Initiatives taken in favor of global nuclear disarmament deserve the full support of the international community, although actually achieving a world without nuclear weapons will require many incremental steps over an extended period of time.

The creation of a weapons of mass destruction–free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East remains an oft-discussed idea when considering steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons.1 Nowhere is such a zone needed more than in the Middle East. However, the notable absence of favorable conditions presents significant challenges in reaching this goal. In fact, no WMDFZ or nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) has ever been established among states at war, as has formally been the case between Israel and Syria since Israel’s creation in 1948. Nor has one ever been established between states that do not officially recognize the existence of a state in their region as a political entity and thus share no diplomatic relations, as is the case with many states in the region, including Iran, toward Israel.

Pierre Goldschmidt
Goldschmidt was a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment.
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The political circumstances that characterize the Middle East therefore render a WMDFZ unlikely in the foreseeable future. In fact, as experience over the past twenty years has demonstrated, insisting on the establishment of such a zone at once, without first implementing confidence-building measures, is not only unrealistic but counterproductive.

Most states in the Middle East have ratified both the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Key holdouts include Israel (which has signed but not ratified the CWC and has not signed the BWC) and Egypt (which has not signed the CWC, and has signed but not ratified the BWC). Meanwhile, after using chemical weapons and coming under the threat of U.S. airstrikes, Syria ratified the CWC in October 2013. It has also signed but not ratified the BWC. 

Even after all states in the region have ratified both treaties, more work will still be needed to verifiably eliminate biological and chemical weapons; the BWC lacks any verification provisions and there are compliance concerns related to the CWC, particularly with regard to Syria. These challenges notwithstanding, the greatest challenge to establishing a WMDFZ in the Middle East is establishing a zone without nuclear weapons. As a first step in the right direction, the EU should play a constructive role by actively promoting the establishment of a nuclear-test-free zone in the region.

Is Turkey in the Middle East?

The political challenges to establishing a Middle East NWFZ become apparent when considering a seemingly simple and technical question: which countries should be included in the zone?

One approach is to follow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) definition of the Middle East region, which comprises the 21 state-members of the Arab League plus Iran and Israel.2 This is also the definition used in the Draft Final Document of the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference3. It differs, however, from more commonly understood definitions of the Middle East that include the following sixteen states: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. 

The latter definition of the region is more logical than the one adopted by the United Nations and the IAEA. Indeed, it is hard to understand why, for example, the Comoros and Mauritania—but not Turkey—should be considered as part of the Middle East. Moreover, since Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia (as well as the Comoros and Mauritania) have ratified the Pelindaba Treaty, which came into force in 2009 and establishes a NWFZ in Africa, attempting to include them in a Middle East NWFZ would add complications but no value.

In any case, a NWFZ in the Middle East should obviously include Turkey, all the more so because of Turkey's commitment to the idea of such a zone. According to Carnegie Europe’s Sinan Ülgen, “In recent years, Ankara has been advocating the implementation of a regional nuclear weapons–free zone, which officials see as part of an overall strategy to decrease tensions in the region.”4 Meanwhile, given Turkey’s harboring of Saudi military aircraft at its Incirlik Air Base, as well as its involvement in Syria and elsewhere, it seems hypocritical for the United Nations to pretend that Turkey is not part of the Middle East when it comes to promoting a WMDFZ in that region.

However, including Turkey in a NWFZ in the Middle East would require the withdrawal of NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons from Turkish territory. Under what conditions could one envisage such a withdrawal? Ülgen argues that it could take place only if “NATO was operating in consensus,” meaning if Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, which are also non-nuclear-weapon states that host U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, did the same.5 That said, Ülgen also indicates that Turkey “quietly supports maintaining the weapons on its territory and expects other NATO countries to continue their tactical nuclear weapon stewardship as part of the Alliance’s burden-sharing principle.”6 Meanwhile, NATO members have discussed the possibility of removing nuclear weapons from Europe, but no consensus exists for unilateral withdrawal and any reciprocal agreement with Russia remains unlikely in the near future.

Peace or Security: Which Comes First?

Of course, the creation of a NWFZ in the Middle East would also mean requiring Israel to join the NPT and to give up its—not so ambiguous—nuclear deterrence policy. Yet, why do EU states ask Israel to do what they themselves are not prepared to do? Let’s be honest: who is facing the greatest security threat? Is it Israel, or is it France, the UK, and four EU non-nuclear-weapon states that have nuclear weapons on their territories?7

In fact, advocating for non-NPT states to dismantle their nuclear arsenals before the five nuclear-weapon states do so, as they committed to do under the NPT more than 45 years ago, represents another illustration of the counterproductive policy of double standards that weakens the legitimacy of the NPT. 

Within the Middle East, Egypt and other Arab states consider the possession of nuclear weapons by Israel to be a major obstacle to peace and security in the region, while Israel sees nuclear disarmament as a consequence of peace, not as a precondition of it.

This brings to mind what Salvador de Madariaga famously said in 1973:

The trouble with disarmament was (and still is) that the problem of war 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.8

The current state of Israeli relations with Iran and Syria presents serious roadblocks to a NWFZ in the Middle East. The credibility of such a zone will rest on the establishment of a reciprocal inspection regime. Before one can hope to see Israeli inspectors in Iran and vice versa, Iran would have to recognize the existence of Israel and the two countries would have to establish normal diplomatic relations. Also, Syria and Israel would have to conclude a peace treaty and end the formal state of war existing between the two nations.

All these obstacles do not necessarily mean that the Middle East and the international community cannot achieve progress on a NWFZ, but they do indicate that there is an indispensable need to move from grand visions and rhetorical declarations to concrete confidence-building measures. Without an effort to first establish a regional political and security order, it is highly unlikely that the Middle East can effectively address arms control. International conferences alone are not sufficient to reach such a lofty goal.

The Nuclear Testing Lacuna

As of today, and contrary to Israel, neither India nor Pakistan has even signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).9 Moreover, like Israel, the United States and China have signed but not ratified the CTBT, but nonetheless call for Israel to ratify it. This is just another example of a counterproductive “do what I say but not what I do” policy.

The conclusion of the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation deal in 2005, and the subsequent consensus agreement of the then 46 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to waive the group’s export criteria for India, has made matters worse. The privileged treatment thereby accorded to India, a non-NPT state, further diminishes the likelihood that two other non-NPT states, Pakistan and Israel, will join the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states.

The nuclear normalization of India has come at the expense of the CTBT. On June 6, 1998, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1172 in which it urged “India and Pakistan, and all other States that have not yet done so, to become Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty without delay and without conditions.”10

Over a decade later, on September 24, 2009, the Security Council passed Resolution 1887 which “calls upon all States to refrain from conducting a nuclear test explosion and to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), thereby bringing the treaty into force at an early date.”11

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rightfully declared in 2012 that “there is no good reason to avoid signing or ratifying this Treaty. Any country opposed to signing or ratifying it is simply failing to meet its responsibilities as a member of the international community.”12

Let’s Start With a Nuclear-Test-Free Zone in the Middle East

It is unrealistic to expect Israel to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state anytime soon. But it is necessary to seek practical and balanced regional confidence-building measures. Since 2007, I have repeatedly advocated that the first such measure should be to promote a nuclear-test-free zone (NTFZ) in the Middle East under an agreement committing Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Syria to ratify the CTBT in a coordinated way and within an agreed period of time.

The ratification of the CTBT by those five states would, de facto, establish a NTFZ in the Middle East since all other key countries in the region, including Turkey, have already ratified the CTBT.13

A nuclear-test-free zone in the Middle East would represent the first concrete step in building nuclear confidence in the region and would be a win-win measure for all concerned. It would not single out any state, and thus would not give any state an incentive to block progress. Moreover, it could occur without waiting for the recognition of Israel by Iran and many Arab states and the conclusion of a peace treaty between Israel and Syria.

If any state in the region considered only an all-or-nothing approach and rejected limited confidence-building steps, such as the one proposed here, that would provide clear evidence that such a state is not serious about establishing a WMDFZ in the Middle East and is in fact comfortable with the status quo. 


The failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference to produce a final document, although disappointing, was not a surprise. As Andrey Baklitskiy has observed, “The issue of the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East” was “the straw that broke the camel’s back in 2015.”14

Although there is no guarantee of success, it is obvious that the talks on this issue must continue. But taking the same approach as before does not bode well for the next NPT Review Conference in 2020. In the years until then, it is worth thinking outside the box and considering which practical steps and confidence-building measures can be implemented to both advance the prospects of a WMDFZ in the Middle East and bypass the obstacles that have prevented progress so far.

It is encouraging that the executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, Lassina Zerbo, said in January 2016 that having Iran and Israel ratify the CTBT together would “certainly” lead to ratification by Egypt, which would in turn help lead to a NTFZ in the Middle East.15

One EU member state—Cyprus—is part of the Middle East, and all 28 EU member states ratified the CTBT more than ten years ago. The EU is therefore in a good position to use its diplomatic skills to promote the establishment of a nuclear-test-free zone in the Middle East. This can—and should—be done immediately, regardless of the unstable political situation prevailing in the Middle East today.

A presentation of this article was made on May 12, 2016, at a conference organized by the Belgian Royal Higher Institute for Defence on “A Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone: Which future?” It is drawn, in part, from “Three Priorities for Combating Nuclear Proliferation,” Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, June 27, 2007, and “Let’s Start with a Nuclear-Test-Free Zone in the Middle East,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 29, 2010.


1 Today there are no WMDFZs in the world, but there are five nuclear-weapon-free zones, including in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco), the South Pacific (Treaty of Rarotonga), and Africa (Treaty of Pelindaba).

2 International Atomic Energy Agency, “Application of IAEA Safeguards in the Middle East,” Report by the Director General at the Board of Governors General Conference, September 2, 2011,

3 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Final Document: Volume I,” May 21, 2015,, 22.

4 Sinan Ülgen, “Turkey and the Bomb,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2012,

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 NATO, in its “Deterrence and Defence Posture Review,” states, “Nuclear weapons are a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defence alongside conventional and missile defence forces.” NATO, “Deterrence and Defence Posture Review,” Press Release 063, May 20, 2012,

8 Born in Spain, Professor Salvador de Madariaga (1886–1978) was an important writer, poet, historian, philosopher, and politician as well as a passionate defender of liberty and tolerance. He was the founder of the College of Europe. Salvador de Madariaga, Morning Without Noon (Westmead, UK: Saxon House, 1973), 48–49.

9 The Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties compels the parties that have signed a treaty not to act in a manner that would “defeat the object and purpose” of that instrument. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, May 23, 1969, art. 18, 1155 UNTS 331, 336, available at:

10 United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1172, June 6, 1998,

11 United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1887, September 24, 2009,

12 Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, “UN Secretary-General: Proud of 15 Years of Successful Fight Against Nuclear Testing, Urge Entry Into Force of the CTBT,” press release, February 17, 2012,

13 With the unimportant and hopefully temporary exceptions of Somalia and Yemen, all other members of the Arab League (including Iraq in 2013) have ratified the CTBT.

14 Andrey Baklitskiy, “The 2015 NPT Review Conference and the Future of the Nonproliferation Regime,” Arms Control Today 45 (July/August 2015):

15 Edith M. Lederer, “UN Official: Iran, Israel Could Ratify Nuke Test Ban Treaty,” Associated Press, January 29, 2016,