The Middle East has been and remains one of the most volatile and violent regions of the world. It is a region, however, that could grow exponentially more dangerous with a nuclear arms race. Although Israeli leadership sticks to the ambiguous refrain that it will “not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East,” it is widely understood that Israel has 100 to 200 nuclear weapons.
In1981, an unfinished Iraqi nuclear research reactor, Osirak, was destroyed by Israel, and in 2007, Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor, both on the grounds that these facilities would contribute to nuclear weapons development. Iraq was attacked and its regime toppled by the US in 2003 on the false grounds that it had a nuclear weapons program.
Iran is currently enriching uranium that could be used for a nuclear weapons program. Other countries in the region, including Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, have the potential to become nuclear weapons states.
Neither the initiation of a war nor military attacks against nuclear facilities is a sustainable way of maintaining the nuclear dominance of one state in the Middle East. The current imbalance can only be resolved by nuclear proliferation with the potential for nuclear conflagration or by the achievement of a Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone.
When President Obama spoke recently in Cairo, he said, “It is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is…about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.”
The good news is that every country in the Middle East, with the sole exception of Israel, is a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the parties to this treaty agreed in 1995 to exert their utmost efforts to establish a “Middle East zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.” The bad news is that this commitment was made 14 years ago, and to date there has been no progress.
It does not bode well for the region or the world that Israel remains outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel’s status as a non-party to the treaty and its possession of nuclear weapons is provocative to the other countries in the region. It is also clear that the United States is employing double standards in continuing its silence about Israel’s nuclear weapons, while at the same time seeking sanctions against Iran, a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, for its uranium enrichment program.
Applying double standards is a dangerous game that is likely to end in a breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, regional nuclear proliferation and possible nuclear war. It is a path, as President Obama emphasized, that we do not want to travel. This path will only become more probable and dangerous if action is not taken now to prevent it. There are many more countries in the Middle East that are now seeking to develop nuclear energy programs, which could provide a backdoor entrance to becoming nuclear weapons states.
What is needed is US leadership in support of regional negotiations to achieve a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East. Such negotiations were the reasonable expectation of the states in the region in 1995 when they voted for the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones already cover the territory of most of the Southern hemisphere of the globe, including in Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and Africa. Recently a Central Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone was established. These Zones have worked well to promote regional security and diminish the dangers of regional nuclear arms races.
A Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone will be advantageous for all countries in the region, including Israel and Iran. No country will have the insecurity of worrying about a possible nuclear war in the region, which would be destructive for all concerned.
American leadership in this effort will be critical. It is an essential step toward achieving President Obama’s stated goal of “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” A possible venue for opening discussions on this important security issue is the Global Summit on Nuclear Security that President Obama pledged to convene within the next year. Progress on achieving a regional ban on nuclear weapons in the Middle East will also help assure success at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2010, and move the world closer to the goal of zero nuclear weapons.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org) and a councilor on the World Future Council.