A Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone: An Urgent Task for UN First Committee

Britt Gronemeyer, Middle East Treaty Organization

The UN General Assembly room filled with diplomats. A vote is being tallied on the monitors but the text on the screen is unreadable.
The UN General Assembly adopts 58 disarmament related texts at the direction of its First Committee. Credit: UN News, Paulo Filgueiras, 2012

The risks imposed by nuclear weapons in the Middle East are growing increasingly alarming and the upcoming UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security should address solutions to this situation, specifically in the form of a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). NWFZs are beneficial globally and should be established in different regions across the world, but it is especially critical to establish a NWFZ in MENA. The heightening tensions between Iran and Israel risk capriciousness and are made more dangerous by the countries’ respective nuclear programs. Furthermore, the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use in MENA would be dire, and their likelihood increases every time disarmament stagnates. While First Committee meetings have previously mentioned the importance of establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East, they have failed to take tangible steps towards its formation. The potential destruction that will occur if states in the region continue to build their nuclear programs uninhibited demands that action be taken now.

During the First Committee meeting, which will take place from October 3 through November 4, 2022, states should not only express support for a NWFZ in MENA but also urge other states not to block it. First Committee agendas have consistently included the establishment of a NWFZ in MENA since 1990. All Arab states have cooperated with and supported the establishment of the zone; however, cooperating states should increase pressure on Israel and Iran to come on board as well as encourage the UN secretary-general to expand consideration of views on the zone by pursuing consultations with states in the region and other relevant states that may be able to impact the feasibility of establishing the zone.

The establishment of a NWFZ is a regionally adapted approach to ensure the absence of nuclear weapons in the participants’ respective territories and has become a vital and promising component of efforts to advance nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. References to this process in major weapons treaties, including both the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), is a testament to its importance in the future of nuclear non-proliferation. By restricting the locations across the world in which nuclear programs can be initiated and advanced, NWFZs contribute significantly to total disarmament. Regardless of the location of the zone and the degree of its restrictions, incremental limitations on nuclear weapons benefit humanity on a global scale.

Pre-existing nuclear weapon-free zones have laid the foundation for the future establishment of NWFZs. The development of NWFZ treaties, such as the Treaty of Tlatelolco, the Treaty of Rarotonga, the Treaty of Bangkok, the Treaty of Pelindaba, and the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, have created a basic structure of a NWFZ treaty that is widely accepted and understood. This precedent should facilitate the establishment of a NWFZ in MENA. Delegates to the First Committee should demand that the five nuclear weapons states recognized under the NPT adhere to the protocols included in each NWFZ treaty, ensuring that they respect the will of the region and its free zone. Nuclear weapons states should also respect the introduction of a new NWFZ in MENA, if it is proven to be the will of the region.

Calls for a NWFZ in MENA are based on the belief that they would ensure basic security from the use of nuclear weapons in a volatile region, regardless of the escalation of violence in any given conflict. Discussions of a NWFZ in MENA date back to 1974, when it was proposed by Iran to the UN General Assembly, and the concept has been sporadically re-introduced in the years since. While historic instances of NPT discussions regarding a NWFZ, or to go further, a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ), which extends the restriction in the Middle East on weapons to biological and chemical as well as nuclear, are frequent and purposeful, few palpable steps towards its establishment have been achieved.

The growing nuclear arms threat in the Middle East is the primary motivation for the establishment of a NWFZ. The possibility of a nuclear arms race between Israel and Iran raises grave concerns. The US backing of Israel’s nuclear weapons program has hindered the goal of nuclear disarmament. For example, the United States refused to represent Israel at a 2019 conference on the establishment of the zone, saying the meeting would ostracize Israel. The delegates to the First Committee should put pressure on the United States and Israel to participate in the development of the zone. The abandonment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear deal designed to dismantle much of Iran’s nuclear program and open it up to regular inspections in exchange for relief from the permanent members of UN Security Council, has increased the likelihood of nuclear weapons use in the region. The escalation of violence within the Israel-Palestine conflict and the current distance from a solution contributes to the urgent need for a NWFZ in the region. Broader nuclear proliferation is also imminent within MENA, and a regional NWFZ is urgently needed to avoid the emergence of new nuclear states, such as Turkey and Syria, whose own conflict has led to indications of interest in developing nuclear programs.

The potential impacts of the use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and North Africa would be catastrophic. The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapon use would extend to the environment, global health, agriculture, society, and the economy. The harm would encompass both the immediate effects as well as long-term humanitarian and environmental impacts. There is no infrastructure that could handle the aftermath of nuclear detonation that would likely devastate the entire region.

The history of calls for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East is extensive; however, it means little if the zone cannot be implemented in the near future. Establishment of such a zone would require cooperation between adversarial states unprecedented within the realm of nuclear weaponry, the development of bodies to oversee adherence to the zone, and other steps, but the immense humanitarian consequences of nuclear proliferation in the region make it an imperative. If the First Committee and states participating are unable to follow through with the recommendations discussed above, the threat of nuclear war and its disastrous effects could become a reality. 

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