Is a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East Merely a Dream?

by Tsutomu Ishiguri, Professor at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies

The final document adopted at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference contained a resolution on the Middle East.

The resolution urged the secretary-general of the United Nations to convene a conference in 2012 on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, including nuclear weapons. It also stipulated that a facilitator for the conference be selected and the host nation decided.

Israel is suspected of possessing nuclear weapons outside the framework of the NPT. In addition, Iran’s actions involving its nuclear development program have cast a shadow over the Middle East in recent years. Since 1974, when a resolution was adopted at that year’s U.N. general conference which called for denuclearizing the Middle East, the issue has been a focus of international concern. It appears, at last, that movement is being made.

There is a tough road ahead, however. The issue is very complex and intricately intertwined with security and peace both inside and outside the Middle East. Serving as facilitator, the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland sought to arrange the 2012 conference, but it was not realized.

A nuclear-weapon-free zone is established when a group of non-nuclear-weapon states in a certain region declare their area free of nuclear arms. Within that zone, the development, production, and possession of nuclear weapons, along with any introduction of such weapons via transport, is banned. These agreements are made through a nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty.

At the same time, the five nuclear nations of the NPT (China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States) pledge in a protocol to the treaty not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons in such zones. This is termed a “negative security assurance.”

To date, nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties have been adopted in regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central Asia. Mongolia has been designated a one-state nuclear-weapon-free zone.

In addition, a document on the purposes and principles of nuclear-weapon-free zones was adopted by the U.N. Disarmament Commission in 1999. This document will provide guidance for addressing the Middle East.

Based on such precedents, let us consider the challenges involved in realizing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

First, where the “Middle East” actually begins and ends has not been clearly defined. The final document adopted at the NPT Review Conference only mentions that all the nations of the Middle East will attend the 2012 conference. If Iran is included among these nations, it should fully disclose its nuclear development program for “peaceful purposes” under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

This is also based on the premise that Israel would take part. However, for Israel, whose relations with its neighbors are hostile, joining a nuclear-weapon-free zone has no merit when it comes to its own security. Thus, the issue of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East cannot be separated from the Middle East peace process.

It is vital that we include Israel and Iran in any treaty. But if countries suspected of possessing or producing nuclear arms become member nations, this would violate the principles of nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaties, which are designed to advance a world without nuclear weapons. Under the current circumstances, it appears that a treaty for the Middle East is not feasible.

On the other hand, it is essential to maintain the authority of the NPT. The concerns of countries in the Middle East that have been calling for the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone must be addressed, and the following actions should be taken.

Even if the treaty seems a distant goal, far-sighted preparations must begin. Such aims as the treaty’s principles, contents, and milestones toward its establishment should be shared among the parties concerned.

There should at least be a forum for the nations in favor of a treaty to sit down together and talk. Developing a pattern of regular talks is an important step. This was the case with the Central Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, in which I played a direct role. Creating opportunities for discussion promoted trust-building among the nations involved and ultimately led to the realization of the treaty. I would encourage Japan to take the lead and make this proposal.

We should also take advantage of the resolution, adopted repeatedly at the U.N. General Assembly, which calls for the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. In line with the wording of this resolution, a declaration should be made that Middle Eastern nations, including Israel, will seek to denuclearize the region, and the declaration should be approved by the U.N. Security Council. This one idea would be a step toward building trust.

Although the 2012 conference was not realized, I earnestly hope that an international gathering will take place this year to promote discussion of this issue.


Tsutomu Ishiguri
Tsutomu Ishiguri was born in Niigata City in 1948. After graduating from Waseda University, he entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1972, and then the Disarmament Division of the United Nations in 1987. He was Director of the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and Pacific between 1992 and March 2008. He was deeply involved in the drafting and signing of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty. Professor Ishiguri took up his current post in April 2008.

(Originally published on March 16, 2013)