At the ongoing NPT review conference, Arab states have strongly expressed their resentment over Israel's barely concealed nuclear arsenal, and have signaled their displeasure at the "discriminatory" approach of the United States towards nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Does this foreshadow defections from the Treaty, or is it rhetoric for regional audiences?

The Arab Charge

Egypt’s UN Ambassador, Ahmed Aboul–Gheit, emphasizes that "the NPT cannot have any credibility with the states of the region as long as one state is exempted from its provisions." "Israel," he adds, "must accept the commitments, which its neighbors in the region have accepted, in the field of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons."

In 1995, some Arab states had announced that they could not support an indefinite extension of the treaty, as long as Israel remained outside the NPT. These nations finally agreed to an extension only after the adoption of a resolution on the Middle East that called on nuclear-weapon States to exert "their utmost efforts" to achieve to establish a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.

At the current NPT review conference, Arab frustrations are rising. They insist that Israel’s nuclear policy is a threat to the security of the region. Ambassador Aboul-Gheit emphasizes that, "the message is crystal-clear in expressing the danger to the security of the Middle East inherent in the continuation of the status-quo."

Syria’s Ambassador Mikhail Wehbe agrees, describing Israel’s NPT non-adherence as "alarming." Ambassador Fawzi Shobokshi of Saudi Arabia also supports this view: "Israel’s position and its justifications clearly contradicts its calls for peace because true peace must be founded on trust and good intentions."

Public Opinion in the Arab World

This perspective resonates with Arab public opinion. The Cairo Times asserts, "Arabs are once again seeing Israel, not Iran or Iraq or Russia or any other place as the most pressing threat."

Gulf News, a UAE daily, adds: "The United States, which champions the cause of disarmament, is solely responsible for Israel developing a nuclear arsenal…the NPT may serve the nuclear haves’ interests but it has done nothing to address the genuine security concerns of many of its signatories, especially those in the Middle East."

Israel’s Opacity

For its part, Israel is determined to maintain its policy of "nuclear opacity" in the absence of real peace in the region. Deputy Defense Minister, Ephraim Sneh reiterated the country’s position to Israeli army radio: "We are not saying what we have or don’t have, and the deterrence stems from the fact that others are kept guessing."

Moreover, the Israelis point out that Iran and Iraq are the real threat to Middle East security. Regional Cooperation Minister Shimon Peres, asks: "Can you stop the Iraqis? Can you stop the Iranians?’ As long as you can’t supervise them, why are you coming to us?" 

Persian Gulf Détente

Beyond the popular rhetoric, Arab Gulf States "are coming to" Israel partly because they are cautiously improving relations with both Iran and Iraq. Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the UAE have all recently reopened embassies in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia leads the rapprochement with Iran. Iranian Defense Minister, Ali Shamkhani claims that the Arab Gulf states are "trying to surpass each other in expansion of ties with Iran." Persian Gulf détente precludes a public condemnation of either country’s weapons program.

A constructive relationship with the United States remains in the interest of most Arab countries. Thus an Egyptian-led Arab withdrawal from the NPT appears implausible in the foreseeable future. Yet the review conference does reflect an Arab reassessment of the gains accrued by remaining non-nuclear states, in terms of prestige, security and technology transfers.

Egypt had a nuclear-weapon program in the early 1960s, which it abandoned by 1968 – the year that it signed the NPT. But in a clear sign of its ambivalence, the country waited thirteen years to ratify the treaty, which it did only under US pressure. Egypt retains a cadre of skilled nuclear scientists and engineers, has a substantial nuclear research infrastructure and looks with some alarms not only at Israel’s arsenal but at Iran and Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. Ambassador Aboul-Gheit emphasizes that the nuclear "imbalance" in the Middle East "cannot be accepted neither can it last."

In light of the South Asian precedent, the current impasse in global non-proliferation efforts and the Middle East’s own mixed record on the NPT, that statement cannot be utterly dismissed.

Miriam Rajkumar and Adrienne Weiner are, respectively, Project Associate and consultant to the Non-Proliferation Project.