Since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's (NPT) indefinite extension in 1995, many non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) have expressed frustration about the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament and the establishment of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. This frustration has increased in the past decade due to the failure to implement the 13 "practical steps" toward global nuclear disarmament agreed by consensus at the 2000 NPT Review Conference.[1]

Some NNWS have cited the lack of disarmament progress as a justification for resisting any attempt to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, in particular by not signing and ratifying the Additional Protocol to their Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements.[2]

Egypt insists that it will not conclude the Additional Protocol until Israel joins the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state (NNWS) and negotiates a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East.[3] In 2005 Cairo was willing to block the NPT Review Conference from making progress on any other issue unless progress toward such a NWFZ was achieved, and may be prepared to do so again at the 2010 Review Conference in May.

It has been reported that "Israel may come under new pressure next month at a UN meeting on atomic weapons as the United States, Britain and France consider backing Egypt's call for a zone in the Middle East free of nuclear arms."[4]

The establishment of a NWFZ is a regional approach to strengthening nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament norms, while consolidating international efforts toward peace and security. A NWFZ represents a significant step in consolidating trust among neighbouring states that are usually not in conflict.

A UN General Assembly resolution calling for a NWFZ in the Middle East was first introduced by Egypt and Iran in 1974. A similar resolution has been adopted each year by consensus since 1980.[5] However, while Egypt and other Arab states consider that the possession of nuclear weapons by Israel constitutes a major obstacle to bringing peace and security to the region, Israel sees nuclear disarmament as a consequence of peace, not as a precondition of it.

This reminds us of what Salvador de Madariaga[6] famously said:

"The trouble with disarmament was (and still is) that the problem is tackled upside down and at the wrong end ... Nations don't distrust each other because they are armed; they are armed because they distrust each other. And therefore to want disarmament before a minimum of common agreement on fundamentals is as absurd as to want people to go undressed in winter. Let the weather be warm, and they will undress readily enough without committees to tell them so."[7]

It is generally accepted that achieving a world free of nuclear weapons is a desirable long-term goal that can only be reached incrementally. The final step, going from a few hundred nuclear weapons to zero, will be especially difficult.[8] A number of positive steps will have to be taken before that, including the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the conclusion and ratification by all states of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). Trying to impose the elimination of nuclear weapons from the start would be a recipe for failure.

Similarly, given Iran’s nuclear development and its refusal, with other states in the region, to recognize Israel's existence, it is unrealistic and therefore counterproductive to expect Israel to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state any time soon instead of seeking practical and balanced regional confidence-building measures.[9] The first such measure should be to promote a "Nuclear-Test-Free Zone" in the Middle East under an agreement committing inter alia all states in the region—in particular Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen[10]—to ratify the CTBT within an agreed period of time.[11]

The merit of a Nuclear-Test-Free Zone (NTFZ) in the Middle East is that it could be a first concrete step in building confidence in the region without waiting for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other regional issues to be resolved.

In order to put pressure on nuclear-weapon states to do more under their NPT Article VI undertakings, the states parties to such a NTFZ initiative could and probably should set as a condition to their ratification of the CTBT that both the U.S. and China do so first.[12]

But who should take the initiative?

Egypt would get immense international credit if it were to promote a Nuclear-Test-Free Zone initiative thereby matching its words with deeds. Indeed, Egypt is the only member of the New Agenda Coalition[13] not to have ratified the CTBT as advocated by the Coalition under point 11 of its June 9, 1998 Joint Declaration.[14] Likewise, Egypt is, with Ghana, the only African state with significant nuclear activities that has not ratified either the Treaty of Pelindaba (establishing a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone in Africa) or the CTBT.

It seems, however, that for Egypt the idea of promoting a NTFZ in the Middle East would be a political non-starter. It has been suggested that it would be politically more potent for Israel to take the initiative and lead by example, thereby putting pressure on others to follow suit. Such a suggestion will likely be met by huge scepticism in Israel because it will be seen as a distraction from a much more pressing issue which is the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. It might therefore be a clever tactic for Iran to promote a NTFZ in the Middle East as a way of relieving mounting international pressure because of Iran’s refusal to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency and UN Security Council resolutions. But the chance that Iran would enter into a deal involving a state that it does not recognize is nil.

It is ironic that an initiative which would be to the advantage of all states in the Middle East has no chance of being initiated by those who would benefit most: Iran, Egypt and Israel.

Both the European Union and Turkey want to play a constructive moderating role toward the goal of peace in the Middle East. For this reason, both should consider favouring a Nuclear-Test-Free Zone initiative as a first concrete step in the right direction. Insisting on the establishment of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East from the start is unrealistic and creates counterproductive expectations.

Pierre Goldschmidt is nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, head of the department of safeguards.


1. The very first of the 13 Steps agreed by consensus at the 2000 NPT Review Conference underlines "the importance and urgency of signatures and ratifications, without delay and without conditions and in accordance with constitutional processes, to achieve the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.” See Reaching Critical Will’s “The Promises of the 2000 NPT Review Conference."

2. IAEA INFCIRC/540 (Corrected).

3. Or, more broadly, a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

4. "Israel Pressured on Nuclear Arms,” Irish Times, April 20, 2010.

5. Israel has joined the consensus.

6. Born in Spain, Professor Salvador de Madariaga (1886-1978) was an important writer, poet, historian, philosopher and politician, passionate defender of liberty and tolerance. He is the founder of the College of Europe.

7. De Madariaga, Morning Without Noon (Westmead: Saxon House, 1973), pp. 48-9.

8. George Perkovich and James M. Acton, eds., Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009).

9. The conclusion of the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation deal in 2005 and the subsequent agreement by consensus of the 46-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to waive its export criteria for India and the privileged treatment thereby accorded to India as a non-NPT state further diminishes the likelihood that Pakistan and Israel will join the NPT as NNWS. The prospect of establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East has, therefore, grown even more remote.

10. All other states in the region have already ratified the CTBT. Only Saudi Arabia and Syria have not yet signed the CTBT.

11. Even if this would not be sufficient to bring the CTBT into force, article 18 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides that "a State is obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty when: (a) it has signed the treaty or has exchanged instruments constituting the treaty subject to ratification, acceptance or approval, until it shall have made its intention clear not to become a party to the treaty; or (b) it has expressed its consent to be bound by the treaty, pending the entry into force of the treaty and provided that such entry into force is not unduly delayed."

12. The other three nuclear-weapon states (France, Russia and the United Kingdom) have already ratified the CTBT.

13. Comprising Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa and Sweden.

14. Under point 11, the Joint Declaration calls upon all states that have not yet done so "to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty without delay and without conditions."