With a month long conference in New York concerning the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a big story lately has been the provision in the treaty calling for a nuclear free Middle East. The thought is a good one, but with Iran allegedly working towards nuclear bombs and the assumed nuclear arsenal of Israel, the likelihood of actually creating such a Utopian zone is slim. Listening to world powers speak, though, it is easy to assume that a nuclear-free Middle East is all but secure. Recently, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council (all of whom possess nuclear weapons) have backed the renaissance of the nuclear-free concept – called for in a NPT resolution in 1995, but never implemented. In the Middle East, Egypt has been instrumental in bringing the possibility of a nuclear-ban for the region back to the table:
Egypt, which chairs a 118-nation bloc of non-aligned developing nations, has been circulating a proposal to the 189 signatories of the NPT calling for a conference by next year on ridding the Middle East of nuclear arms in which all countries in the region would participate.
A nuclear-free Middle East would seem to serve the agendas of many different players. First, for the United States, implementing a ban in the region (something it supports only after a comprehensive peace agreement is made) would help deter an arms race – something that former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton fears:
Even if containment and deterrence might be more successful against Iran than just suggested, nuclear proliferation doesn’t stop with Tehran. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and perhaps others will surely seek, and very swiftly, their own nuclear weapons in response. Thus, we would imminently face a multipolar nuclear Middle East waiting only for someone to launch first or transfer weapons to terrorists. Ironically, such an attack might well involve Israel only as an innocent bystander, at least initially.
Secondly, if the UN takes serious efforts to implement a full ban of nuclear weapons in the region, it could be used to entice Arab countries to support clear and crippling international sanctions on Iran for refusing to cooperate with the IAEA. While there are certain Arab countries that need no enticement to sanction Iran (see: Saudi Arabia), others would need some pushing (see: Syria and Lebanon, who, interestingly is the Arab representative on the Security Council and will have the unenviable job of voting for or against sanctions).
Finally, a nuclear-free region would require all countries to sign the NPT, including Israel, which has not signed, nor confirmed or denied its nuclear arsenal, believed to be around 200 weapons. A ban on nuclear weapons would force Israel to dismantle the bombs it does possess – something that is obviously attractive to Arab countries. Israel, like the US, has tried valiantly to keep Israel’s nuclear arsenal a secret while saying that a ban would be supported if a comprehensive peace is made.
So, the question becomes how viable a nuclear ban in the Middle East is. The quick answer is no. Not only are states in the Gulf looking towards nuclear energy as a alternative to the disappearing oil that initially enriched the countries, but the ban would need to convince Iran to stop and Israel to do the unthinkable.
When prices are high, gulf countries would prefer to sell their oil at great profit rather than burn it for power. A study done by the International Atomic Energy Agency and a group of gulf states concluded that nuclear power made sense for the region when the price of oil exceeded $50 a barrel. Today it is above $80, and with the world economy gradually recovering, many expect it to go higher.)
Considering the recent inability of the US to implement international sanctions on Iran as well as its struggles in pressuring Israel, it is difficult to believe that the US, even in concert with the EU and the UN would be able to make the Middle East nuclear ban a reality. There are of course clear benefits to disarming Israel and halting nuclear activity in Iran, but there is a massive gap between rhetorically backing the ban and implementing it.
Photo from Raising Zona