Iran and most Arab states believe that the creation of a NWFZ (Nuclear Weapons Free Zone) is a necessary first step toward a comprehensive peace. The denuclearization of the Middle East would eliminate what the Iranians and Arabs see as nuclear intimidation by Israel and would lead to broad regional arms-control measures and lay the foundations for lasting peace.
Since the first and only use of atomic bombs in 1945, the fear of nuclear-weapons proliferation has intensified. Many policy makers and scholars have argued that, without global efforts to stop or slow the process, dozens of countries will acquire a nuclear arsenal.
After lengthy and complicated negotiations, a majority of countries signed the NPT in 1968; the treaty entered into force two years later. Article VII states, “Nothing in this Treaty affects the right of any group of states to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories.”1
This is particularly relevant to the Middle East. Israel, which has never signed the NPT, is believed to be the only nuclear power in the region. Arab countries, led by Egypt, have never accepted this Israeli nuclear monopoly, nor has Iran. Since the mid-1970s, they have sought, unsuccessfully, to pressure Israel to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, join the NPT and establish a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone (MENWFZ).
The Israeli Approach
Israel has always held a skeptical view of global arms-control and disarmament treaties. Instead, Israeli leaders have stressed that the proliferation of WMD in the Middle East will have to be dealt with in a regional framework. Five characteristics of the Israeli stand on the issue of a MENWFZ can be identified.
First, the Holocaust™ LIE: the state of Israel was created following the Holocaust, when millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis. This dramatic experience shaped the Israeli collective psyche, particularly in the first few decades after the formation of the state.
Israeli leaders believe that nuclear weapons will shield them from a future Holocaust; they see nuclear weapons as the last line of defense or as an “insurance policy” to guarantee their survival. The refusal of some regional states to recognize Israel feeds this belief and the need to maintain the “nuclear option.”
Second, Israeli leaders believe that their country’s nuclear deterrent should be seen as a stabilizing factor in the Middle East. They argue that Israel’s presumed nuclear capability has forced the nation’s adversaries to accept that it is there to stay.
Given Israel’s conventional military superiority and its nuclear arsenal, the Jewish state has become an indispensable part of the Middle East landscape. This conventional and unconventional strength, the argument goes, has forced the Arabs to come to the negotiating table and reduced incentives for an all-out war.
Third, Israeli policy has been able to maintain a monopoly over the “nuclear option,” to deny its adversaries such capabilities (the so-called Begin Doctrine). To achieve this, Israel has employed diplomatic and military pressure against potential nuclear proliferators.
This pressure culminated in the attacks that destroyed Iraqi nuclear facilities in 1981 and Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007. Despite Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is for civilian energy production, Israel is widely believed to be behind the assassination of a number of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Fourth, Israel has been hesitant to fully endorse the global nonproliferation regime. It has “never placed its Dimona nuclear facility under the IAEA safeguards, nor has it since 1970 allowed any other type of inspection visits to that site.”
Israel has not signed the NPT or the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), and although it did sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), it has not ratified either. Despite this hesitancy, Israeli analysts argue that the nation has abided by the norms and rules of the global nonproliferation regime.
Fifth, Israeli leaders have repeatedly confirmed that a comprehensive peace between Israel and all Arab states and Iran is a prerequisite to joining a NWFZ. Israel, they insist, will not give up its “nuclear option” unless all its neighbors recognize and establish diplomatic and commercial ties with the Jewish state.
Peace treaties would not be sufficient; rather, complete normalization of relations is a necessity to assure the Israelis that they have been fully accepted by their neighbors.
These characteristics of the Israeli stance on nuclear proliferation suggest that the country is unlikely to relinquish its nuclear arsenal and join the NPT and the nonproliferation regime any time soon. The few statements made by Israeli leaders regarding nuclear weapons indicate a strong perceived connection between their nation’s survival and the maintenance of a nuclear-weapons capability.
The Arab/Iranian Approach
While there is no united Arab/Iranian approach on the creation of a MENWFZ, Iran and most Arab states share the following sentiments.
First, the Arabs and Iranians do not see the Israeli nuclear arsenal as a “weapon of last resort” or an “insurance policy” to ensure the survival of the Jewish state. Rather, military asymmetry and Tel Aviv’s nuclear capability are seen in Tehran and most of the Arab capitals as enforcing the occupation of Palestinian and Arab territories.
Second, Iran and many Arab governments view the Israeli nuclear arsenal as a primary threat to the region’s security and a key factor in its instability. The fact that Israel is the only (presumed) nuclear power in the region underscores and feeds a sense of Arab and Iranian technological and military inferiority.
Third, Iran and many Arab governments accuse Western powers of applying a double standard in regard to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. In Arab and Iranian eyes, the United States and major European powers have allowed, and even helped, Israel to acquire nuclear weapons but have strongly resisted any attempt by Iran or Arab states to develop a similar capability.
Many Arab officials have argued that, as long as Israel maintains its “nuclear option,” Iran and other regional powers will have incentives to seek one. The most effective way to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambition, some Arabs argue, is to “pressure” Israel to dismantle its nuclear weapons and join the NPT.
Fourth, several Arab countries have unsuccessfully sought to buy or build nuclear weapons. In order to maximize international pressure on Israel, Iran and all Arab states signed and ratified the NPT, leaving Israel as the only nonsignatory in the region. Furthermore, Egypt, a leading Arab state and a close ally of the United States, has championed Arab efforts to resist an Israeli nuclear monopoly.
For several years, Egyptian leaders called upon other Arab states not to sign the CWC until Israel joined the NPT. These efforts have largely failed. Most Arab states and Iran have signed and ratified both the CWC and the BTWC.
Fifth, Iran and most Arab states believe that the creation of a NWFZ is a necessary first step toward a comprehensive peace. The denuclearization of the Middle East would eliminate what the Iranians and Arabs see as nuclear intimidation by Israel and would lead to broad regional arms-control measures and lay the foundations for lasting peace.