The action plan agreed during the last Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May 2010 strengthened the voice of those who believe that the NPT is the most effective multilateral path towards global nuclear disarmament. The ratification of New START, the US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which came into effect in February 2011, is another positive development on this path, but there is still a long and essential road ahead, particularly in the Middle East. Success at the 2015 Review Conference, and thereby the future of the whole nonproliferation regime itself, is increasingly contingent on achieving genuine progress on two key issues: progress by the Nuclear Weapon States toward meeting the commitments they undertook in 2010; and the clear and credible commitment on the part of participants—including from the region—to the forthcoming 2012 conference to establish a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The 2010 NPT Review Conference reconfirmed that without good-faith progress on these two issues, member states will continue to be increasingly resistant to calls for tighter restrictions on the transfer and use of nuclear technology to increase confidence in the nonproliferation regime, or to attempts to strengthen measures against non-compliance and withdrawal .

Nuclear Disarmament, Verification and Transparency

The nuclear-weapon states committed at the 2010 NPT Review Conference to report on their “undertakings” toward disarmament to the NPT’s Preparatory Committee in 2014. The 2015 Review Conference will then take stock and consider the next steps for the full and long-overdue implementation of Article VI of the Treaty. The action plan on disarmament contains benchmarks to measure the implementation of Article VI, including practical steps over the next five years. In particular, Action 5 calls upon the nuclear weapon states to “engage with a view toward”

  • Rapidly moving towards a reduction in the global stockpile of all nuclear weapons, regardless of type or location;
  • Further diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in military and security doctrines and policies; and discussing policies to prevent the use of nuclear weapons and contributing to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament;
  • Considering the interests of non-nuclear-weapon states in the disarmament process; and further enhancing transparency.

These undertakings essentially imply that the subsequent Review Conferences, beginning in 2015, could potentially work on a roadmap for the gradual, ultimately total, elimination of nuclear weapons. Those resistant to this idea need to reflect upon the legal responsibilities of the nuclear weapon states under the nonproliferation treaty, re-enforced by the Final Documents in 2000 and 2010. In this context, it is clear that verifying nuclear disarmament will become an important component in achieving effective disarmament. The nuclear-weapon states should consider ways of promoting transparency, such as opening their testing sites and weapons facilities to international inspection. This would not only set a leading example but would also serve to build confidence.

Identifying which items, activities and facilities should be monitored is the first step towards effective and efficient verification. In order to increase transparency and confidence in a comprehensive verification scheme, nuclear-weapon states should provide annual declarations to a register maintained by the United Nations. These could include:

  • Total current numbers of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, deployed and in storage;
  • Projected arsenal size at next NPT Review Conference;
  • Fissile material inventories;
  • Plans to place excess fissile materials under international inspection; and
  • Plans for the elimination of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles.

Beyond such unilateral transparency measures, efforts by the P-5 to open up, first attempted in London in September 2009 and to be repeated in Paris later this summer, need to be accelerated. With the entry into force of the frankly modest New START in February 2011, the multilateralization of nuclear disarmament talks at an early stage is critical. Lofty language used in international communiqués and resolutions surrounding the need to work towards establishing the conditions for nuclear disarmament is all very well. However, the most important conditions are reduction in the actual numbers and readiness of the nuclear arsenals themselves and universality of the NPT. For the nuclear weapon states to justify their continued possession of nuclear weapons on the basis of their fears of nuclear proliferation underestimates the threat posed by their own arsenals and the impact these arsenals have as drivers of onward proliferation.

In any such disarmament efforts, dialogue must be inclusive. As noted by Jonas Gahr Støre, the Norwegian Minister for Foreign Affairs, “non–nuclear-weapon states should cooperate with nuclear ones to develop the technologies required for verifying nuclear disarmament.”  This should focus on but not be limited to:

  • Developing a generic model for the entire dismantlement process, including all verification objectives and technologies, and identifying open and inclusive verification procedures for each dismantlement action;
  • Identifying inspection points and measurement technologies and
  • Developing procedures to resolve compliance concerns involving national security.

The UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva has a special role in this respect, as it comprises both the P-5 and the non-NPT states that posses nuclear weapons. The CD should immediately establish an appropriate subsidiary body to oversee nuclear disarmament at the international and regional levels, as agreed in the 2010 Review Conference action plan.

A Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons

In his June 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama stated that “no nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons.” States in the Middle East should be no exception in this “nuclear zero” campaign. The continued application of double standards regarding nuclear haves and have–nots has significantly contributed to instability in the nonproliferation regime and has encouraged those who seek to challenge the NPT.

By agreeing to a coherent Middle East plan of action, the 2010 NPT Review Conference has taken a significant step toward addressing the long-overdue implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution, which aimed at the eventual establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, it became evident at the 2010 Review Conference that its successful conclusion depended on such an agreement. The stakes have now risen. Future agreements on nonproliferation initiatives will depend in turn on a demonstration of good faith in implementing this plan of action.

There are, of course, major security and disarmament challenges that are unique to the Middle East. Serious engagement by Israel, for example, will be crucial. It is widely believed that Israel continues to operate the unsafeguarded Dimona plutonium-production reactor for the production of weapons grade fissile material, and that its capabilities may extend to tritium production—activities that cannot be overlooked. Israel will need at some point to take significant steps in the denuclearization process, such as dismantling the facilities at Dimona, disclosing information on stocks of special fissionable material and placing the facilities under IAEA comprehensive safeguards.

However, the international community remains focused only on the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Whilst Iran cooperates with the IAEA to the extent it believes is necessary to fulfill its safeguards responsibilities and to demonstrate non-diversion of declared materials under safeguards, IAEA reports continually refer to resistance on the part of Iran to address outstanding questions regarding its nuclear program. To resolve this situation, it is vital that the door of dialogue and diplomacy with Iran remains open.
The conference on a Middle East Zone of nuclear weapons and other WMD and their delivery systems provides such a framework for constructive engagement between all the States of the region, including all members of the League of Arab States, Iran and Israel.  Viewed strategically, the 2012 Conference could advance the broader cause of peace and security in the region. The process of establishing a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East can become a new tool for peace. The sequencing in this process is delicate, requiring states to both deepen and strengthen efforts towards moving the peace process forward.

But despite these unique challenges, the Middle East will need to follow a similar pattern to other regions that have established nuclear-weapon-free zones. The Treaties of Tlatelolco, Rarotonga, Bangkok and Pelindaba have all involved negotiation of a treaty text, agreement on verification models with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and an institution-building process. And like all these zone regimes, a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone should encourage the use of nuclear science and technology for peaceful purposes, and enable states to pursue bilateral, regional and international cooperation on nuclear energy to support their economic, medical and technological development.

The IAEA would likely bear most of the verification burden to ensure that no nuclear materials are diverted to prohibited weapons programs. Its expertise will also be vital in verifying the complete dismantlement of any weapons stockpiles in the region, and in ensuring that all facilities producing weapons-grade fissile material in the region are decommissioned or converted to civilian use under standard international safeguards.  It may also undertake technical studies to examine the modalities necessary to establish the zone. The agency would need a budget increase to enable it to carry out such crucial tasks effectively.

In all these efforts, the example of South Africa—the first country to voluntarily abandon a fully developed nuclear-weapons program—should serve as a model. It took five years to build the country’s first nuclear device and a total of sixteen years to construct its six-weapon arsenal. Ending and fully dismantling the program and all its facilities, however, took less than twenty-four months. South Africa’s decision to embrace its responsibilities as a non-nuclear-weapon state shows that it is possible in principle to roll back a nuclear capability. Subsequently, South Africa implemented integrated IAEA safeguards and joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group and is implementing its guidelines. Past successes in reversing the nuclear tide include, in addition to South Africa: decisions by Brazil and Argentina to roll back their nuclear programs and to create a bilateral verification agency; and the decisions by Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to transfer nuclear weapons to Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Middle East needs a similarly bold vision to rid the region of nuclear weapons and solidly put the region on a non-nuclear course.

The NPT is critical to regional and global security. States remaining outside the Treaty fundamentally weaken it by undermining the benefits of membership and by maintaining nuclear programs that constitute a continuing nuclear danger to neighbors. If an NPT Universality Adherence Support Unit were to be established it could directly address the mechanisms that would bring outside states into the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states. The NPT remains a vital tool for nonproliferation and disarmament, as demonstrated by its success in securing a commitment to establish a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone, an initiative long championed by Egypt.

A lot of work and determination will be required during the next five years to kick-start this process, and the first concrete steps—appointing a facilitator and a host country to convene the 2012 conference for establishing a zone free of nuclear weapon and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East—need to be taken  soon. While it may not be easy, establishing a Middle East WMD free zone is vital not only for the region but for the survival and development of the international nonproliferation regime as a whole.


Success at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, whilst limited, was only possible because commitments were entered into in good faith that require a significant shift in course, most notably progress in disarmament by the nuclear weapon states, and in the establishment of a process leading to complete WMD disarmament in the Middle East. If key states were to walk back these commitments, or fail to invest sufficient energy in realizing them, this will undermine the constructive spirit that the 2010 NPT Review Conference triggered and could compromise the success of the next NPT review cycle.

A more genuine and candid conversation about nuclear disarmament, dismantlement, nuclear roll-back, transparency and verification is needed. There has not been such an exchange for many years, and all opportunities that exist to make this happen should be utilized. Representatives of civil society and academic institutes who can inject valuable information and perspectives, as well as build bridges between disparate communities, should be invited to help foster trust and better understanding. The recent developments in the Middle East should provide additional impetus for all to be more focused and to move forward to achieve genuine stability and security for the region.


Editor's Note:

In addition to the challenge Iran’s noncompliance poses to the prospects for a WMD free zone in the Middle East, it is notable that the IAEA has also requested Syria “to provide access to the information, material, equipment and locations previously indicated by the Agency” to resolve questions about its nuclear activities.  See IAEA GOV 2011/8, dated 25 February, 2011.

Dr. Sameh AboulEnein is Deputy Ambassador of Egypt to the United Kingdom and a visiting lecturer on disarmament at London Academy of Diplomacy. He previously was Egypt’s alternate representative to the Conference on Disarmament and the UN Office at Geneva and an expert delegate at the 2005 and 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conferences. He is an alumnus of the American University and the University of London; this article forms part of his postdoctoral research at the University of East Anglia. He is contributing these views solely in his academic and personal capacity.