Article in Politics / International
On 14 October 2011, it was announced at the United Nations in New York that Finland will host the conference to be held this year on the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone (WMDFZ) (a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, biological, chemical and nuclear) in the Middle East.
<p>On 14 October 2011, it was announced at the United Nations that Finland will host the conference to be held next year on the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East and that Jaakko Laajava, Under-Secretary of State in Finland’s for</p>

On 14 October 2011, it was announced at the United Nations in New York that Finland will host the conference to be held this year on the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone (WMDFZ) (a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, biological, chemical and nuclear) in the Middle East. Jaakko Laajava, Under-Secretary of State in Finland’s foreign ministry, has been appointed as the facilitator for the 2012 conference. The announcement was made in a joint press statement issued by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Proposal for a WMDFZ

The establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle East, which is very important for peace in the region, was first proposed by Egypt in 1990. The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) states that the Treaty must be reviewed every five years. The NPT Review Conference that took place in 1995 adopted a Resolution on the Middle East calling on states to take practical steps to make progress in the establishment of WMDFZ in the region. The resolution called for the negotiation of a treaty committing the parties not to possess, acquire, test, manufacture or use any nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as their delivery systems. Such a treaty should provide for effective verification of compliance with the commitments made by the parties to the Treaty. The 2000 NPT Review Conference reaffirmed the goal of 1995 Middle East Resolution.

The 2010 NPT Review Conference called for a United Nations sponsored conference in 2012 to establish a WMDFZ in the Middle East to be attended by all States in the region. It is this UN Conference which is to be hosted by Finland. The United States, Russia and the United Kingdom, have committed themselves to work together with the UN Secretary General to convene the 2012 Conference. The Conference aims to bring together all Middle Eastern countries, some of which have a long history of disagreement about the issue, such as Iran and Israel.

Increasing interest in nuclear power in the region

There has recently been an increasing interest in Middle Eastern countries in acquiring nuclear-power reactors for the generation of electricity. Because the technology for civil nuclear power is identical to the technology for nuclear weapons any country operating with nuclear-power reactors must be regarded as a potential nuclear-weapon power. In the Middle East, nuclear power is under serious consideration in the Gulf States including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Iran, Israel, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.

The spread of civil nuclear power in the Middle East increases the risk of nuclear-weapon proliferation in the region. This underlines the importance of establishing a WMDFZ in the region.

A WMDFZ would commit those countries in the region which have stocks of chemical and/or biological weapons to destroy them. Israel is suspected of having biological weapons and Syria is suspected of having chemical weapons. Some other countries in the Middle East may have the capability of producing biological and/or chemical ones.

Iran’s nuclear activities

At the 2012 Conference in Finland, much attention will inevitably be focused on the attitude of Israel and Iran to making the Middle East a region free of WMDs. It is widely believed that Iran is developing the capability to fabricate nuclear weapons, in case its leaders take the political decision to do so. But Iran’s political leaders insist that its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes only and that it has no current intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which regularly inspects Iran’s nuclear facilities, has found no evidence that Iran currently has an actual nuclear-weapon programme. Most experts believe that it would take Iran a few years to acquire nuclear weapons if it took the political decision to do so. Nevertheless, there are strident voices in Israel and the USA demanding a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Such an attack would be counterproductive. It would provoke a fierce Iranian retaliation; it would probably be unable to destroy those parts of Iran’s nuclear programme that are well protected and hidden; at most, it would achieve a short delay in Iran's development of nuclear weapons; and it would endure that Iran went all out to obtain a nuclear weapon-option as rapidly as possible.

In a stark warning, the London-based The Economist magazine states: “military action is not the solution to a nuclear Iran. It could retaliate, including with rocket attacks on Israel from its client groups in Lebanon and Gaza. Terror cells around the world might strike Jewish and American targets. It might threaten Arab oil infrastructure, in an attempt to use oil prices to wreck the world economy” (1).

It is, therefore, very important to avoid a war arising from the unresolved dispute about Iran’s nuclear programme. One way to do this is to seek a WMDFZ for the entire region that includes the participation of Israel. This may be the best way to avoid a war in the region because it may change minds in Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Washington. Whether it would overcome the hard-line thinking and militarism that determines policy in Iran, Israel and the United States is doubtful.

Israel’s nuclear weapons

Israel is widely believed to have developed and fabricated nuclear weapons and to have deployed them on bombers and missiles. It began working on nuclear technology almost immediately after the country was founded in 1948. Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was convinced that Israel should obtain nuclear weapons for its security. He stated, "What Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller, the three of them are Jews, made for the United States, could also be done by scientists in Israel, for their own people".

In the late 1950s, with much support from France, Israel secretly constructed, at Dimona in the Negev desert, a nuclear reactor and a reprocessing plant to remove chemically the plutonium from spent reactor fuel elements. It probably first fabricated a nuclear weapon in the late 1960s. We know this because Mordechai Vanunu, a former Israeli nuclear technician who worked at Dimona, revealed, in 1986, details of the programme to the British newspaper, The Sunday Times.

Israel is one of four nuclear-armed countries not recognized as a Nuclear-Weapons-State by the NPT; the others are India, Pakistan and North Korea. Israel itself has, since 1965, adopted a policy called ‘nuclear ambiguity’, never officially confirming or denying that it has nuclear weapons. Instead, it has stated that it ‘would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East’, without defining what it means by this phrase. Israel has consistently refused to sign the NPT despite pressure from the international community to do so. It claims that joining the NPT would be against its security interests.

According to the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI): “The size of the Israeli nuclear weapon stockpile is unknown but Israel is widely believed to have produced enough plutonium for 100-200 warheads. According to one estimate, Israel possessed m0.8 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium as of 2010.” SIPRI estimated in 2011 that “Israel has approximately 80 intact nuclear weapons, of which 50 are warheads for delivery by ballistic missiles and the rest are bombs for delivery by aircraft” (2).

Israel operates F-16 Falcon bombers, some of which are certified for nuclear weapon delivery, with a range of approximately 1,600 kilometres (960 miles) and about 50 Jericho II ballistic missiles, with ranges of up to 1,800 kilometres (1,080 miles). The Jericho III ballistic missile, with a range of at least 4,000 kilometres (2,400 miles), was test-launched in January 2008 but its current status is unknown.

Shavit, a space launch vehicle produced by Israel to launch small satellites into orbit, was first launched on 19 September 1988, carrying an Ofeq satellite. If converted to a ballistic missile, it could deliver a nuclear weapon to a distance of 4,000 kilometres (2,400 miles).

All in all, Israel is a formidable nuclear power with a capability similar to that of the established nuclear powers, China, France and the UK.


The establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle East will, to say the least, not be easy. As the US Arms Control Association explains: “Despite extensive international support and the catalogue of resolutions endorsed including by all regional states, practical progress has been stymied by sharp disagreements between countries in the region over the terms and the sequence of steps leading to the establishment of the zone. Reflecting differing perceptions of threat and security concerns existing in the region, Israel has closely linked discussions on the establishment of the WMDFZ with the existence of durable peace and compliance with international obligations by states in the region. Arab states have said that no such linkage should exist and that the establishment of WMDFZ would contribute to peaceful relations” (3).

All the countries in the Middle East pay lip service to the proposal for turning the region into a WMDFZ. But because of the deep distrust between them – particularly, between Israel, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria – they are not, to say the least, keen on its implementation. No country in the region seems prepared to agree to anything less than a total success of the proposal or to be seen to kill it off.

The proposal, many believe, is probably doomed to a slow death even though a WMDFZ would improve the security of all countries in the region. But Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull, writing in the New York Times, are somewhat more optimistic. They wrote: “The debate over how to handle Iran’s nuclear program is notable for its gloom and doom. Many people assume that Israel must choose between letting Iran develop nuclear weapons or attacking before it gets the bomb. But this is a false choice. There is a third option: working toward a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. And it is more feasible than most assume” (4).

Let’s hope they are right and ‘the third option’ is chosen. It would be a great pity if such an attractive idea does not succeed.


1. The Economist, Bombing Iran, February 25th – March 2nd 2012, page 9.

2. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, SIPRI Yearbook 2011, p.349, Oxford University Press, 2010.

3. Arms Control Association, WMD-Free Middle East Proposal at a Glance

4. Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull, Preventing a Nuclear Iran, Peacefully, New York Times, January 15, 2012. to Shut Down Permanently on December 31, 2017

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About the Author 

Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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