on Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) that was founded in the wake of the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991. The move, however, has not gone very far. For one thing, not all the region's states are parties to the ACRS; in fact, some of the most relevant states in this regard are missing. Neither Iran nor Iraq is a party to the ACRS; Syria, while negotiating peace and security with Israel at the bilateral level, decided not to attend the multilateral forum until it saw a significant progress on the bilateral channel.27 This alone makes it highly unlikely that that any substantive agreement can be negotiated at the foreseeable future.

Israel endorsed the transformation of the Middle East into a WMDFZ in the draft Statement on Arms Control and Regional Security discussed at the October 1994 ACRS meeting in Paris and at the December 1994 meeting at Tunis. Israel proposed that the statement include a call for establishing the Middle East as a mutually verifiable zone free of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.


In the past, the impasse over establishing the nuclear weapon-free zone was politically immaterial. While both sides could claim a moral high ground for their proposals for the nuclear weapon-free zone, they knew that the whole exercise was futile--no more than diplomatic posturing. So long as the Arabs were not ready to recognise Israel and to deal with it in the context of regional security, Israel had no difficulty in proposing the nuclear weapon-free zone, recognising very well that nothing practical would be achieved, and that it would not hinder Israel's activities in the nuclear field. This was also consistent with the pattern of its nuclear policy. For the Arabs, their proposal was meant to embarrass Israel and highlight Israel's refusal to sign the NPT.

All those who expected much out of the peace process would, of course, be less enthusiastic now, keeping in mind the pace of the peace process at this time. In the realm of the nuclear weapon-free zone, the ACRS itself meant very little because of the absence of key countries. The fundamental difference between the Arabs and Israel in terms of approach to nuclear weapons became evident in the ACRS rounds.

The asymmetry between the Arabs and Israel in terms of nuclear capability will take a long time before any ground can be broken. The Arab one-point agenda is to end Israeli nuclear monopoly and hence, superiority, in the region. Israel, on the other hand, sees nuclear weapons as the only way not only to survive but also to remain the number one power in the region. Israel has, for this reason, also insisted that the nuclear issue cannot be isolated from other issues. It has also maintained that establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone must be linked with political progress on the peace process, as well as with other areas of arms control.

Besides, the Israelis even today maintain that they will not be the first ones to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East, reports of their threats to do so in 1973 and in the Gulf War notwithstanding. In such a scenario of their opaque nuclear proliferation, there is no way they would give an account of their nuclear weapons, leave aside transparency to the extent of verification. As Avner Cohen has assessed correctly, "No Israeli Cabinet could be expected to preside over dismantling the nation's 'nuclear option'; on the contrary, Israeli defence sources have already made it clear that a leaner, peace-time Israeli army must have an even stronger strategic deterrent component, and that it is the nuclear option that will preserve peace. Israel's new partners of peace, as well as Israel's remaining foes, must not question Israel's commitment to maintaining its deterrent strength."28

On the other hand, the Arabs will not stop short of seeking total dismantling of Israel's nuclear weapons. The more they press on the issue, the less are the chances of Israel renouncing its option. In any case, the way the West in general and the United States in particular has indirectly condoned Israeli nuclear weapon policy (as well as capability), the chances of pressures on Israel to renounce it are remote. This is not to say that Israel will abandon its declared support for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East but to highlight the fact that the chances of establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East are remote.



1. Leonard Spector, Nuclear Proliferation Today, (Vintage, 1994), pp. 122-24.

2. Prime Minister Rabin's statement to the television in 1974. Lawrence Freedman, "Israel's Nuclear Policy," Survival, June 1975, pp. 100.

3. Robert Harkavy, "The Imperative to Survive," in Louis Rene Beres ed., Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy, (Massachussets: Lexington Books, 1986).

4. Shai Feldman, Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in Middle East, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1997), p. 96.

5. Savita Pande, The Future of the NPT, (Lancers, 1975), pp. 173-205.

6. The Iranian request for a regional nuclear weapon-free zone was contained in A/9693. After eight days, Egypt co-sponsored the request A/9693/Add.1 of July 23, 1974; the change i.e. including the word "weapon" can be seen in A/9693/Add.2 of August 22, 1974.

7. United Nations, The United Nations and Disarmament, 1970-75, (New York: United Nations, 1976), p. 108.

8. Mahmoud Karem, A Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East: Problems and Prospects, (New York: Greenwood, 1988), p. 95.

9. Robert F. Pajak, Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East: Implications for Superpowers, (Washington DC: National Defence University Press, 1982), and p. 33.

10. Their replies are reproduced in Document S/11778 of July, 1975 entitled "Report of the Secretary General."

11. UN Document A/10221/Add.1 of October 8, 1975.

12. Karem, n. 8, p. 101-112.

13. Paul F. Power, "Preventing the Nuclear Conflict in the Middle East: The Free Zone Strategy," The Middle East Journal, vol. 37, autumn, 1983, p. 619.

14. UN Document A/36/315, June 10, 1981.

15. Feldman, n. 4, p. 24.

16. Egypt's reply to the Report of the Secretary General on "Establishment of the Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in the Region of Middle East," p. 17, cited in Ibid.

17. Shalheveth Freier, "A Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone in the Middle East and its Ambience," unpublished paper, pp. 3-6. Ibid.

18. Feldman, n. 4, p. 250.

19. Nabil Fahmy, "Middle East Arms Control: Bolder Nuclear Steps Needed," Arms Control Today, vol. 21, no. 4, May 1991, p. 22.

20. Nabil Fahmy, "Egypt's Disarmament Initiative," The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, November 1990, pp. 9-10.

21. A/45/219-S/21252, April 18, 1990.

22. Feldman, n. 4, p. 226.

23. Conference on Disarmament, CD/1098, July 21, 1991.

24. Fahmy, n. 20, pp. 9-10.

25. Text of the tripartite communique, cited in Feldman, n. 4, p. 229.

26. David Makovsky, "Peres to Seek Mutual Verification of Arms Ban with Arabs," Jerusalem Post, January 13, 1993.

27. Avner Cohen, "The Nuclear Issue in the Middle East in a New World Order" in Efraim Inbar and Shmuel Sandler ed., Middle Eastern Security: Prospects for an Arms Control Regime (London: Frank Cass, 1995), pp. 55-56.

28. Ibid., p. 58.