A WMD-free Middle East is possible, here's how

A WMD-free Middle East is possible, here's how
7 min read
14 Jul, 2021
Opinion: A Middle East free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons is possible, but it would require cooperation and transparency from all regional countries, including Israel, writes Emad Kiyaei.
'Israel's regional nuclear weapons monopoly counteracts any efforts to rid the region of WMDs' writes Kiyaei [Getty]

At the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors meeting in June, the Qatari government called on Israel to open its nuclear facilities to inspection.

This apparently bold step follows decades of demands from the international community for Israel to join 191 nations - including all Middle Eastern countries - in signing and ratifying the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty (NPT). Joining the NPT would not prevent Israel from making peaceful use of nuclear technology, but would entail far greater checks on its activities and the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Israel's nuclear weapons programme has been shrouded in mystery since its inception in the 1960s. However, a steady stream of declassified US documents, international leaks, and whistleblowers has proven that the country possesses nuclear weapons. 

"A steady stream of declassified US documents, international leaks, and whistleblowers has proven that Israel possesses nuclear weapons"

Unfazed, the Israeli government maintains its official policy of "nuclear opacity", refusing to confirm or deny its possession of nuclear weapons. Yet Israel's nuclear weapons monopoly in the region counteracts any efforts to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) - biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons - while fuelling neighbouring countries' ambitions to develop their own.

One of the world's most volatile regions, the Middle East is a hotbed of WMD proliferation. Looking beyond Israel's nuclear arsenal, the history of the region is littered with instances of governments building, testing, and using WMDs on civilian populations.

WMD use in MENA

Chemical weapons have been a long-standing favourite of dictators. Egypt deployed chemical weapons in Yemen in the 1960s, and two decades later, Iraq used them on its own citizens and on Iranians during the eight-year war. In the past decade, Syria's Assad has unleashed dozens of chemical attacks on the civilian population.

While international attention of late has focused on Iran's nuclear programme, the UAE and Saudi Arabia's incipient nuclear capabilities pose an emerging concern for regional (and global) security. Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia remarked that if all efforts "fail to convince Israel to shed its weapons of mass destruction and to prevent Iran from obtaining similar weapons, [then] we must, as a duty to our country and people, look into all options we are given, including obtaining these weapons ourselves."

This comes as Saudi Arabia has moved aggressively to nuclearise, with its near completion of a research reactor and ambitious plans to build civilian nuclear power reactors.

Meanwhile, the UAE inaugurated the Arab world's first nuclear power plant in March 2020, after years of delay due to construction faults. Though the UAE has agreed to IAEA's intrusive inspections, there are concerns that its nuclear programme could spur regional nuclear proliferation. 

Amid the toxic litany of conflicts that spawn new enmities and violent actors, the region urgently needs to remove WMDs from the mix.

Initiatives like the Iran nuclear deal offer tentative signposts for strengthening nonproliferation in the region. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran and world powers in 2015, concluded a decade of previously failed negotiations, outlining a clear framework to prevent Iran's development of nuclear weapons.

The JCPOA established a rigorous inspection and transparency regime overseeing Iran's nuclear programme. The Trump administration's unilateral withdrawal from the deal dealt a serious blow to its longevity. However, recent talks in Vienna have renewed hope that, pending a successful result, the US and Iran will return to full compliance with the JCPOA - and thereby remove Iran's nuclear capabilities from the regional proliferation equation.

Developing a WMD-free zone

Instigating IAEA inspections on Israeli nuclear sites represents a possible step towards non-proliferation, but long-lasting foundations for disabling nuclear weapons in the region require region-wide multilateral cooperation. 

Efforts should focus on re-energising, retooling, and reformulating the process to establish a WMD-free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. Realising this vision, first proposed by Egypt with backing from Iran more than 30 years ago, would ensure no country in the region develops, possesses, or uses WMDs.

"A Middle East free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons: this seemingly utopian vision can be realised in a single treaty"

Working for a WMDFZ built on partnership, trust, and goodwill from all parties requires conditions that deflate animosity and misunderstanding among countries, if gradually. So, even beyond strengthening nonproliferation efforts, the WMDFZ could, in parallel, open discussion channels to address broader challenges facing the region. New possibilities for progress towards peace, security, and prosperity will inevitably emerge.

A Middle East free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons: this seemingly utopian vision can be realised in a single treaty, drawn up through inclusive negotiations between all countries in the region (22 Arab countries, as well as Iran and Israel), supported by world powers. It would require setting up a regional organisation to oversee the treaty's eventual implementation, verification, and compliance.

Several initiatives already exist to support the realisation of the zone. The traditional track, linked to the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995, requires the international community to support the establishment of the Middle East WMDFZ. Regrettably, formal efforts have faltered since then on outlining the treaty text or establishing a regional organisation.

Regional states kickstarted a more promising complementary diplomatic process through the UN's first annual Conference on the WMDFZ, in November 2019. All countries in the region participated, including the 22 Arab states and Iran, as well as permanent members of the UN Security Council - with the notable exceptions of Israel and the US. The meeting will recur until a final treaty text is negotiated through a consensus-driven process.

Israel's role in disarmament

While Israel declined to participate in the inaugural conference on the WMDFZ, its seat at the table remains open. The Israeli government needs to come under pressure to be part of the solution, rather than its sticking point.

"Regional states kickstarted a promising diplomatic process through the UN's first annual Conference on the WMDFZ. All countries in the region participated, except Israel"

Israel has more to gain from a WMDFZ than its nuclear proponents would admit. Maintaining an advanced nuclear weapons programme as well as capabilities in chemical and biological spheres gives Israel a semblance of security.

But more importantly, it poses serious existential risks: facilities are vulnerable to attack, infiltration, or misuse by domestic or foreign adversaries, which could set off the WMDs housed within them. The Israeli nuclear weapons arsenal and the decades-old Dimona reactor situated in the Negev Nuclear Research Center are vulnerable to conventional weapons fire, including from non-state actors. An assault could unleash deadly radioactive material in Israel and across the region, causing widespread human, environmental, economic, and psychological damage. 

Israel's nuclear monopoly is gradually ceding to expanding UAE and Saudi Arabian nuclear programmes, as well as Iran's capabilities in developing the nuclear fuel cycle. This status quo is untenable. Highlighting the benefits for all parties to eradicate and foreclose additional WMD proliferation offers hope for eliminating Israel's existing nuclear arsenal and preventing future use of all WMDs in the region. 


Emad Kiyaei works at the intersection of political risk, diplomacy and disarmament. He is a director at the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO), which seeks to eradicate all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East through innovative policy, advocacy and educational programmes. He is also a principal at the international consulting firm IGD Group. He is the co-author of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A new approach to non-proliferation, published by Routledge.

Follow him on Twitter: @ekiyaei

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.